There’s a scene in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata, where Soumitra Chatterjee, egged on by his cousin to visit Britain and the continent, utters the word ‘Mediterranean’ … a faraway look in his eyes, his face a study in wistfulness. It’s the sort of look I have seen on the faces of Bengalis of a certain generation when you utter the words ‘Uttam Kumar’. Thirty-eight years may have passed since the legend breathed his last, but for the Bengali film industry and for many in Bengal, time may well have stopped that night on 24 July 1980.
Of course, there have been stars since, successful ones at that – but the consensus is that if there was ever a ‘nayak’ in the truest sense of the word in Bengali cinema, it is Uttam Kumar. In fact, much like the English press coined the term ‘superstar’ for Rajesh Khanna, Uttam Kumar came to be regarded as ‘mahanayak’ in Bengal.
What accounts for the star’s enduring appeal? Satyajit Ray, who directed him in Nayak and Chiriyakhana, wrote in his tribute to the star, ‘The heroes one saw on the Bengali screen those days … were hardly in the same league as the Hollywood heroes one admired. I saw three of Uttam’s films in a row … and the first impressions were certainly good … Uttam was a star in the true Hollywood sense of the term.’
Sharmila Tagore, who worked with Uttam in some of his most celebrated films, including Nayak, says that it’s difficult to explain in words what makes a star. ‘You could put it this way – Soumitra could be a pal without the audience having a romantic attachment to him, though of course one wouldn’t mind romancing him! He was the coffee-shop going, bus/tram-riding sort of chum. Uttam, well, he was a son, a lover, a brother, a friend – from eight to eighty, he had the ability to connect with everyone – and each member of the audience felt protective about him.’
Gulzar, who directed Uttam Kumar in Kitaab (1977), one of the star’s few forays into Hindi cinema, says, ‘There was something about him – on-screen he appeared unattainable, impossible to come close to, almost Godlike, but when you were with him, you wouldn’t be surprised if he embraced you … I remember once, during a conversation with him on film-maker Asit Sen and his classic film Dweep Jwele Jai, I said, ‘Uttam-ji, you never faced the camera in the film, and yet what an extraordinary performance you gave in that song sequence where all we see is your back.’ Without a trace of rancour, and with that trademark smile in place, he said, ‘That wasn’t me. Asit Sen himself played the role.’ … I have spent a lifetime in Hindi cinema without ever wanting to make a film with Dilip Kumar, but I used to think, if only I could make a film with Uttam Kumar … If only someone had taken the trouble of teaching him Hindi diction and throw, he could have been a national star.”
Putting together a list of ten best films/performances in a career spanning a little over thirty years (he debuted with Nitin Bose’s Dhrishtidaan in 1946) is a task fraught with many dangers and disappointments. Here in my humble opinion are ten of his most memorable films – in no specific order of preference, except for Nayak which belongs right up there in any list of best cinematic performances anywhere in the world.
1. Nayak (1966); Dir: Satyajit Ray
Let alone Bengali cinema or even Indian cinema for that matter, there aren’t many performances in international cinema that can hold a candle to this one, definitely none that convey a superstar’s emotional disquiet and professional fears. Uttam’s turn as a star whose fortunes are on the downswing was unlike anything he had done before. It was a part that Ray wrote with him in mind and although Uttam might have been apprehensive about not using any make-up after an attack of chickenpox had left its mark on his face, he shed the star-glamour aspects associated with him. The result: a masterclass in acting, with not one false note. More importantly, as Sharmila Tagore points out, ‘Uttam Kumar changed as an actor after Nayak – his timing, delivery, the pauses that punctuate his dialogues … he honed his craft based on the lessons learnt on this film … Uttam became a much better actor after working with Ray.’ It isn’t surprising then that seven of the ten films on this list came after Nayak.