The Day Uttam Kumar Died

Bengal’s ultimate matinee idol passed away on July 24, 1980. A chapter from Sayandeb Chowdhury’s book recaps the day, and the tributes that followed 
The Day Uttam Kumar Died

On the night of 24 July 1980, Uttam Kumar was declared dead after he failed to recover from what was, by an account, his fifth cardiac arrest. After his last attack in 1978, he was diagnosed with cardiac asthma. In fact, for much longer, his heart had been a problem. He always carried a sorbitrate for any abnormal spasm of the chest. There were also several restrictions. Uttam listened to some but the restrictions on overwork and alcohol—usual collaterals of fame—were not among them. Barely could he cut down on work, barely could find any repose in his personal life; and barely could he minister to himself. And because he could not, he overruled the moratorium on alcohol.

A favourite tape recorder having been stolen from his car parked near his home on the morning of 23 July is often taken as a portent for the unruly day that was to come. Sometime later, he found his make-up room at Technician Studio occupied by a young female actor, which had never happened before, and which prompted a stormy visit to New Theatres 1, a few buildings away. On returning, he had to shoot a scene involving a flight of stairs. It was a nominal scene by Uttam's measure but somehow he considered it faulty each time and went for seven retakes. The director Salil Dutta had to whisper to others to clap forcefully to stop Uttam from retaking it any more. By the end of it, Uttam was sweating, tired and in a bitter mood. After all, unbeknown, he had already suffered a sting on his heart.

None of the toils of the morning, however, deterred Uttam from heading to a boisterous party that evening which continued well into the night. On return, he felt severely ill. This time, suspecting an attack, he drove himself to Belle Vue, the city's pre-eminent hospital, which was a five-minute drive from his Moira Street residence. When he was admitted, his doctor Lalmohan Mukherjee considered his case, helplessly, to be par for the course. He had for long cautioned Uttam about his failing cardiac condition, and had explained how with each new attack, the chances of recovery diminished further.

But on that midnight, none of that really mattered. Dr Mukherjee and his team tried their utmost to revive Uttam the rest of that night and the whole of the next day with less and less hope. For a brief while the following evening, he was doing better and had convinced his brother Tarun that he should not skip a scheduled stage performance. But things started to deteriorate a couple of hours later and his heart bled itself to death a little after 9 in the evening of Thursday, 24 July. Tarun was the first one to be given a call.

The thousands who thronged the streets the next day and brought to stop the whole of south Calcutta came to witness a sight they did not think would arrive so early; or with such numbing unpreparedness. What they saw were a sea of people surrounding a single, open-air truck that was converted into a hearse and filled with mounds of white wreaths and funeral flowers. At the centre of that flowery bed, lying prostrate, on a makeshift wooden plank was Uttam Kumar, robed in white, the portals of his nose and ears plugged with cotton and with a pair of closed eyes as if in deep and restful slumber. Those who could see more, saw that the man was sleeping peacefully, having finally found liberation from the gruelling labour of being Uttam Kumar.

On the same day, 25 July, the Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika carried—on the front page of course—two reports of Uttam's passing away. The headline of one was brief: "Cholochitre Indrapatan", which translates to 'Cinema Loses Its Titan'. No phrase could be more apt. There was a palpable sense of emptiness that his death left behind; not just among his family and friends but also, naturally, in the industry—co-workers, colleagues, veterans, thespians. A no less profound sense of bereavement seemed to have pervaded the viewers and fans too, many of them unable to come to terms with his absence. Uttam's departure was a collective sigh.

The list of homages, interestingly, involved those who never worked with him but always wanted to, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, for example. He recalled having congratulated Ray about how valuable a film Nayak was.

Whether immediately after his death or since, there has been no dearth of homages that were addressed to him. These voices grieved not only Uttam the actor but also Uttam the guardian; not only Uttam the star, but also Uttam the person, and not just Uttam the professional, but also Uttam the altruist. Collectively, the reminiscences cover a very wide personal and professional orbit where Uttam's talent, tenacity and warmth were natural referents of remembrance.

Since Uttam died early, several of his precursors and peers were still alive at the time, including the veteran actress Kanan Devi. Almost all of them left a testimonial in homage to Uttam after his death. His directors — Satyajit Ray, Tapan Sinha, Chitta Basu, Pinaki Mukhopadhyay, Kartick Chattopadhyay, Gulzar and several others — talked about his dedication and effortless performances. Sinha also observed, correctly, that Uttam freed cinema from the stranglehold of theatre, bringing in a new freshness to his screen persona.

Ray was even more precise. He recalled how Uttam's instinctive style was unmatched, how he broke his dialogues with meaningful pauses, and how he made use of his characters' silence on screen. But what Ray was also particularly impressed by was Uttam's strong sense of involvement. "I never saw him fooling around on the sets. He either prepared himself for the scene or sat isolated and read books. This is a rare discipline among actors in India."

The list of homages, interestingly, involved those who never worked with him but always wanted to, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, for example. He recalled having congratulated Ray about how valuable a film Nayak was. In reply, Ray had said, "Thank you, but I won't have risked the film if Uttam did not come on board. It is actually his film, more than mine. He is the first and last hero of Bengali cinema."

Then there were poignant reminiscences from all his co-stars, from Suchitra Sen to Arundhati Mukherjee, Tanuja, Madhabi Mukherjee, Aparna Sen, Sabitri Chattopadhyay to Sondhyarani Chatterjee… No less warm memories surfaced from notable people unconnected to cinema: footballers, singers, sports commentators, doctors, barristers, chiefs of corporations, bureaucrats and others. Their case fell in between those who worked with Uttam in a close capacity and the average fan who saw him only from a distance. What they mostly remembered, apart from his screen persona, was Uttam's homegrown civility.

Among the most insightful was the one from the outspoken journalist and editor Santoshkumar Ghosh. He had concurred that intensive romantic acting somehow involved a level of stupidity, and concluded that only Uttam could disturb his conviction to that effect. Soumitra Chatterjee held a grudge, one that we have encountered before: that Uttam the actor was muzzled, at least partially, by Uttam the star. He was echoing Saroj De of the director's group Agragami who had years ago said something similar…

Litterateurs Premendra Mitra, Ashutosh Mukhopadhyay, Buddhadeb Bose and Ramapada Chowdhury were long-time admirers, as much of his talent as of his manners. Bose also wrote a novel fictionalising an ageing heartthrob who had been grounded by cancer. Uttam had read it and dreaded the possibility of rotting away with age. Whatever other wishes of his may or may not have been granted, he surely did not resent not having to watch himself fade into sickness and irrelevance.

Equally telling tributes came from the relatively unknown industry technicians: make-up artistes Debi Halder and Bashir Ahmed; sound recordists Subir Ghosh and J.D. Irani; film laboratory owner R.B. Mehta; producer Ardhendu Mukherjee; dresser Kanailal Das; art directors Gour Poddar and Satyen Roychowdhury; photographers Sukumar Roy and Prabhakar Prabhu and many others. They revealed Uttam's stewardship of the industry, his unfailing efforts to elevate cinema's environs: studios, film laboratories, cinema halls. What is striking is how Uttam had a personal and touching rapport with all of the industry's 'invisible' crew. They shared precious moments of calling on him in person and expressed their delight at being asked by Uttam about a scene here and a take there. They also felt gratified when Uttam, in the early 1960s, sided with them against the distributors and sat in protest against the running of his own film. They felt part of a larger communion of artists and saw Uttam as their natural guardian. He also led their union.

We are accustomed to the so-called popular wisdom about how stardom, by sucking the light all by itself, forces others around to merge with the darkness. And yet here was a star who made sure his colleagues went along as he progressed from strength to strength, especially those who toiled behind the scenes. His death, no wonder, was seen by the industry's insiders as an intimate, filial loss, as well as the end of their belonging to a community. Many of them grieved for days. The director Salil Sen said, "Uttam received steady disregard from institutions, so-called film buffs, a section of the intelligentsia and those who contribute to public discourse about cinema…. But he got unconditional love and admiration from the studio-hands, technicians, crew, daily-wagers." Perhaps only one act of remembering, from Bashir Ahmed, will suffice.

On July 22, I was doing my usual job of putting make-up on his face. He looked distraught. When I asked, why don't you rest a little, why do you torture yourself with work, Uttamda said, "I have been around a long time, Bashir. I think my need is over. It is time to go." I heard he said this to other colleagues too. And in two days he was actually gone. It was really all over. To say I was devastated is to say little. Allah, God, Kali, whoever is up there, I pray that you bring peace to the soul of this very precious human being.

Uttam's wife Gauri, son Gautam and his family; brother Tarun and actress wife Subrata; another brother Barun; and mother Chapala Debi were inconsolable. They had the right to grieve in public. But they were not his only family. In 1967, Uttam had legally adopted Shoma Chowdhury, daughter of Supriya Chowdhury. Soma and Supriya grieved Uttam in a different way than his family, away from cameras and onlookers, having been denied access to Uttam after his demise. There was hardly a meeting point between the two 'families' of Uttam once he was gone. They even went to court when Shoma, as legal successor, sued them for rights to his estate, a case that was fought bitterly in the end-1980s. This is perhaps as persuasive a reason as any other about why Uttam may not have found old age a prospect to look forward to.

Excerpted from Uttam Kumar: A Life in Cinema, by Sayandeb Chowdhury (Bloomsbury)

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