Uttam Kumar remains the biggest hero of Bengali cinema till date – a ‘Maha nayak’. 37 years after his death, his shadow still looms large on an industry which had a golden past but is now reeling under poverty – both intellectual and financial.
Born as Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay, the original heartthrob of Bengali cinema passed away on July 24, 1980 aged 52 in Kolkata.
His first hit release was Drishtidan (1948) directed by Nitin Bose though he worked in an earlier unreleased film called 'Mayador'.
His most lauded and gorgeous appearance was in Satyajit Ray's Nayak (The Hero) His first four to five films were all flops, earning him the dubious nickname 'Flop Master General' at the beginning of his career.
Apart from acting, as his career progressed he went on to try his hand as producer, director, a music director and a versatile singer. The production house's initial release was the famed mega hit film 'Harano Sur' (1957) which was awarded Presidents Award of India in 1958, Regional Certificate of Merit.
Arguably the greatest actor in the history of Bengali cinema, whose on-screen chemistry with actress Suchitra Sen is still unmatched, Uttam died after a heart attack.
Today, the young generation finds it difficult to relate with Uttam Kumar or his films. Playing a quiz on Bengal’s most prominent film star can at times become dangerous and certainly preposterous. For a teenager, even in Kolkata, the name now means a metro station, a theatre hall and well may be a film star – at least that was my reality in a newly cropped up media college at the heart of the city. Granted, most of the students are Hindi speaking, many from outside Bengal as well, however even those who are Bengalis, born and brought up here, the shadow of Bengal’s lone matinee idol isn’t long enough to cover their virgin heads. ‘Oh the black and white films are so awful, so slow, no action, boring’ they would chirp. For them life is fast, about android apps and apple iTunes, it is about Hindi demigods and in disowning a vernacular identity. For them, who all are born in the later part of the 90s, the imprint of a collective nostalgia imbibed from their parents is probably of the 1980’s when their parents were young and romantic.
Soon after his passing away the Bengali film industry was swept by a surge of remakes from Hindi and South Indian films (at least both Tamil and Telegu). Hence to hold on to nostalgia of a golden period of Bengali cinema when he thrived (in the 1960s and 1970s) is probably confined to the Bengalis who are in their mid-life – either at home or in the outer world as well.
The mainstream Bengali media prevalently serves an audience dipped in the nostal-sauce which suits both the consumer and the producer. Increasingly, in the heart of the state capital, Hindi language is gaining prominence as the ‘more important’ language to learn and communicate with – no surprise that the Bengali language is at stake. The risk that lies here is while the bastions of culture try to uphold the golden periods of yester-decades without necessarily understanding that this may distance the young even further if not packaged sufficiently well.
The middle-aged Bengali who has moved shores to relax on a Pacific coast or a Mediterranean retreat or the one who decides that for his/her next generation Bengali is essentially a ‘third’ language, the nostalgia of this Bengali-ness is flaring. It will remain their favourite pastime to chew on, to ogle at Uttam Kumar’s films and to marvel at his charisma as a romantic hero draped in the traditional dhoti and punjabi.
For the younger ones, it is difficult to sell most of Uttam’s films for the melodrama and slowness depicted in the screenplays. Somewhere we as Bengalis have lost the plot – in trying to be modern and innovative yet clinging on to our own tradition. It is a bit ludicrous hence to debate on how relevant his films are today, or even he – the ‘Mahanayak’ Uttam Kumar.
The ‘box-office phenomenon’ of Uttam Kumar may die its own death slowly if it can’t be preserved in its true essence and the culture doesn’t support it favourably. What will however survive probably, are the character roles that he played in the films of Tapan Sinha, Satyajit Ray and a few other directors. They will remain for an academic interest with the film scholars and those who will want to identify with the pathos of a bygone era. This is where he transcends the tides of time and becomes a legend.
A study of Bangla cinema is never complete without the man Bengali has named ‘Mahanayak’ so lovingly. Uttam Kumar, the numero uno actor of Bengal A.K.A India was the pioneer of the golden era of Bangla cinema. The magic that started in the 40’s with his arrival on the silver screen, is yet to fade away.