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Uttam Kumar: Why the Bengali megastar could never become a national star

On his 42nd death anniversary, we take a look at the iconic actor’s brief stint in Hindi films, from 'Chhoti Si Mulaqat' to 'Dooriyan'

Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri | Published 24.07.22, 11:35 AM
Uttam Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in 'Chhoti Si Mulaqat'

Uttam Kumar and Vyjayanthimala in 'Chhoti Si Mulaqat'

Source: YouTube

It’s ironical that a film career as brilliant should have a swansong as poor. Even at the age of 14, when I watched Desh Premee, and when you could be forgiven for being unaware of the aesthetics of cinema and just about love anything, the one thing in the all-round appalling film that stuck out like a sore thumb was Uttam Kumar. He had passed away by then — Ogo Bodhu Sundari and Kalankini Kankabati in Bengali also came out after his death. Though his legacy in Bengali cinema was secure and wouldn’t be affected by the disaster that was Kalankini Kankabati, it remains a matter of immense sorrow for admirers like me that the final memories national viewers would have of this legendary star and actor would be of the unwatchable Desh Premee

But then it is one of those ironies of filmdom that an icon of his stature could come such a cropper in Hindi cinema. It is even stranger when you realise that so many of his Bengali film classics went on to be remade in Hindi with great success. These include Amar Prem (Nishipadma), Angoor (Bhranti Bilas), Lal Patthar (Lal Pathor), Bemisaal (Ami Shey o Sakha), Hum Dono (Uttarayan), Kala Pani (Sobar Opore), Chupke Chupke (Chhoddobeshi), Anurodh (Deya Neya) and Jeevan Mrityu (Jeebon Mrityu).

'Chhoti Si Mulaqat': A rather debatable debut outing

Though no one has yet cracked the formula for a successful film, with Uttam Kumar it can be said with some certainty that his choice for his debut outing was rather debatable. Raj Kapoor had offered him Sangam, but Uttam Kumar, at the height of his stardom, was unwilling to play what he saw as the film’s second lead (Rajendra Kumar eventually played the role). The Showman had in fact even considered Uttam Kumar for Ekdin Ratre, the Bengali version of Jagte Raho, but the star couldn’t spare dates. One can only conjecture what Uttam Kumar’s foray in Hindi cinema would have been like if he had debuted with either Jagte Raho or Sangam.

In the end, Chhoti Si Mulaqat (1967) became his first Hindi outing. Uttam Kumar spared no expense and effort as the producer. Vyjayanthimala was cast opposite him. Shankar-Jaikishan, the top composers of the era, provided a hit musical score. There were well-known names in the writing department – Pranab Roy made the screen adaptation, Sachin Bhowmick did the screenplay, while Abrar Alvi wrote the dialogues. The film was adapted from what was a landmark in his career in Bengali cinema, Agni Pariksha (1954), which went a long way in cementing his stardom and that of the enduring partnership with Suchitra Sen. But to no avail. 

Unfortunately, Agni Pariksha was, even in 1954, rather creaky and dated as a subject. In 1967, the subject was an anachronism. The subtleties of the script and performances that made the Bengali version watchable went missing in the Hindi. Probably a better director would have salvaged the material but Uttam Kumar, for some strange reason given that this was his home production and he could have got anyone onboard, handed over the reins to Alo Sarkar who seemed hopelessly unequal to the task. Alo Sarkar would try his hand again a decade later with Bandi (1978), which should go down as Uttam Kumar’s biggest failure both as a star and an actor, and more or less sealed his fate in Hindi cinema. Chhoti Si Mulaqat tanked, and dealt a body blow to Uttam Kumar both as a producer and to his dreams of making it in Bombay.

The film also revealed two perennial bugbears that would haunt Uttam Kumar in all his Hindi film forays. One, his accent and pronunciation. As Gulzar, who directed him in the wonderful Kitaab (1977), said, “If only someone had taken the trouble of teaching him Hindi diction and throw, he could have been a national star.”

The second aspect that came in the way of his stardom was the mould of the Hindi film star and how that differed from actors in Bengali cinema. Even in classic melodramas like Harano Sur, Saptapadi and many others that defined Bengali cinema of the era, most actors brought an admirable understatement to their performances which was at odds with what a Hindi film star was required to do. Also, most Bengali stars were saddled with two left feet. And though Chhoti si mulaqat pyaar bann gayi was a hit, the star was laughably ill-at-ease gyrating to its refrain ‘Ya-ya-yippe-yippe-ya-ya-ya’, tying himself up in knots in this classic twist. Finally, he, or for that matter any of the Bengali stars of the era, could never land a punch with any authenticity. No wonder, Soumitra Chatterjee never tried his hand at Hindi cinema.

And no wonder in an era dominated by Shammi Kapoor with his twinkling feet, Dilip Kumar with his unimpeachable diction, Rajendra Kumar with his over-the-top histrionics and then Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra with their maad-dhaad, Uttam Kumar failed to make it. But there’s something to be said for the fact that stars like Amitabh Bachchan, Dharmendra and Rajesh Khanna acted in the Hindi remakes of some of his most memorable Bengali films.

'Amanush': His most successful Hindi film is also his loudest performance

It isn’t surprising then that his most successful Hindi film outing is also probably his loudest performance. Shakti Samanta, who had earlier cast Rajesh Khanna in one of his defining roles in a remake of an Uttam Kumar film, roped in Uttam Kumar to play the lead in Amanush (1975), a bilingual made in Bengali and Hindi. By no means is it anywhere near the best of Uttam Kumar as an actor – in fact, this is the closest to hamming I have seen from the star, though he conveys the anger and angst of the character rather well. In fact, the success of the film underscores the point I have made about Hindi film stars having to operate at a decibel a notch or two above what was expected of their colleagues in the Bengali industry. And the discomfort shows even in Amanush.

The film clicked with the audience big-time and became the biggest hit of his career in both languages. It also spawned a Telugu version, Edureeta, starring N.T. Rama Rao, and one in Tamil, Thyagam, starring Sivaji Ganesan. It helped that the music – including the brilliant Dil aisa kisi ne mera toda – became a rage. But by this time Uttam Kumar was 50 and showing it, his girth not helping his cause in an industry that swore by hulks like Dharmendra and Vinod Khanna.

Shakti Samanta would cast him in another bilingual, Ananda Ashram (1977), a remake of the 1941 Pankaj Mullick-Ahindra Choudhury vehicle Daktar (1941), based on the story Teenpurush by Sailajananda Mukherjee and directed by Phani Majumdar and Subodh Mitra. What Ananda Ashram gains in star power over the original, it kind of loses by way of the rootedness that informs Daktar. While Uttam Kumar is characteristically good (particularly in the latter part when he plays his age), there’s a certain artifice about the film that makes it inferior to its original (in particular the early parts of the films with Sharmila Tagore a trifle too made up and Uttam Kumar at least a decade or two too old to play a mint-fresh medical student). Despite a classic music score composed by Shyamal Mitra with three Kishore Kumar gems in particular — Raahi naye naye, Saara pyaar tumhara and Tere liye maine sabko chhora — the Hindi version failed.

'Kitaab': A fine film; 'Dooriyan': His finest performance in Hindi cinema

The box-office failure of his two other Hindi films — Kitaab and Dooriyan (1979) — put paid to whatever hopes Uttam Kumar had of making a mark in Hindi cinema as a star. But both gave enough glimpses of what he was capable of in well-written roles. Had death not snatched him away so soon after, it is more than likely that he would have evolved as a great character actor in Hindi, in the tradition of Balraj Sahni.  

Based on Samaresh Basu’s story Pathik, Gulzar’s Kitaab is one of the finest films dealing with childhood we have had in Hindi cinema. It’s a film that belongs primarily to its remarkable child star, Master Raju, following his adventures. Uttam Kumar as the child’s brother-in-law has a finely etched, albeit, small role. As Gulzar said, “I 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 one with Uttam Kumar.” However, the film was a colossal failure despite R.D. Burman’s legendary Dhanno ki ankhon mein and a couple of other popular numbers, including Swapan Chakraborty’s heartfelt rendition of Mere saath chale na saaya, Rajkumari’s Hari din toh bita (a Hindi version of the classic Bengali song immortalised by Satyajit Ray in Pather Panchali, Hari din toh gelo) and that all-time children’s favourite Master ji ki aa gayi chitthi.

Uttam Kumar’s finest hour as an actor in Hindi cinema is by far Bhimsain’s Dooriyan. The director had only a couple of years ago made the brilliant Gharonda. Like that film, Dooriyan too explores the dynamics of a man-woman relationship in an urban milieu. Shankar Shesh’s Filmfare Award-winning story casts Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore as a working urban couple who grow apart as personal and professional ambitions, and the responsibility of raising a child, lead to irreconcilable differences. One of the rare films of the era that showed a working woman (and a credible one at that), this is one of Sharmila Tagore’s best performances as someone unapologetic about underlining her identity as a woman. And under Bhimsain’s sensitive guidance, Uttam Kumar, though at 53 a trifle too old for the romantic scenes, shows what he is capable of as an actor. It helps that he is given few dialogues to mouth and it is in his silences that he displays an impeccable command over his craft.

The film boasts great music too. Jaidev, who also scored for Gharonda, delivers timeless gems like Zindagi mein jab tumhare gham nahin thay and Zindagi mere ghar aana (the songs were written by Sudarshan Fakir). It’s interesting that each of Uttam Kumar’s Hindi films, barring Bandi, had wonderful music that has endured over the decades. Given how important a part music has played in the stardom of Hindi film actors, it is equally noteworthy and unfathomable that he failed to make it as a star despite this.

(Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri is a film and music buff, editor, publisher, film critic and writer)

Last updated on 24.07.22, 12:01 PM
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