Memories and the man

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  • Published 30.08.13

Tarun Kumar was piling on the pounds. This got elder brother Uttam Kumar rather worried. “Buro, you must take a walk around Victoria Memorial every day,” the matinee idol told him. Getting up at 3am and taking a walk in the area was part of his own daily regimen. In the wee hours, he could do his morning exercise undisturbed. The obedient brother started off from the next day.

After a month, when there was no visible change in him, Uttam Kumar called him again. “Buro, are you doing what I asked you to do?” “Yes, of course, Dada,” he replied. “Then why are you not reducing one bit? Are you eating anything extra?” The apologetic brother responded: “Dada, I feel so hungry after the walk that I go to a bhujiawala’s outlet nearby and have my fill of kachuri, jilipi and singara.” At this, a sombre Uttam Kumar sighed and said: “Stop the morning walk. You have done enough.”

Such delightful anecdotes about Bengal’s greatest cine star were shared by two of his heroines at an event organised by a radio channel at The Sonnet in the run-up to his 87th birth anniversary on September 3.

The above-mentioned exchange was reported by Madhabi Mukherjee, Uttam’s heroine in the evergreen romantic comedy Chhadmabeshi.

They had also done the film Agnishwar together. “We had gone to Topchachi to shoot a small scene. Tuluda (Aurobindo Mukherjee) was the director. My job was to take the shoes and the coat off Uttam Kumar and keep them aside. The spot was a beautifully maintained garden villa. But as word spread that Uttam Kumar had arrived, a mob gathered and pounded across the garden in such a way that in no time it looked as if a herd of wild elephants had gone on the rampage there. The owner of the villa started to howl. Tuluda took the hint and proposed to Uttam Kumar that we pack up and leave quickly. He turned to me and asked ‘X-ray ki bole (what says our X-ray)?’ This was the nickname he had given me. I replied, ‘Chole jetei bole (It’s best to leave)’,” reminisced Mukherjee. Turning towards the lady seated next to her, she said: “The other memorable aspect on the trip was the delightful food that Supriya Devi used to cook for us.”

Supriya Chowdhury, Uttam Kumar’s leading lady and live-in partner for many years, went back to her own childhood on taking over the microphone. “I was born on the Chinese border in Burma at a place called Mytchina. My father was a barrister. During World War II, we had to walk all the way to Calcutta as refugees. It took us a month and 23 days. Our house on Lansdowne Road also got sold off. I debuted in 1952 in the film Basu Paribar. Uttam Kumar was the oldest son of the family and I the oldest daughter. Then I got married and quit films. After a gap, when I returned I never left.”

She could not recall if her first film opposite Uttam Kumar was Thana Theke Aschhi or Sankhabela. They went on to star in excess of a dozen films together. “Having already produced a number of films under the banner of Uttam Kumar Films, he wanted to direct a film himself. He used to urge me to read story books and was in search of a story that would allow him to work with 200 artistes. It was on the train to Bombay that I brought Ramapada Chowdhury’s Bonpalashir Padabali to his notice,” Chowdhury said. Uttam Kumar did not like getting on aeroplanes, she added as an aside. “He relished the two-day journey to Bombay as that gave him time to sleep.”

He commissioned many to write the script based on the novel but liked none. “In the end, one was written following his suggestions. He worked tirelessly on the film as director and more so as he had cast himself in it as well. In the end when it turned out to be four hours long, he was advised to prune it to acceptable standards. But he had so much respect for his fellow actors that he refused, saying he could not snip anyone's roles.” The film was released with that length (224 minutes) and became a superhit.

“The songs, composed by multiple composers — Shyamal Mitra, Satinath Mukherjee, Nachiketa Ghosh... — were also great successes.” “Especially the swimming song,” interjected Mukherjee, referring to the song Dekhuk para porshitey in which Uttam Kumar, sitting by a pond angling, spies Chowdhury swimming and starts singing about his great catch. “Madhu-r kaj-i amar pechhone laga (Madhu’s job is to tease me),” shot back Chowdhury in mock anger.

The afternoon went on to reveal how Uttam Kumar would sit with his harmonium every evening at home and do voice training. “He had composed the music for the film Kal Tumi Aleya,” Chowdhury pointed out.

He always had an eye out for the welfare of the film crew. Once, recalled Mukherjee, he spotted a make-up man in a morose frame of mind and asked what was wrong. The man revealed that he was set to marry off his daughter but despite his best efforts had fallen short of Rs 5,000, a considerable amount in those times. So he was worried he would have to call off the marriage. ‘Go ahead and plan the wedding,’ Uttam Kumar assured him. On the evening of the wedding he went over himself and handed over the sum.

“It is this care for his colleagues that made him found Shilpi Sansad. The organisation still helps out artistes in need,” Mukherjee said, summing up her tribute to the man who remains unsurpassed 33 years after his death.