U had only a handful of options. It could have been Upendra Kishore Ray Chowdhury (grandfather of Satyajit Ray) – the eminent writer and entrepreneur , Uttarpara – the second oldest municipality in Bengal, University of Calcutta – the first institution in Asia to be established as a multidisciplinary and secular Western-style university and Utpal Dutt – the renowned actor, director, writer-playwright. However it wouldn’t be justified to complete this series without a post dedicated to the man who is considered as the greatest actor of Bengali cinema till date and one of the best actors ever in the Indian movie industry – Uttam Kumar.
Uttam Kumar –
Uttam Kumar (3 September 1926– 24 July 1980), born as Arun Kumar Chatterjee was an Indian film actor, director, producer, singer, composer, and playback singer. Through his career he earned commercial as well as critical success and remains as an Indian cultural icon even today. Uttam Kumar was especially adored for his effortless naturalism in front of the camera and a distinctively urbane charisma that broke free from the prototypical Bengali screen hero of the past.
He was a recipient of many awards over his lifetime, including National Film Award for Best Actor. Actor Rajesh Khanna once said about Kumar, “He is the perfect ambassador of Indian cinema. No one carries Indian culture in a Kurta and Dhoti as well as he does.”
More than three decades after his demise, Uttam Kumar still remains in the hearts of countless Bengalis.
The journey –
Uttam’s first release was Drishtidan though he worked in an earlier unreleased film called Mayador. Then he acted in about four to five films, all of which were flops. His breakthrough film was Agni Pariksha in 1954 that began the success of the all-time romantic pair of Uttam Kumar – Suchitra Sen, though they had been first paired in Sharey Chuattor (1953).The film ran for 65 weeks and established Uttam in the industry.
The Uttam-Suchitra pair gave expression to the yearnings of a new and transformed city. They represented the new generation trying to come to terms with industrial modernity and a new form of urban existence. The stylised, black-and-white romanticism of landmark Uttam-Suchitra films of the 1950s like Agni Pariksha, Shapmochan, Sagarika , Shilpi, or Harano Sur, Indrani, Sabar Uparey, Surjyo Toron reflected a novel, youthful urban desire to break free from the confines of the feudal joint family and set up a nucleated, private space for the couple in love.
Other than Suchitra Sen, he went on to form successful screen pairs with many leading ladies like Supriya Choudhury, Sabitri Chatterjee, Madhabi Mukherjee, Sharmila Tagore, Anjana Bhaumick, Tanuja Samarth, Aparna Sen ,Sumitra Mukherjee , Arundhati Debi and Mala Sinha .
Often hailed as an one-man industry, Uttam Kumar dominated Bengali cinema for three decades until his death.
Uttam Kumar started experimenting with character roles early in his career. This was evidenced in films like Khokababur Pratyabartan , Mayamriga , Thana Theke Aschi and Bicharak. In Marutirtha Hinglaj , he played a mentally disturbed character. In Kuhak he was a murderous thief, while in Sesh Anka, he was a suave businessman who had murdered his wife and was romantically engaged to the daughter of a social elite and rich nobleman. In Aparichita , he also played the role of a villain. Such risky attempts solidified Uttam Kumar’s position as an actor apart from being a box office superstar.
Apart from Bengali, Uttam Kumar also acted in 15 Hindi films such as Chhoti Si Mulaqat, Amanush, Anand Ashram, Dooriyaan , Bandie and Kitaab .
Satyajit Ray connection –
Perhaps his most lauded appearance was in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (The Hero). It is believed that Ray wrote the script with Uttam in mind. He made the role of Arindam (Mukherjee) his own and Ray had decided that if Uttam refused the film, he would abandon it. He worked with Ray the following year in Chiriyakhana(based on Byomkesh Bakshy).
The end of an era –
While filming the Bengali film Ogo Bodhu Shundori in 1980 Uttam Kumar suffered a stroke. He passed away the same night on 24 July 1980 at the age of 54. As his dead body found its way across Bhowanipur and finally to the Keoratala Burning Ghat, traffic in Kolkata came to a halt as thousands flocked the streets to pay their last respects and have a last glimpse of the legend. Satyajit Ray paid homage stating “It is the demise of a leading light of the Bengali film industry. There isn’t – there won’t be another hero like him.”
Reruns of his films on television decades after his death are still eagerly watched. His duration is considered as the golden era of Bengali cinema.
When the Indian government instituted the National Film Awards in 1967 for Best actor and Best actress, Uttam Kumar was the first-ever recipient of the Best Actor Award for his performances in Antony Firingee and Chiriyakhana .
Other awards include –
- 1955: Recognition from the Government of India for Harano Sur.
- 1961: 9th National Film Awards – Certificate of Merit for Second Best Feature Film in Bengali – Saptapadi
- 1963: 11th National Film Awards – National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Bengali: Uttar Falguni (as producer)
- Best Actor award from Prosad magazine for Stree (1973).
- MAHANAYAK (greatest actor) award for “Amanush” from the Government of India in 1975 with prize money worth 5lak rupees.
- Best Actor award both from Prosad magazine and Sanonskritik Sanbadik Sanostha for Anand Ashram (1977).
Bengal Film Journalists’ Association Awards
- 1955: B.F.J.A Best Actor Award for Hrod.
- 1962: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Saptapadi.
- 1967: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Nayak. Attended the Berlin Film Festival as a distinguished guest.
- 1968: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Grihadaha.
- 1972: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Ekhane Pinjar.
- 1973: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Stree.
- 1975: B.F.J.A Best Actor award for Amanush
- A theatre in Kolkata (Uttam Mancha) has been named after him.
- His life-size statue has been erected near Tollygunje metro station
- Tollygunje metro has been renamed after him.
- Celebrating the 89th birth anniversary of Uttam Kumar in 2009, the Department of Posts released a series of new postal stamps featuring the actor on them along with a brochure that had a note “Uttam Kumar – The Legend of Indian Cinema”.
- The Government of India” introduced “Uttam” award for Best acting in 2015.
The personal angle –
Sunday evening in the eighties were all about watching Bengali movies on TV. A hardcore fan of Uttam Kumar, my Ma would be overjoyed whenever his movies played on Doordarshan. As I grew up, I turned out to be a strong supporter of actor Soumitra Chatterjee (blame the Feluda movies by Satyajit ray where he played the suave detective). That turned me into a big critic of Uttam Kumar and his acting which in my opinion involved too much of theatrics. Then I was fortunate enough to watch a movie Agnishwar starring Uttam Kumar and Madhabi Mukherjee. He essayed the role of Dr. Agnishwar Mukhopadhyay, a patriotic doctor who lends a moral backbone to the broken society of Bengal. This movie made me revisit most of his movies and over the years, I have probably turned out to be as much an admirer of the man and his work as my late mother.
While Bollywood has Amitabh Bachchan, Tamil film industry has Rajnikanth and Malayalam movie industry has Mohanlan, Bengali film industry had its biggest ever actor and superstar in the form of Uttam Kumar.
Till we meet tomorrow with a new post on a new facet of Bengal.