The Forgotten Hero
Oct 11 2013
A recently released biography of Uttam Kumar, Mahanayak Revisited, renews interest in the star’s career
Of course, the two figures were different from each other as chalk and cheese. While Ray was an internationally recognised director, at par with Kurosawa and Bergman in his contribution to world cinema, Uttam Kumar’s appeal was restricted to film goers within his home state. The two seldom crossed paths, except when Ray decided to cast the star in Nayak and Chiriakhana in the 60s, which incidentally remain Uttam Kumar’s best works amongst his oeuvre of around 200 films. That speaks volumes about the quality of cinema he was associated with.
But whatever one may say about the kind of cinema he acted in, there is no disputing the fact that he was an actor par excellence. His presence, along with the ethereal Suchitra Sen, raised the films beyond their contrived melodramatic plots and endeared them to an audience that lapped up the sentimental fare dished out at regular intervals. Uttam-Suchitra was the most popular romantic pair from the 50s till the end of 60s and Uttam Kumar was the undisputed romantic king till his death at the age of 54.
It’s surprising that it took 33 years after the megastar’s death for somebody to come up with a well-documented biography of the quintessential hero. Veteran film critic Swapan Mullick’s recently released Mahanayak Revisited stays clear off the juicy episodes surrounding the actor’s life and concentrates instead on the socio-economic context that was responsible for the birth and nurture of the phenomenon. The 191-page biography traces the conservative South Calcutta youth’s journey from a music teacher and clerk, through his days in amateur theater to his struggle in the Tollygunge film industry where he was labeled as the ‘Flop Master’, till he struck gold after five years of struggle with Basu Parivar (1952). The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
Analysing his phenomenal popularity amongst the Bengali filmgoers, SwapanMullick writes: “He was the ultimate symbol of the bhadralok, the coveted son-in-law… the trendsetter with a hairstyle and sartorial accessories that combined to cause an effect of natural elegance, the champion of just causes, the husband who is responsible but often misunderstood, the brother who gives the sister the love she would have got from their dead parents, or just the simple lad with disarmingly innocent looks whom the absurdly rich girl falls head over heels in love with”.
Now this is a heady combination — no matter how hackneyed it is — and the directors and producers, least of all the star himself, were seldom bothered about the finesse and quality as long as the films brought in the moolah.
Apart from sociological analyses of such films,the book posits the star between two defining periods: the withering of the studio system post-war which ushered in the arrival of freelance producers, and the arrival and subsequent popularity of Doordarshan from the early 80s. Uttam Kumar reigned in between — an era that was marked by innocence where the star did not have to depend on secretaries or marketing strategies like his Bombay counterparts. And that’s where he lost out, surrounded as he was by sycophants who hung on to his every word and ill-advised him on career matters.
The book examines his disastrous forays into Bombay film industry that put a severe strain on his health and wealth. Age was catching up and he could not find himself playing the romantic lead anymore.
Before he could settle down into doing inane television serials like many of his contemporaries — which would have been a huge tragedy — death snatched him from his fans on July 24, 1980, while he was shooting a remake of My Fair Lady.
Looking back, it is, perhaps, poetic justice that he departed from the scene when people still cherished him in their hearts. That’s what makes him immortal. Just that he missed out on the epithet Mahanayak that was bestowed on him after his death.