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The Multi-Layered Persona of Utpal Dutt

March 29, 2017 | By

Impressed by Utpal Dutt’s interpretation of Othello, the famous filmmaker Madhu Bose offered him the role of Indo-Anglian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. This was the beginning of a long career marked by a thick portfolio of films in Hindi and Bengali while the stage remained his first love and his troupe continued its movement in serious political theatre. A tribute by Noted film critic Shoma A Chatterji.

Utpal Dutt

Utpal Dutt
(29 March 1929 – 19 August 1993)

Utpal Dutt was born on 29th March 1929 in Basirhat. Few remember his rich contribution to the history of theatre in the country, much less, his contribution to the world of cinema- both Hindi and Bengali, mainstream and off-mainstream. Dutt, who began his career as a stage actor when he was a schoolboy, in Shakespeare’s Richard III, took theatre beyond the geographical parameters of the stage. Like Augustc Boal (the Latin American theatre personality who wrote Theatre of the Oppressed), Dutt felt that all theatre is political. He never wearied of stressing that theatre could never be meaningful if does not consider the political ethos within which it has to negotiate the terms of the volatile and fluctuating relationships between and among human beings.

His career in films spans an oeuvre of more than 100 films covering forty years. It covers a colourful range of characterizations beginning from the upright and honest government officer in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) to Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991) and Gautam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi (1993.)  His range covered a happy mix of the comic and the villainous in Hindi mainstream cinema. He regaled the audience as the lovelorn Bhavani Shankar Bajpai in Naram Garam smitten by the beauty of Swarup Sampat. And the audience hated him for his diabolic villainy in Shakti Samanta’s Amanush. He played the despotic dictator to the hilt in Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe while he used his Bengali-ised Urdu to make audiences laugh away in a delightful guest appearance in Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane.

Utpal Dutt films

Utpal Dutt in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk and Heerak Rajar Deshe, Gautam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi and Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Naram Garam and Golmaal

“Visual images did not make any impact on me, neither during my childhood days, nor when I turned older,” he once said when asked why he stepped into cinema much later in his life after he had already done a lot of theatre. His entry into cinema was more by chance than by deliberate choice. When Shakespearana International Theatre Company led by Geoffrey Kendall left India for good, Utpal Dutt’s troupe continued to perform English plays. Once while they were performing Othello, the famous filmmaker Madhu Bose came to watch the performance. He was then looking for a leading man to do his film based on the life of the Indo-Anglian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Impressed by Dutt’s interpretation of Othello, Bose offered him the role. Dutt was then looking for an opportunity to widen his canvas and to branch out and seek fresh pastures so he accepted the offer happily.  This was the beginning of a long career marked by a thick portfolio of films in Hindi and Bengali while the stage remained his first love and his troupe continued its movement in serious political theatre.

Mrinal Sen once admiringly described Dutt as an actor who could play roles from the sublime to the ridiculous with equal flair. When asked how he made the switch from an outright commercial masala film like Fariyaad to a Ray film like Joy Baba Phelunath, Dutt said, “I have developed a technique of shutting my mind off, switching it off, rather. I will not be able to tell you even the names of the films I have acted in or even the name of the character I have just finished shooting.”

He did character roles and switched smoothly from villainous characters to comic ones without effort. He is one of the first of theatre personalities who did not permit theatrics to spill over into his acting for the film camera. He did not wear his intellectual knowledge on his sleeve and few of the Bollywood industry had an inkling into his rich work in theatre, first in Bengali and then in English. His brief cameo in Dulal Guha’s Do Anjane with Rekha, Amitabh Bachchan and Prem Chopra as a producer who stammers over certain Urdu words was hilarious and satiric at the same time.

Utpal Dutt strikes a deal for a film with Amitabh Bachchan in his pidgin Hindi in Do Anjaane (Watch from 3:28)

Among some of his memorable films from both mainstream and off-mainstream cinema are – Bhuvan Shome, Ek Adhuri Kahani and Chorus directed by Mrinal Sen; Agantuk, Jana Aranya, Joy Baba Phelunath and Hirak Rajar Deshe directed by Satyajit Ray; Paar and Padma Nadir Maajhi directed by Gautam Ghose; Bombay Talkie and Shakespearewallah directed by James Ivory; Jukti Takko Aar Gappo directed by Ritwik Ghatak; Guddi and Golmaal directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee; Swami directed by Basu Chatterjee; Amanush directed by Shakti Samanta; and Michael Madhusudan directed by Madhu Bose, among many others. His villain in Amanush was backed by a string of theatrical tricks and turned out to be a big hit with the audience. His performance in Agantuk brought him the Best Actor Award from the Bengal Film Journalists Association in 1992.

Utpal Dutt in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s laugh riot Golmaal

Dutt also directed some meaningful films during his career. These were – Megh (1961) a psychological thriller, Ghoom Bhangar Gaan (1965), Jhor (1979), Baisakhi Megh (1981), Maa (1983) and Inquilab ke Baad (1984). None of these films met with any kind of commercial success but this did not seem to deter him.

tiner talowar

Utpal Dutt in Bengali drama Tiner Talowar (Pic: YouTube)

Dutt strode like a Colossus over the realm of Bengali theatre staging one production after another and, at the same time, trying to evolve a comprehensive theory of Epic Theatre which, the indefatigable Thespian hoped, should serve as a model for others. Utpal Dutt, closer to his own theatrical tradition and Stanislavsky (the Russian theatre director and actor), aspired to raise his Epic Theatre based on the reinvigorating power of myths, while Bertolt Brecht formulated his vision by subjecting this very myth to question. In all his productions, some of them were breathtaking, Utpal Dutt achieved what he wanted to (in his own words) – “reaffirm the violent history of India, reaffirm the material tradition of its people, recount again and again the heroic tales of grand rebels and martyrs.”

In May 1990, Lancaster University organized a seminar on theatre and ideology, where Dutt represented India. In his presentation, Dutt explored the symbiotic relationship between theatre and politics and lamented the inadequate portrayal of the exploitative nature of religion. He tried to establish a link between basis and superstructure, highlighting the superstructure prevalent in ancient India.

Towards A Revolutionary Theatre

Towards A Revolutionary Theatre by Utpal Dutt
Buy from Amazon

He has left behind some very significant books on theatre. Among them are Natak Samagro, a collection of plays, reprinted in 2009, Shakespeare Samaj Chetana (1980), Towards Revolutionary Theatre (Seagull, reprinted in 2013), Amar Rajneeti Amar Theatre (2009), among others. The Utpal Dutt Natak Samagra comprises most of the plays presented by his theatre group. These are – Chhayanat, Angar, Ferari, Fouj, Megh Rifle, Simanta, Ghum Nei, May Dibash, Dwip and Special Train.

“I believe any discussion on films in semi-colonial or newly independent countries must start from the illiteracy, poverty and cultural starvation of the masses,” wrote Utpal Dutt in an essay in 1979. He went on to state, “It seems blasphemous to engage in comfortable talk about the aesthetics of cinema in a country where the majority starves.”  Dutt’s work for commercial Hindi and Bengali was only a small part of his oeuvre, and probably to him the least important. As a teenager in the nineteen-forties, he came across the travelling theatre of the Kendals and went through rigorous training in Shakespearean drama. In his thirties he wrote a string of plays critical of past and present power structures.

Utpal Dutt and Jennifer Kendal give voice-over for Uttam Kumar (Othello) and Suchitra Sen (Desdemona) who act out a portion from the Shakespearean play in Saptapadi

Public pronouncements often landed him in trouble. Dutt was arrested on December 27, 1965, on a warrant issued by the Government of West Bengal under the Preventive Detention Act. He was released on bail soon after, since he was then busy shooting for the title role in Shashi Kapoor’s The Guru. This was specifically for some of the views articulated in his play Kallol..  His daughter Dr. Bishnupriya Dutta who teaches History of Theatre at the JNU, Delhi says that on 23 September 1965 ‘Another side of the struggle’, an article in the Deshitaishi was cited as a seditious piece. The issue was banned and Dutt was arrested and lodged for the next seven months at Presidency Jail, Calcutta.

Utpal Dutt as Mamaji in Guddi

Utpal Dutt as Mamaji in Guddi

“The day my father  and his comrades were released from prison,” writes Dr. Dutt. “A large gathering at the Maidan was organised. A ship was built in remembrance of ‘Kallol’, which the state wanted to censor. After the speeches at the Maidan, excerpts of the play were performed. It was an experience people wrote about and remembered for a long time. All the leaders of the Communist Party were there and scenes from Kallol particularly Khyber’s joining of the mutiny, were played out. Slogans, greetings and the sheer transformation of the space into a people’s space was what we all remembered.” (The Quint, March 29, 2016)

In a speech he delivered in 1991, Dutt excoriates the TV Ramayana that brought all Indian life to a standstill on Sunday mornings in the eighties for its crude glitz and covert ideological agenda – “monkeys and bears speaking Sanskritized Hindi, holy men flying over painted clouds” – and connects this to the jingoism and chauvinism that led to the destruction of the Babri Masjid a few years later. The serial, he thundered, was nothing but “a fairytale written by an alcoholic.”

He was open about the fact that his career in films stemmed from the need for funds for his theatre group.  Many of his peers laughed at this statement but he stood firm in his commitment to theatre as much as he did in his commitment to films that went completely against the grain of his strongly Marxist ideology. He carried on from one experiment to the next, not once moving away from his belief in the need to merge politics, literature and theatre. “I do not advocate that things be portrayed either as black or as white. On the contrary, I say that is precisely what Marxism disallows. There is no such thing as black and white in life, there are only grays,” he would say and promptly enact a completely black character in a Hindi or Bengali film! This contradiction is what makes Utpal Dutt stand apart from his peers in theatre.

The climactic conversation on civilization in Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk

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One thought on “The Multi-Layered Persona of Utpal Dutt

  • Sriram S

    Shomaji, I am glad that someone has written a great article on India’s most versatile actor.
    Utpal Dutt got immortalised in Hindi films with Golmaal.

    Thank you for your excellent article.

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