Bengal’s matinee idol and most popular actor Uttam Kumar had only a brief brush with Hindi films. But even in a space of a few films, he left a mark and some evergreen melodies for us to hum.
It is famously said that Uttam Kumar wanted to die with his boots on. A brief hospitalisation following a heart attack on the sets of Ogo Bodhu Sundari, had brought the curtain down on this legend’s remarkable journey on 24th July 1980. He passed away while working in a laugh riot (a loose adaptation of Pygmalion) and practically brought the city out on the streets for his funeral procession.
The first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Uttam Kumar is the class that the actor had. Truly unparalleled. An icon for hundreds and thousands of movie lovers, spanning across generations in his native Bengal, Uttam, however, had a brief and rather sporadic stint with mainstream Hindi films. A loss, I would say, for the Hindi film industry but interestingly, most of these films had beautiful, memorable music.
Bengal’s king of hearts made his foray into Bombay his ambitious home production, Chhoti Si Mulaqat in 1967. Made under the banner, Our Movies with his brother Tarun Kumar as executive producer, the film was based on Ashapurna Devi’s acclaimed story, Agni Pariksha, and was a remake of the path-breaking film by the same name that had firmly established Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen as a lead romantic pair in 1954. The story adaption for screen was by Pranab Roy, screenplay by Sachin Bhowmick and dialogues by Abrar Alvi. Directed by Alo Sirkar, it had cinematography by Kanai Dey.
Shankar Jaikishan gave some lovely music for this film, setting to tune lyrics by Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra with Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Suman Kalyanpur and Asha Bhosle giving playback. Not surprisingly, the music was a hit.
Uttam had Vyjayanthimala, a top billed star of the era as his lead star with an impressive supporting cast comprising Shashikala, Rajendra Nath, Tarun Bose with Yogita Bali doing the childhood role of Vyjyanthimala.
Tujhe dekha, tujhe chaha, tujhe pooja maine (Chhoti Si Mulaqat, 1967) Shankar Jaikishan / Hasrat Jaipuri / Rafi and Suman
Unfortunately, other than home territory, Bengal, the film bombed all over. It was a rude shock. Perhaps had Uttam Kumar had signed a Bombay director, maybe Shakti Samanta, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Asit Sen or even Pramod Chakravorty, the result may have been different. As a Bengali cinema enthusiast, I am aware of some great movies made by Alo Sirkar, but he was not a name that the Hindi film goer was accustomed to and more so, the design of film making, and execution showed the regional constraints and concepts. The dialogues were well written by the renowned Abrar Alvi. Some critics had said the film needed a Pran to balance it out, but that would have been absurd in a storyline such as Agni Pariksha.
In Calcutta film reviews, Vyjayanthimala was criticized for giving a cold performance. One can imagine an unavoidable comparison with Suchitra Sen’s performance in the original. However, end result was that Uttam sadly did miss out on his chance to become a nation-wide star.
Jeevan ke doraahe pe khade (Chhoti Si Mulaqat, 1967) Shankar Jaikishan / Shailendra / Lata Mangeshkar
Here’s a look at the Agni Pariksha, that had catapulted Uttam and Suchitra to dizzying heights of popularity and paved the way for their success as a romantic pair, 13 years ahead of Chhoti Si Mulaqaat.
Gaane mor kon indradhanu (Agni Pariksha, 1954) Anupam Ghatak / Gauriprasanna Mazumder / Sandhya Mukhopadhyay. This song especially was known for the unusual tremble in the ku-hu given by Sandhya.
Living in Calcutta during that era it was impossible not to be influenced by the enigma called Uttam Kumar or not to be intrigued by the aura of Uttam-Suchitra on screen pairing. Together they were sheer magic, each out doing the other while creating that immortal cinematic memory.
During early to mid-seventies, I saw Uttam Kumar several times, though I never could speak to him. I still wonder why. Bus route no.8 would drop me at the corner of Lower Circular Road and Lansdowne Road at 5.38 in the morning. I would then walk through the Minto Park to Hungerford street and enter my college, St. Xavier’s, from the rear entrance to be in time for my Bachelors’ classes at 6 am. It is while crossing through the Minto Park that I would spot Uttam Kumar taking a brisk morning walk many a day. After a couple of such chance meetings, he started to show signs of recognition and would flash a soft smile, so would I. Clad in white shorts and a golf shirt with white running shoes and socks and no make up, obviously, he was in his natural best appearance. I always feel, no film of his could truly capture in camera the striking personality he was. He was far more handsome and very good-looking and I feel it is just a shade of him that we got to see on screen.
The two films with Ray
Much earlier, in 1968 one day, a gentleman, Dilip da, who owned a photo shop and studio on Hazra Road (and I can say was a friend and mentor as far as photography went) asked me to accompany him to a film screening. I was in middle school and today it surprises me that my parents gave permission for it. He came home to pick me and met my parents and took me to watch Satyajit Ray’s Chiriakhana (1967). He had told me that the first ever best actor National Award was given to Uttam Kumar for this film. I have watched that film many times now and loved it each time. The award, as I learnt later, was for two of his roles, the other being Anthony Firingee (1967), co-starring Tanuja, an outstanding film with immortal music and songs.
Over the years my view on Chiriakhana has not changed much. On Upperstall site, director Anjan Dutta expressed his view on the Ray classic and it seems as if he spoke my heart:
One of the few Indian detective thrillers I have adored. Primarily because it is a Byomkesh Bakshi story, my favourite Indian detective. Uttam Kumar, though far too handsome, is at his best. Though the writer Saradindu Bandopadhyay and a large chunk of Satyajit Ray fans were disappointed, for me Chiriakhana is one of Satyajit’s important works because he was able to capture the latent dark, repressed sexuality in the Bengali psyche. For the first time in his filmography, he sheds his puritanism and builds a certain ominous, adult, slightly seedy, claustrophobic world that doesn’t allow any sentimentalism. Despite the very tacky impersonation of a Jap tourist by Uttam Kumar and numerous major alterations in the text, this superbly cast film is one of the best Bengali thrillers ever made.
Ray directing Uttam in Chiriakhana
Ray had signed Uttam Kumar earlier in 1966 for Nayak. Another landmark film in the history of world cinema. Brilliantly written and crafted by Ray, it traces a 24-hour train journey undertaken by a film star Arindam, from Calcutta to Delhi. On the journey, he meets a young woman journalist Aditi, played by Sharmila Tagore, who is egged on by her co-passengers to use this golden chance to interview the matinee idol.
As the film progresses, through conversation, flashbacks – and a disturbing dream sequence of Arindam drowning in a swamp of money – all the insecurities and vertigo of stardom are exposed and the Nayak is shown as lonely and vulnerable. Uttam could not have delivered this performance without Ray.
The dream sequence in Nayak
Back to Bombay, it was Shakti Samanta who brought Uttam on Hindi cinema screen again with Amanush, 1975. When Shakti Samanta was in the process of buying the rights for Amar Prem, 1971 he had to procure the rights to the story. The rights were jointly held and one party was Uttam Kumar who had earlier made the story into an acclaimed film Nishi Padma (1970), co-starring Sabitri Chatterjee.
This is when Samanta proposed to make a Hindi/Bengali bilingual with Uttam in it. Though hesitantly, Uttam did accept it. By the time the film got made and released Uttam Kumar was in his late forties. Also, screen equations of Hindi cinema had undergone rapid changes. The film did good business but could not bring national stardom for Uttam Kumar.
Dil aisa kisi ne mera toda, barbadi ki taraf aisa moda (Amanush, 1975) Shyamal Mitra/ Indeevar / Kishore Kumar
In the same situation, in the Bengali version of the film, the song sung again by Kishore, albeit in a different tune went on to become one of the biggest hits in Kishore’s Bengali repertoire.
Ki aashaye baandhi khelaghar (Amanush, 1975) Shyamal Mitra/ Gauriprasanna Mazumder / Kishore Kumar
Shyamal Mitra, the music director of Amanush was a very well recognised singer and music director in Bengal. Peculiarly, when Shakti Samanta decided to make Anurodh (1977) with Rajesh Khanna and Simple, he borrowed the story from Uttam-Tanuja’s hit Deya Neya (1963), which had super hit immortal music by Shyamal Mitra with songs sung by him too.
Uttam’s next outing in Hindi cinema was also via Samanta, in Anand Ashram, 1977. Again, a bilingual it repeated the heroine, Sharmila and the music director, Shyamal Mitra and lyricist Indeevar. This time the film did not do as much business as Amanush had done.
Sara pyar tumhara maine bandh liya hai (Anand Ashram, 1977) Shyamal Mitra / Indeevar/ Kishore and Asha
Amar swapno tumi ogo chirodiner saathi (Anand Ashram, 1977) Shyamal Mitra / Gauriprasanna Mazumder / Kishore and Asha. In Anand Ashram, the tunes were more or less similar in both versions.
Gulzar has the rare distinction of directing both the Bengal icons – Suchitra Sen in Aandhi and Uttam Kumar in Kitaab, 1977. Based on a story by Samaresh Basu of a child who runs away from home the film revolved around the child artist, Raju. Uttam played the affectionate brother-in-law of Raju with Vidya Sinha playing his wife, the sister of the boy. It was an understated and controlled performance by Uttam.
Alo Sirkar tried his hand at Hindi film world once again with Uttam in Bandie, 1978. Second time unlucky, the film flopped. Produced by F C Mehra’s Eagle Films, it starred Sulakshna Pandit, Amjad Khan, Bindu. Music by Shyamal Mitra was not appealing this time. Though an interesting story, it was not well executed.
In his biography, Manna Dey mentions that in his opinion there were only two actors who were the best to lip-sync and perform a song in films. One was Raj Kapoor and other Uttam Kumar. Unfortunately for us the Hindi cinema goers, we did not have enough opportunity to see Uttam Kumar achieve such heights although in Bengali films, he continued to excel and deliver outstanding performances.
For Hindi cinema, Uttam Kumar acted in all of 8 films, two out of the eight were incomplete when he died and had to be short changed or altered. These were Yogesh Saxena’s Plot No.5 (1981) and Man Mohan Desai’s Desh Premee (1982).
But before I round up my story, there was one more film, by Bhimsain, Dooriyan, 1979. It was a nice film, did decent business and Uttam Kumar gave us a remarkable parting gift. The film had Sharmila (their third film together) and Priyadarshini. The songs of the film are among the best of Jaidev’s compositions. The lyrics were by Sudarshan Faakir and the songs were sung by Bhupinder, Anuradha Paudwal, Manna Dey, Preeti Sagar and Ranu Mukherji.
Zindagi, zindagi mere ghar aana zindagi (Dooriyan (1979) / Jaidev/ Sudarshan Faakir/ Bhupinder Singh and Anuradha Paudwal
A great star and a greater actor who at the young age of 53 left us yearning for more, Uttam Kumar lives on in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of fans.
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