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Making of Uttam Kumar: The Star, The ‘True’ Bhadralok

September 3, 2015 | By

3rd September 2015 is the birth anniversary of Uttam Kumar. This article looks at the probable reasons behind the ‘star’ appeal of the legendary actor and the cementing of his image of the bhadrolok.

In a prolific career spanning 32 years Uttam Kumar who appeared in the film industry in the late 1940s acted in 202 released films, besides directing and producing films and composing music and in the process attains the title of mahanayak, the superstar.

Uttam and Suchitra in Agnipariksha

Uttam and Suchitra in Agnipariksha

Emerging from relative obscurity and flop films he took the industry by storm in 1953 with the superhit Agniparikhsa , that starred the other female superstar Suchitra Sen which set the stage for what Moinak Biswas has termed the ‘new melodrama’ [1] of the 50s. This period of the 50s is important as it witnesses a consolidation of the star system in the Bangla film industry and the decline of the studio era and coincides with the emergence of the two popular stars – Suchitra and Uttam. This article  focuses on  the creation of Uttam’s ‘star’ persona and the model of ‘masculinity’ that are being deployed in the early phase of his career by drawing on  some  film magazine articles of the 50s-60s to map the coordinates of Uttam’s stardom which rested on his bhadralok image, the bhalo chele.

Moinak Biswas says that in this period the romantic Uttam character emerges as a modern individual, very often cut off from his familial moorings, negotiating the possibility of articulating or gesturing towards the formation of the romantic couple. This ‘new melodrama’ is differently constituted from the family melodrama or bourgeoisie melodrama. This male figure seems to be in the process of discovering himself, very often found in boarding houses, hostels, work places, professional spaces, trying to stake a claim on the city, finding love and articulating possibilities of becoming a couple.  This male figure sometimes appears as a passive male whose presence seems static as he is being staged to articulate feminine desire and subjectivity.

The popular film magazines of the time (viz. Rupmancha, Naba Kallol, Chitra Bani etc) narrate Arun Kumar’s transformation into Uttam Kumar and are important traces to map the discourse of stardom surrounding him and provide clues to unpack his media text.  They provide interesting clues about the contexts of how that persona was being created for the viewers /readers and what images were being circulated in the social domain. These texts are crucial in the field of star studies, not because they give a glimpse of the ‘real’ person, but they provide tools for decoding the image.

A family pic of Uttam with his wife and son

A family pic of Uttam with his wife and son

A close  reading between the lines of even the mundane, formulaic, part rumor, part gossip, part historically verifiable material can be important tools to engage with the reconstruction  of the star figure. These accounts are peppered with  anecdotes, reminiscences and contemporary accounts of his early failures, his abiding love for acting, his theatre experience, his struggle as an actor and his stardom, interspersed with glimpses into his personal life-his first marriage to Gauri Devi and his much publicized live in relationship with Supriya Chaudhari, Uttam’s heroine in many of his successful films. What emerges out of these texts is the image of a gritty and determined middle class person tremendously invested in the values of hard work, perseverance and diligence who gets into the industry and works his way up through the ladder to reach the top, but who never takes his success for granted, who is ever ready to work hard and is continuously learning.

The iconic figure that these texts provides us with is interesting not because they pepper the narrative with actual dates and statistics but because they manage to add to the ‘aura’ of Uttam’s stardom—the immensely successful romantic star, yet a tragic and lonely angst ridden modern individual grappling with the pressures of being a star and the essentially ‘moral’ middle class male who respects middle class values and traditions. These narratives construct the figure of a male star who is determined to succeed, who manages to put his initial failures behind him as all his early films from 1948 till 1953 had been miserable flops.  He had earned the tag of being “flop master general” and “unlucky”. However he persisted in trying to make it in the industry, and even started acting on the professional stage in Shyamoli[2] opposite Sabitri Chatterjee (his heroine in 30 films) to hone his acting skills.

In the off-screen discourses surrounding Uttam in the early phase, the tropes of his sheer determination, perseverance, diligence, hard work and moral consistency create the image of a middle class figure who manages to overcome initial failures to achieve success and fame. These non-filmic discourses seem to have symbiotic and fluid resonances in his early films.

The cluster of on screen images that consolidated his romantic image in this phase  can be summed up into three tropes:

1) the discourse of ‘moral integrity’ that is built around his filmic characters, drawing from the off-screen discourses;

2) the lonely orphan, middle class hero who can  only attain his self-hood with the woman and form the couple;

3) a certain notion of ‘masculinity’ that this figure exhibits that deploys the codes of intimacy and romance where the male figure is the object of the woman’s desire and remains passive recipient of her love and desire.

The charisma of Uttam Kumar

The charisma of Uttam Kumar

In many of his romantic films , the filmic characters of Uttam are foregrounded as extremely moral and trustworthy figures, who are determined to achieve success by their hard work and determination, banking on their education and drive to perform well. In  films  he is repeatedly shown as epitomizing the code of ‘moral soundness’ and ‘integrity’, a highly  regarded middle class value, so much so that he is the trusted escort for unmarried girls on their journeys in Suno Barnari or the icon of morality and good behaviour in Sagarika.

In Saare Chuattor, he is morally superior to all the other young men in the mess, and refuses to be a part of their youthful romantic pranks directed at Suchitra, while in Agnipariksha he is quite above the other young men surrounding Suchitra and displays moral courage and integrity in dealing with some ruffians who try to disrupt a party, while all the other men crouch in fear at the sight of the unruly crowd. However we never see him making any claims about his ‘authenticity’[3] or sincerity and moral superiority in these narratives, this is always articulated by other characters in the films, he remains sure and smug yet humble enough not to brag about his moral superiority and essential goodness.

Often the narratives place another male figure, usually the suitor of the heroine, who is rich and successful but lacks basic human values of decency and moral decorum, whose lack of values is staged to bring into focus Uttam’s extraordinariness, greatness and integrity. In all these films that I have referred to and in many others, that he appears in the 50s, he is represented as a lonely orphaned figure, without any history or past, negotiating the filmic spaces on his own, aiming to find himself. Even when he has a family they soon disappear or die. This figure is sometimes a student (Saare Chuattor), or a teacher (Suno Baranari), a young promising doctor (Sagarika), an engineer (Agnipariksha) and in other filmic narratives he is a singer or an artist.

Uttam Kumar in Saare Chuattor - he is different from all the other men in the boarding

Uttam Kumar in Saare Chuattor – he is different from all the other men in the boarding

In the early phase of his career, Uttam’s cluster of on-screen persona established his romantic image through these essentially middle class modern individualistic characters who don’t bank on or have a solid familial support structure to fall back on or rely on to make it big in the society. He thus appears as a special kind of male figure whose solitary state and loneliness is the coordinate for a different kind of ‘masculinity’. This trope of ‘masculinity’ is represented through the relationships of this figure, not only romantic, emotional or sexual but also the individual’s relationship with himself and his body. These figurations present the easy and comfortable relationship that Uttam the male star and the man has with his own self and his body. His ‘masculinity’ then is a way of being, intimately connected to and represented through his self/body and in his interaction with others.

The non-filmic discourses of his initial period abound in the descriptions of his fitness regime that he followed to trim and tone his body, the swimming, tennis and horse riding regimen that were part of his everyday routine. The filmic figurations quite unabashedly stage and present this well-toned, well-built male. This screen image of a physically attractive and ‘charismatic’ male/star, who nevertheless is emotionally lonely or fragile/ vulnerable is repeatedly mobilized to establish and create an affective empathetic relationship with the spectatorial gaze. I would suggest that Patrice Petro’s formulation of the “passive and eroticized male figure who elicits the desiring gaze of a textually inscribed female spectator”[4] can be used productively to engage with the kind of masculine figure that I am drawing attention to. Within the popular film very often the romantic songs are used to articulate and stage this desire. Interestingly in many films the songs are sung by the women stars while in the visual field Uttam is arranged and framed for us, very often the camera tracking his movement through the spaces, or focusing on his body, staging his body for us in a direct manner, inviting us to look at him, making it clear that he is a special kind of the male figure.

Here I would like to suggest some formulations about the trope of ‘masculinity’ that Uttam’s on-screen personas deploy. In the cinematic discourse, ‘masculinity’ can be read to “mean an assimilated understanding of how a man or a woman relates to the person he or she is acting upon/reacting to… in the semiotics of visual narratives, masculinities are generally accepted to correspond with certain tropes of behavior that the spectator can recognize and interpret as unsurprisingly masculine, whether it is aggression or violence or tenderness or  passion in specific situation”[5].

As an  abstraction, ‘masculinity’ is inscribed in cinema through “relationships that men have, mainly with other people but also with animals, nature, their houses, their cars, their sporting and leisure equipment, and their own selves their bodies and their thoughts”.[6]

In the films this trope of male behavior is most often represented in/through relationships, and gendered conduct in these relationships. Uttam then can be seen to represent a certain kind of ‘modern’ male figure who appears to be emotionally inert, vulnerable and becomes the object of female desire and love. His subject is acted upon, by the women who are attracted to him and do not shy away from expressing their attraction to him. Their ‘spontaneity’ in expressing their ‘feel’ of intense emotions is constantly positioned against his ‘taciturnity’. He is often projected as a passive, hesitant figure, not quite sure of his emotional position or space, trying to discover his selfhood within this romantic space.

This model of ‘masculinity’ seems to be gesturing to an almost universally accepted code of signification of male behavior pattern that suggest that men “cannot do” relationships as effectively as women.[7] His star persona deployed these tropes of ‘masculinity’ in the early part of his career when he was repeatedly cast as a ‘feminized’ passive and eroticized hero who epitomized the ‘romanticized’ male. This was the making of the bhalo chele, the quintessential bhadralok figure that the superstar performed to perfection and continues to be identified with.

References

[1] Moinak Biswas, Historical Realism: Modes of Modernity in Indian Cinema 1940-60(Unpublished PhD Thesis) School of Literary, Visual and Performance Studies,Monash University.2002.

[2] Shyamoli had a successful run of more than 2 years at Star theatre.

[3] Richard Dyer , ‘sincerity’ and ‘authenticity’  is an important constituent of star identification. The viewers should be able to believe in the true intentions of the character. “Authenticity is both a quality necessary to the star phenomenon to make it work and also the quality that guarantees the other particular values a star embodies.” He also adds that the criteria of judgement of an authentic and true performance is not governed by absolute moral precepts but whether “what they perform is truthful, with referent of truthfulness not being falsifiable statements but the person’s ‘persona’ ”  In Christine Gledhill(ed) Stardom: Industry of Desire(London 1991)p:132.

[4] Patrice Petro:Women and Melodramatic Representation in Weimar Germany.Princeton,Princeton University Press,1989. p 157

[5] Brinda Bose: Masculinity and Representations:Masculinities in/and Cinema.  Online seminar on Exploring South Asian Masculinities.31 October 2008.

[6] ibid; p2.

[7] ibid

More to read

Mahanayak Uttam Kumar – the Most Enduring Matinee Idol
Co-Existence Of Parallel Cinema With Popular Cinema In Bengal In The 50s And 60s
Romance In Cinema – Uttam Kumar And Suchitra Sen – A Case Study
‘Fans Kya Hain, Mujh Sey Puchhon’ – Looking Back at Rajesh Khanna

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Dr Smita Banerjee is a Cinema Studies scholar and teaches English at DCAC,Delhi University. Her areas of interest are post-colonial studies, popular cinema and star studies. She has worked on Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar for her doctoral thesis.
All Posts of Smita Banerjee

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