Remembering Satyajit Ray's 'star of the highest order' - Uttam Kumar
It was this day in 1980, when a workaholic legendary actor left all his Bengali fans heartbroken and in tears. Nearly four decades later, Bengalis still fall back on him for the ultimate celluloid treat and romanticism.
While shooting for the film OGO BODHU SHUNDORI (Hollywood's MY FAIR LADY inspired Bernand Shaw adaptation) opposite actress Sumitra Mukherjee, Uttar Kumar suffered a stroke on the sets, ringing the curtains down on an illustrious silver screen life that fired the imagination of countless Bengalis sold on romanticism.
Some 38 years later, Uttam Kumar still rules the heart of Bengalis with the same amount of love and respect. He is the eternal superstar, a lover like no other with an adorable pairing with the late screen Goddess Suchitra Sen, which churned out a repertoire of films that generations of Bengalis celebrated watching them countless times.
Born in North Kolkata, Uttam Kumar, who hailed from a Bengali middleclass family, quickly rose to fame in the regional film industry and over the years emerged as an evergreen icon of Bengali household.
The first breakthrough in his career came with Nitin Bose's DRISHTIDAN in 1948. Swiftly rising to fame, Kumar did films like SHAREY CHUATTOR, HARANO SUR, INDRANI and SABAR UPAREY. With hugely commercial successes like HARANO SUR, SAPTAPADI and AGNI PARIKSHA he only scaled new heights of stardom.
After acting in several successful films, Kumar got an opportunity to work with legendary Indian director SATYAJIT RAY. It was this juncture in his life when Kumar had to prove that he is a good actor too and not just a poster-boy, a perception, which was prevalent among many.
In a recently published blog, it has been illustrated that Ray, was but fond of Kumar's acting flairs. Describing a scene in NAYAK, Kumar's first film with Ray, the director had reportedly termed the actor as "a star of the highest order".
Ray had reportedly described the first scene between Kumar and Sharmila Tagore in NAYAK where a little snooty Tagore was supposed to ask for an autograph for her cousin. The pen used for the shot was almost dry and Kumar manipulated the shot by jerking the pen when it was not functioning. The blog said, "Ray was about to say 'cut' when Uttam casually - and in mid-dialogue - shook the pen. When that did not work, he dipped the nib in the glass of water in front of him and signed with his customary flourish. All this, while carrying on with the dialogues!"
In an article, Ray had said that 'no amount of preparation can get an actor to pull this off. Only a star of the highest order is equipped to do something like this.' Even after NAYAK, the stardom of Kumar never tumbled; it rather established him as a critically acclaimed actor besides being a superstar.
But the dark phase in his career came in 1967 when Kumar, being in the peak of success, used all his savings to produce Hindi film CHHOTI SI MULAQAT. Kumar also acted in the film along with actress Vyjayanthimala. The film bombed in the box office miserably. Another sour experience for Uttam Kumar was when he recited the Chandi Path in the AIR Studios, replacing the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra before festival Durga Puja. Following an uproar, Kumar even had to apologize to Bhadra who again assumed the work from the next year.
In the course of his film career, Uttam Kumar's name became almost synonymous with legendary actress Suchitra Sen for their tremendous successful onscreen pairing. Rumours were even high about their possible relationship though it was not so. However, another yesteryear actress and a heroine of Uttam Kumar in an interview to a daily said, 'Frankly, I don't think Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen were in love. Suchitra was in love with herself.'
While much was made out of the rivalry between Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee, the two actually had a very cordial and fond relationship. Soumitra Chatterjee would not idolize Uttam Kumar but was an admirer and respected his candour. They would spend time after shoots till late in joints like the Great Eastern Hotel. Recalling one incident, Soumitra Chatterjee, a Dadasaheb Phalke winner, told an English daily, "Once during a film shoot, he was getting stuck on a word and wasn’t being able to pronounce it properly. There were a lot of takes and still he wasn’t able to deliver the line... He said after some time, ‘Do something, go out for sometime’. So I did. Then in one take he delivered the line." Later when Chatterjee asked why Uttam Kumar wanted him to leave he told him without any hesitation, ‘I was getting self-conscious. You have very clear pronunciation and I don’t really have that’.