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A brief biography
It was sometime in May 1966 when Uttam Kumar received a phone call from Satyajit Ray. “Uttam, Nayak will be premiering tomorrow at Indira Cinema. I hope you will be there,” Ray reportedly said. “But Manikda, the press and public will also be there. Do you think I should go? There will be pandemonium,” he had replied. “Uttam, don’t forget it’s a Satyajit Ray film. Please be there,” Ray had commanded.
The next day, the news of Uttam Kumar’s presence at the cinema hall spread and all hell broke loose that day. By late afternoon, roads leading to Bhowanipore were barricaded. Uttam Kumar’s car – by most accounts a Chevrolet Impala – had to be piloted through the by-lanes. The theatre was literally shaking under the weight of uproarious chanting, ‘Guru, guru’, with demands to get a glimpse of the star. The hall manager rushed to Ray. “Sir, if we don’t bring him up on stage there will be a serious law-and-order issue.” Minutes later, the lights were on and Mahanayak was seen standing on the platform right in front the screen. He was raising his hand and the crowd suddenly fell silent, as if it’s a waving of a magic wand. “I request you to please be silent and watch the film. Don’t forget it is a Satyajit Ray film,” Uttam requested everyone.
This story is a piquant testimonial to Bengal’s two foremost immortals and it’s perhaps apocryphal. But that takes nothing away from what this story testifies to – be it Satyajit Ray’s sway over his cast, the pliant theatre manager and the phenomenal stardom of Uttam Kumar. In some ways, this story of cosmopolitanism also encapsulates the fantasy that was Bengali cinema. But as is known, it’s not Ray who colonised that cinema, whether it’s as fantasy or as commerce. It was Uttam Kumar. And only Uttam Kumar!
Uttam Kumar's first few films tanked at the box office, and he decided to move on with a – then lucrative – career as a Calcutta Port Trust clerk. However, Arun’s family who had a theatre culture at home, even his sisters convinced him to get back to films. And the rest is history! After the first few flops, what a career he had enjoyed.
Between 1945 and 1980, he did a remarkable 375 films, averaging almost 11 films each year. He had essayed roles in both Bangla and Hindi films, acted opposite almost every heroine in those times: be it Sabitri Debi and Madhabi Mukherjee, to, later on, Aparna Sen. But it was the Uttam-Suchitra jodi that floored Bengalis for years: with Uttam’s effete bhadralok image and Suchitra’s innate sophistication with restrained sexuality, their pair became unbeatable and bankable on-screen affair. However, Suchitra Sen decided to go recluse in 1979, one year before Uttam’s tragic death.
Celebrated in his life and death, delivering blockbusters by the dozen, he became ‘Mahanayak’ – ‘Great Hero’ – long before he passed away. Yet, he wasn’t the greatest actor to have dominated Bengali cinema and his heavily accented Hindi also failed his Bollywood productions at the box office.
Considering his persona as the biggest Bengali romantic hero of all time, it is quite surprising that his two most enduring performances were anything but that. These two came out back to back, during a turbulent time in Bengal, in 1966 and 1967 - Nayak and Chiriyakhana.
There are perhaps two such incidents in the history of Kolkata that represent Bengal – when a death turned out to be a history. The first occasion was Rabindranath Tagore’s demise on 7 August 1941. It led to mass hysteria – thousands gathered around his dead body while it was en route to cremation. Shockingly many had torn bits off his hair and beard for mementos! It was a disaster.
However, the second time it didn’t become too ugly. That was when Arun Kumar Chatterjee passed away in 1980. He was carried, with a lot of dignity, in a covered carriage. Nobody got a chance to collect pieces of his beard or mustache, since he didn’t have one.
His demise saw entire forests being chopped down, as Bengali media mourned him for days. The primitive TV we had then, endlessly, and tiresomely, started showing his movies. Because it wasn’t Arun Kumar Chatterjee who died: Uttam Kumar had passed away. And everyone cried their hearts out at his passing for days.