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When prison bars failed to stifle Utpal Dutt’s spirit

The late actor wrote some of his popular plays during his days in jail.

Utpal Dutt

Mayur Lookhar

Hindi-speaking audiences remember him more for his comic or villainous roles in films of the 1970s and 1980s, but there was much more to Utpal Dutt than his silver screen avatar.

Born in 1929 in Barisal (now in Bangladesh), Dutt was a lifelong Marxist. That made him unpopular with the Congress, which largely ruled Bengal until 1977.

Dutt began his career in English theatre aligning himself with The Shakespearans, a moving theatre group set up by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal (parents of Jennifer Kendal and parents-in-law of film star Shashi Kapoor). Dutt would later receive acclaim for his portrayal of Othello. He was also a member of the Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), an organisation known for its leftist leaning.

Dutt wrote some political plays that became controversial. In 1959, his Little Theatre Group secured the lease of Minerva Theatre in Calcutta. The group regularly showcased the play Angar (Coal) (1959), based on the exploitation of miners.

In 1965, Dutt was jailed by the Congress government of West Bengal for several months as they feared that his play Kallol would provoke anti-government protests. Kallol was based on the Royal Indian Navy mutiny of 1946.

Though he was in jail, that did not prevent Dutt from pursuing his passion. His play Louha Manab (The Iron Man), written in 1964 about the trial of a Stalinist ex-Politburo member by supporters of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1963, was first staged at Alipore jail in 1965 by the Little Theatre.

His stay in jail unleashed a new period of rebellious and politically charged plays, including Tiner Tolowar (The Tin Sword), partially based on George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion. His other notable works included Dushapner Nagari (Nightmare City), Manusher Odhikare (Rights Of Man), based on the Scottsboro Boys case of protests against the racial discrimination and injustice of the Scottsborough trial of 1931, Surya Shikar (Hunting The Sun), Maha-Bidroha (The Great Rebellion), and Laal Durgo (Red Fort). The Red Goddess Of Destruction about the demise of Communism, set in a fictitious East European country, and Janatar Aphim (Opiate Of The People) lamented the exploitation, even in those days, of religion by Indian parties for political gain.

Many of these plays were performed in later years. 

Forty years after he wrote it, Kallol was revived in 2005 as Gangabokshe Kallol, part of the state-funded Utpal Dutt Natyotsav (Utpal Dutt Theatre Festival) on the banks of the Hooghly in Kolkata. Dutt, however, did not live to see the day, having passed into the ages 12 years earlier, in 1993. But his work and his legend live on.