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Utpal Dutt: The inscrutable modern man 

A renaissance man, Utpal Dutt went well beyond buffoonish characters like Amol Palekar's boss in Gol Maal (1979). A lifelong Communist, litterateur and theatre artiste, he was a man of many parts. On his 88th birth anniversary (29 March), we look at the actor who embodied the inscrutable modern man in Satyajit Ray's Agantuk (1991).

Shriram Iyengar

In 1991, Satyajit Ray made his last film, Agantuk. It was a treatise on his philosophy of humanism. To portray the complex and mysterious Manmohan Mitra, Ray cast Utpal Dutt.

A veteran of theatre and films, Dutt is often remembered in Hindi cinema as the wise, sometimes eccentric, uncle. His most memorable performance remains his role as the buffoonish boss of the street-smart Amol Palekar in Gol Maal (1979). However, it would be an insult to the multi-faceted Dutt to categorize him thus. 

Born on 29 March 1929 in the Bengal presidency, Dutt emerged as one of the strongest voices of the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) movement in the 1950s. His peers included stalwarts like Balraj Sahni, Kaifi Azmi and Prithviraj Kapoor.

One of Dutt's first performances on stage as a teenager was in Shakespeare's Richard III. As the anti-hero of Shakespeare's monarchical tragedy, Dutt emerged as a towering persona. It was this ability to transform himself into a character that set him apart. Not many people remember that it was Dutt who was the central protagonist in Saat Hindustani (1969), a film that launched Hindi cinema's biggest superstar, Amitabh Bachchan.

Yet, it was in Ray that Dutt found a fellow ideologue. With strong leftist leanings, immense creativity, and a vision, Ray moulded the future of Indian cinema. His unabashed critique of society in films like Devi (1960), Mahanagar (1963), Kapurush Mahapurush (1965) and Nayak (1966) established the ideas that often emerged during the 1960s, which was a productive era for Bengali cinema.

It is no surprise, then, that for his last film Agantuk, Ray chose to cast one of the most familiar faces of cinema as the inscrutable man. 

The partnership between Ray and Dutt extended to four films — Jana Aranya (1976), Joi Baba Felunath (1979) and Heerak Rajer Deshe (1980), besides Agantuk. However, in Agantuk, the partnership synchronized both ideology and craft. As the man who remains a mystery to his new family, and an annoyance to the progressive intellectual generation, Dutt was perfect. His cynicism of 'society's progress and development' embodied by the middle-class Bengali family came through in Ray's dialogue. Take, for instance, this scene from the film. 

Dutt's Mitra is rigorously questioned by his biographer (Dhritiman Chatterjee) to find out his origin. As the man who continues to unravel new layers of his character throughout the scene, Dutt is brilliant. He is a far cry from the clownish performances in Gol Maal or Shaukeen (1982).

The crucial exchange of dialogue emerges in his character's explanation of culture. As he establishes that civilized society is worse than the so-called 'uncivilized' tribals, Ray, through Dutt, espouses an ideology that was integral to the cinema of the Bengali masters. But what sets Dutt apart is his ability to modulate the tone of his character. Like a lawyer defeating a capable prosecution, he raises and subdues the level of his logical argument to meet the opposition. That is surprisingly more entertaining than many of the Twitter battles that unfold online today. 

At a seminar organized after Ray's death, Dutt made a fiery oration against the tagging of Ray as a man of the 'Indian Renaissance'. He said, "Claiming Ray’s genius for something that is essentially Indian is a shameless bluff, and merely reminds one of how every Greek city claimed Homer after his death. The government of India, as usual, woke up later, after a night of revelry, discovered a genius in Calcutta, and hastened to confer something called the Bharat Ratna upon him — only because the Americans gave him the Oscar. Of course, Ray had previously won every prize the film world has to offer — at Cannes, at Venice, at Berlin — but they are merely European prizes and don’t count! Oxford University conferred a doctorate on him, but, of course, you have to be somewhat learned to realize its importance."

In what might be a passage to remember for the warriors against cinema censorship, Dutt said, "The Indian government’s hypocrisy is equally brazen. It is shameful that, while conferring its highest award on Ray, it has kept Ray’s film on Sikkim under a ban. We know only too well the antics of the corrupt coterie that controls Indian TV; they have suddenly woken up to their bosses’ belated appreciation of the ‘last representative of the Indian Renaissance’, and showed some of his films after his death — but after making arbitrary cuts and censoring bits of dialogue. Their miraculous intervention changed Ray’s Teen Kanya (Three Daughters, 1961) into Two Daughters, one story having been totally left out. They cut line after line of dialogue in Ghare Baire (The Home And The World, 1984), and wanted to stop Sadgati (The Deliverance, 1981) because the word chamar had been used repeatedly in the film. Please note: Sadgati is a film made specifically for TV, and challenging its dialogue constitutes an attack jointly on Ray and Munshi Premchand, the writer — pretty bold of TV, one would think. No respect for persons."

Dutt wrote and directed plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Brecht and Shakespeare. He played King Lear, Richard III and Othello. He could recite Tagore, Gorky and Shakespeare by memory. He won the National award, the Sangeet Natak Akademi award, and the Sangeet Natak Fellowship award for his contribution to theatre.

On the other hand, his stint in Hindi cinema brought him three Filmfare awards for Best Comedian! It raises a question whether Hindi cinema could really understand a man whose philosophy, political understanding and art went much beyond comedy.