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Interview Bengali Hindi

Utpal Dutt: The artiste who came to cinema for, not just from, theatre – Birth anniversary special

Bishnupriya Dutt, professor of theatre and performance studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, JNU, speaks about her father's struggles, beliefs and dedication on his 89th birth anniversary last week.

Utpal Dutt in a scene from Aap Ke Sath (1986)

Roushni Sarkar

A pioneer of revolutionary theatre in India, Utpal Dutt, born on 29 March 1929, was known outside Bengal as one of the more talented character artistes in Hindi and Bengali cinema.

Yet, it was Dutt's unparalleled dedication to theatre and to making the common people conscious of their political and economic surroundings and history that make him one of the giants of Indian theatre.

According to Biswajit Sarkar, one of Dutt's disciples, “If Utpalda had been born in some other country, he would have gained much more recognition.”

However, Dutt's continuous struggle against the tide, his zeal and honesty amidst obstacles, turned him into a fiery personality and a true inspiration whom every playwright in and outside Bengal looks up to till date.

Dutt's focus was such that he never cared for personal success. As a result, he seems to be inextricably linked with the concept of modern plays and the ideas of the greatest modern playwrights. His works are an integral part of modern theatre studies and the political implications of modern theatre.

Dutt’s career began with staging Shakespearean plays in college. He formed his own Little Theatre Group in 1949. He was also part of the Indian People’s Theatre Association for a brief period. The most important phase of his work was when his group staged plays such as Kallol, Louha Manab and Tiner Taloar, an integral part of the syllabus of literature and drama studies, in Calcutta's renowned Minerva theatre.

Dutt's daughter Bishnupriya, professor of theatre and performance studies at the School of Arts and Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, elaborated on her father's journey and the ideologies that sustained his spirit towards his mission. Excerpts:

Your father was perhaps an exception who despite being successful as a cinema artiste never got distracted from theatre.

Of course! His major love and passion was theatre because he really believed that theatre is an important execution in the public space and he didn’t want theatre to fall into becoming a cultural industry. Therefore, my father along with his group did not do theatre for income or profit. Theatre was essentially a committee dedicated to political change.

He felt that for the success of the democratic system of India, a more egalitarian social structure and the redistribution of wealth were necessary. Though they adhered to Marxism, at the same time they never had any kind of false expectation of any revolution. The commitment to the idea that only socio-economic parity can allow people to participate equally in civil society kept my father going and he wrote profusely, directed and acted too.

He got into cinema precisely to survive and to keep his theatre alive.

Can you talk about his early days in theatre?

He was in St Xavier’s college, Calcutta, when Geoffrey Kendal and the Shakespearana Theatre Company came and selected him. Baba went on a two-year tour with them across India and Pakistan.

With Suhasini Mulay in Mrinal Sen's classic Bhuvan Shome (1969)

In the first three years after Independence, he, along with his college fellows, formed a group called Amateur Shakespearana and did a lot of high-quality productions with different interpretations. For example, they did a Julius Caesar in modern costumes and brought in the WWII scenario. It was a cosmopolitan group and performers from various communities, Jews, Anglo-Indians, British, Armenians, participated in those productions. The exposure to these larger groups of people from all over the world at the end of WWII was a celebration of freedom.

All of those members brought with them the feeling of what WWII stood for, including one of my father’s close Jewish friends, who had faced the trauma of living in fascist Germany. As a result, they had a more international outlook rather than just an anti-colonial nationalism, required for an approach towards an egalitarian society.

Dutt was immensely influenced by the great German playwright Bertolt Brecht, and adapted him in many of his plays based on contemporary circumstances...

Not only Brecht and Shakespeare, he took inspiration from Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Konstantin Simonov and Rabindranath Tagore as well. However, yes, he was particularly inspired by Brecht; but he did not believe in copying him, like a lot of other directors. He was looking for innovative interventions and experiments, dealing with the issues and problems of post-Independence India. Brecht was very important for him to come out of the idea of realism and he adapted Brecht in a very different way.

For example, he adapted the contradictions and dialectical historical problems faced by Galileo Galilei from Brecht’s play Life Of Galileo and presented them with an ancient Indian context, with King Samudragupta as the central character, on the backdrop of the then Buddhist revolts against the state and the empire in his play Surja Shikhar. He took the idea of criticality from the German playwright and applied it in an innovative way in his own plays.

Can you throw light on the most controversial phase of his career and the popularity of Minerva theatre?

It was during the 1960s, when the people of India had not only got over the celebration of Independence but had also gone through the first shock of disillusionment. During that period, people were looking critically at social, economic, political and cultural issues which required a certain kind of prioritization after Independence.

The Little Theatre Group took over Minerva theatre amidst that political impulse. With plays such as Ferrari Fauj, they challenged Gandhian ideology and the Congress-led elitist nationalist history that was being written from the perspective of militant nationalism.

He also did Angaar, based on a mining accident in which there was a huge loss of life. They created quite a spectacle with Pandit Ravi Shankar’s music and Tapas Sen’s lights in it.

However, in 1965, Kallol or The Sound Of The Waves marked the beginning of the most controversial and important stage of political theatre. The play was based on the Naval Mutiny of 1946 and the way it was falsely framed by the Congress. His international exposure helped him to use symbolic and semiotic memory from different revolutions and moments of history and present them on stage through that play.

Though he was arrested and the play got censored, the group continued with the shows. The play eventually turned into a sensation and ran for four years continuously. Minerva used to be houseful every day and people used to go back disappointed at not getting tickets.

It was quite rare how theatre itself turned into a political event with my father’s works and was no more solely confined in performance.

When prison bars failed to stifle Utpal Dutt's spirit

But later leftist politics moved towards radicalism, which was quite problematic for him, as theatre cannot go underground. During the Naxalite movement, theatre got quite isolated and alienated from the political situation. It was a very traumatic time as my father was rearrested, the group split up, and debts started mounting in the theatre. As a result, he had to give up theatre for that time.

When the group thought of starting afresh, he was offered a role by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in Guddi (1971). It was the early 1970s and he had a debt of over Rs12 lakh because of the theatre. So he decided to move to Bombay and his career in [mainstream Hindi] films began.

Can you talk about his contribution to intelligent comedy?

He had very good sense of comic timing. One of his major interventions in this kind of acting was the double take or double timing. There are ample moments in Gol Maal (1979), where at first he would nod his head and after a pause there would be a startled expression on his face. He was a master of that! And I think he did not want to do a lot of overacting, which was generally popular. He rather applied his experience of watching a lot of sophisticated European theatre and brought those elements in his comedy performances.

He also brought in a new dimension and changed the course of the Jatra [traditional Bengali folk theatre] performances, making those immensely popular.

It was an extension of his idealism and ideologies. As there was a deep sense of alienation among the urban population, he felt that the proscenium theatre was not enough for it. To look at the contemporary situation critically through theatre, beyond entertainment, he needed a larger audience. Hence, he started doing the Jatra and I think he revelled in the popularity, when 15,000 to 20,000 people would come to watch a single performance.

He loved working with professional Jatra actors. Jatra acting involved a lot of postures, gestures and attitude. However, Baba would allow them to use those important gimmicky moments only when the text demanded. Since those were political plays, the acting incorporated Brechtian gesture. He was also very strict about delivering ensemble performance.

For 15 years, he wrote many Jatras and directed them. The most famous of them was Sanyasi Tarbari, based on the 18th century Sanyasi rebellion in Bengal. It had massive appeal for the rural audience and the romanticism in it helped them come out of the influence of the Naxalite movement.

He was also one of the more important figures of Gananatya...

My mother Sova Sen was active in IPTA but Baba joined the group during their second phase, in the 1950s. He was too much of a maverick and a radical to adjust in that kind of an organization.

Though it was the motto of setting up contact with the larger audience that led him to join the group, his youthful impulsiveness did not allow him to stay there for long. Yes, he definitely believed in their ideology that theatre needs a mass base and theatre is meant to work for a better society rather than sheer entertainment.

How did he balance a certain sophisticated lifestyle with his works at the grassroots level?

He was a very progressive man. He was conscious of the idea of patriarchy and deliberately never practised it. I remember him never trying to dictate to me or my mother. We had full agency and he handed complete economic power to my mother.

With Prem Chopra in Do Anjaane (1976)

At the same time, he was a communist. He never regarded himself above the common people, nor had any self-absorbing idea of stardom. The inspiration from his ideologies allowed him to easily spend his days in the villages. He could actually sleep on a floor made of cowdung and hay or spend an entire night on the riverbank, amidst mosquitoes, without any sort of complaint.

Utpal Dutt: The inscrutable modern man

He made it a point to not be complacent of the privileges he had and had deep respect for workers and peasants. His political, cultural and personal lives were inseparable.

How did he inspire you?

He was so full of fun. He never elicited any negative energy because he was always so positive! Whenever I discussed my history projects or went to him with questions, he would always give a different viewpoint. He also used to be ready for any kind of discussion. Though he went through a very bad phase, he was always hoping to wake up to a better morning.

Are significant works being done on his plays and ideas these days?

In JNU, the students of Arts and Aesthetics are engaging themselves in a lot of research on the academic level. There are also some who actively wish to participate in political theatre, Brechtian theatre. But in the popular space, there is a serious void in research works.

In Bengal, theatre artistes Suman Mukherjee and Kaushik Sen are putting in serious efforts to retain his tradition. In his recent adaptation of Brecht’s Mother Courage, Nirbhaya, Sen has used a translated piece of Brecht by my father.

However, one has to keep in mind that no matter how intense works are done, there will always be opposition from the mainstream cultural industry, which will try to marginalize these kinds of attempts.