Article Bengali

Utpal Dutt's innovation with Shakespeare – 25th death anniversary special

Dutt took Shakespeare beyond the elite city stage and introduced him, and other leading European playwrights, to rural audiences with great success.

Shoma A Chatterji

The name Utpal Dutt is synonymous in Hindi and Bengali cinema with layered performances in supporting roles with an intelligent comic punch or as a diabolical villain or, rarely, as the hero, as in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969), Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991) and Gautam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi (1993).

But few beyond Bengal, or even the younger generation in Bengal, are aware of Dutt's contribution to theatre. He will remain archived in every book written on the history of Bengali theatre for mainstreaming William Shakepeare's plays for rural Indian audiences with great success.

"Visual images did not make any impact on me, neither during my childhood days nor when I turned older,” Dutt once said when asked why he stepped seriously into cinema much later in life after he had already done a lot of theatre.

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

The actor's early steps in cinema were more by chance than by choice. In 1947, when still a college student, he was invited to join Geoffrey Kendal’s international drama group, Shakespeareana the English Repertory Company, on a professional basis. On Kendal’s second visit to South Asia, Dutt as actor accompanied his troupe on its tour of Pakistan and different parts of India.

Under Kendal’s direction, Utpal Dutt played Antonio (probably) in The Merchant Of Venice, Horatio in Hamlet, Decius Brutus in Julius Caesar, Mercutio in Romeo & Juliet, Ross in Macbeth and Roderigo in Othello.

When the Shakespeareana International Theatre Company left India for good, Utpal Dutt’s troupe continued to perform English plays. Once while they were performing Othello, the famous filmmaker Modhu Bose came to watch the performance. He was looking for a leading man for his film based on the life of the Indo-Anglian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt.

Utpal Dutt: The inscrutable modern man

Impressed by Dutt’s interpretation of Othello, Bose offered him the role. Dutt was also looking for opportunities to widen his canvas and move into fresh pastures, so he accepted the offer happily.

Michael Madhusudan (1950) was the beginning of a long career marked by a thick portfolio of films in Hindi and Bengali, but the stage remained Utpal Dutt's first love and his troupe continued its movement in serious political theatre.

Dutt began working with IPTA, the Indian People's Theatre Association, cultural wing of the left in India, in the early 1950s, but not before he had already toured as an actor with Geoffrey Kendal's Shakespeareana group and performed Shakespeare's plays throughout India.

When prison bars failed to stifle Utpal Dutt’s spirit

In 1952, however, he came out of IPTA and formed his own People’s Little Theatre group and began producing plays by major European playwrights. It was, however, not until the late 1950s that he started writing and producing plays asserting his faith in the Marxist ideology of class struggle.

Though Utpal Dutt's concept of performing Shakespeare was conventional and followed the classical style of proscenium performance within Kolkata, he realized that the audience, which comprised pseudo-intellectual snobs with an English education, was not what his dream was — to reach the “people”. And what better definition of people can there be than the rural masses schooled and conditioned to Jatra performances that had a lot of music, loud acting, colourful costumes and melodramatic narratives?

Dutt felt that there was a desperate need to re-play Shakespeare for the man on the street, the urban middle class and the semi-literate in the theatre-loving villages of Bengal. When the Kendals left India, Dutt had formed his own group called Amateur Shakespeareans. But when he decided to concentrate on “the people”, he changed the nomenclature of his group to People’s Little Theatre and began by producing Shakespeare in Bengali translation.

Tagore's eternal music and its influence on cinema – Death anniversary special

The Jatra is theatre in the round — performed in villages and small towns with an impromptu stage in the centre and the audience collected around it, which needs the artistes to move in a circular fashion to face all sections. Dutt was convinced that Jatra should be the mainstay of a national art and that Bengali theatre must move away from the box-like proscenium stage and take advantage of the freedom afforded by the circular space of the Jatra performance.

The People's Little Theatre produced the following plays of Shakespeare in Bengali with Dutt playing almost the same roles as before, with some exceptions: The Merchant Of Venice, 1953, translated by Sunil Chattopadhyay, with Dutt as Shylock; Macbeth, 1954, translated by Jatindranath Sengupta; Twelfth Night, 1956, translated by Pashupati Bhattacharya, as Dwadosh Rajani; Julius Caesar, 1957, translated by Jyotirindranath Tagore, in modern dress, with Dutt playing Caesar; Othello, 1958, translated by Dutt himself; Romeo & Juliet, 1964, in Dutt’s own translation; A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Chaitali Rater Swapno, 1964, translated again by Dutt.

Dutt's training and inculcation into Shakespeare in performance had already been done with Shakepeareana. That experience had shaped his sensibilities and helped him to capture the nuances of what should go into each performance. Added to this were his organizational skills, disciplined coordination and the flexibility and fluidity demanded while performing in different locations under different conditions with indigenous props when needed. All this made his People’s Little Theatre a finished group.

Shoma A Chatterji is a journalist, film critic and author of 24 books, including 13 on Indian cinema.