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From 'flop master general' to 'Nayak', the artistic journey of Uttam Kumar

On the beloved film star's 38th death anniversary (he died on 24 July 1980), we revisit Satyajit Ray's film Nayak (1966), which had a deep connection with the actor’s personal life.

Roushni Sarkar

Uttam Kumar was not just the biggest star of Bengali cinema, but his name also stands for the collective identity of Bengali culture, Bengali middle-class fantasies, and the tendency towards almost fanatical idolatry.

Born Arunkumar Chatterjee, Uttam Kumar came from the same background as his fans. The oldest son of a struggling joint family, he eventually became the embodiment of his own dreams, and the dreams of hundreds of Bengali young men born into similar circumstances.

Uttam Kumar’s journey from ‘flop master general’ to iconic hero is the stuff of fairy tales. It was for him that the Calcutta police had to make special arrangements during the premiere of legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray’s Nayak at Indira cinema in 1966 on account of the unprecedented rush.

Also, Uttam Kumar is, perhaps, one of the few artistes around the world to choose to portray a critique of oneself on the big screen, which is what Ray’s Nayak was, in a sense. The film had a deep connection with the actor’s own life story.

In Andrew Robinson’s book Satyajit Ray: The Inner Eye, the director is quoted as saying: “If you are showing a matinee idol, then you have to cast a star. Nobody else would do; people wouldn’t accept the fact. So I thought that I was doing the only possible thing.” This clearly states the reason for casting Uttam Kumar in the film.

Ray was also apparently recorded saying that he could find flaws in his own film but not in Uttam Kumar’s performance. In the actor's obituary 38 years ago, Ray wrote: “I hardly recall any discussion with Uttam on a serious analytical level on the character he was playing. And yet he constantly surprised and delighted me with unexpected little details of action and behaviour which came from him and not from me, which were always in character and always enhanced a scene. They were so spontaneous that it seemed he produced these out of his sleeve. If there was any cogitation involved, he never spoke about it.”

Some critics noted that after Nayak, Uttam Kumar’s acting improved manifold. Why did the star choose to lay his insecurities, deep yearnings and, most importantly, the stark reality of a matinee idol's life bare on screen at the peak of his career through the character of Arindam Mukherjee in Nayak? Why did he not think twice about conveying the message to his fans that their silver screen idol was no less ordinary when it came to feeling the basic needs of companionship, freedom and happiness?

Uttam Kumar’s love for acting was not the result of any sudden moment of inspiration; rather it was organic since his days as a toddler. Before he was enrolled in school, he would spend his evenings in his paternal uncle’s Jatra group, attending the rehearsals, memorizing songs, poems and dialogues of different characters. When he was a kid, his primary wish was to become a Jatra artiste like his idols; however, as he grew up and acted in a few plays, he became more inclined to films.

Forget about having a godfather, Uttam Kumar’s lean and apparently not-so-striking appearance often turned him into a laughing stock when he would express his wish to act in films. During the days of the famine in Bengal in 1943, he had to take up the job of a minor clerk to support a family solely dependent upon his father, leaving his studies midway.

However, Uttam Kumar never stopped preparing himself for his dream. He was aware that the great artistes of the time, Pahari Sanyal, KL Saigal and many others, were trained singers who found their way into films. He started training in Hindustani classical music under Nindanbondhu during his holidays after matriculation. To make his appearance noticeable, he began working out and took up boxing under the guidance of Sri Bhabani Das, later to be known as Bobby Das.

He also plunged into deep despair for two or three years when he felt that his efforts were bearing no fruit. According to his account in his autobiography Hariye Jaoa Dinguli More, Uttam Kumar met a sanyasi on one such evening of solitary introspection. The sanyasi looked at his face and said he would not only turn out to be one of the biggest film stars, but would also get to spend his life with his dream woman, actress Gauri Devi, who actually became his wife later.

Uttam Kumar took the sanyasi's advice to recite the Gayatri mantra regularly and, within a few days, received an offer from Ganeshchandra Bandopadhyay for his first film Mayador in 1947. However, Mayador was never released and Drishtidaan (1948) came to be known as his debut film.

He went on to win hearts, which further contributed to his image and choices of delivering blockbuster hits like Agni Pareeksha (1954), Shap Mochan (1955), Shilpi (1956), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Indrani (1958), Saptapadi (1961) and more, as he paired up with the legendary Suchitra Sen on screen.

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He secretly waited for Gauri Devi who came to meet his cousin Annapurna — singing songs to win her admiration was an inherent quality that came alive as he created magical moments on screen and presented a new definition of romance for the Bengali middle-class mindset. In order to shine in these avatars of new-age narratives, he brought in a considerable shift in traditional film acting as well.

Scoffed at initially for having no pedigree or strong theatre background, Uttam Kumar turned these supposed disadvantages into his strengths. His natural style of acting could convey much more than his mere screen presence and dialogue delivery, and his perfect lip-synching, having been a singer himself, not only helped to create the consolidated image of the star but also formed an idea that is essentially attached to the name Uttam Kumar till today. More than just a romantic idol with morals and all the heroic qualities, Uttam Kumar eventually became an identity associated with relief, leisure, charm and all the good things in life.

In this context Uttam Kumar’s performance in Nayak was nothing short of a tremendous shift in his approach towards his career and the idol worship around him. Perhaps the sensitive man was desperate to tell the audience that despite living his dreams, he was looking for the simple joys of life, to rise above his constant loneliness. In the beginning of his autobiography, Uttam Kumar writes about the ridiculous rumours that were doing the rounds that had no connection to the lifestyle he used to lead. Also, besides the need to open up, he expressed a sincere wish to convey the truth through his narrative.

An acute sensitivity is palpable throughout his account as he speaks of the love received from audiences. As he narrates that he could learn the underlying meaning of Swami Vivekananda describing Sri Ramakrishna as ‘love personified’ in the latter days of his life, and realize that to be a part of the love spread across humankind was the most precious reward of his life, he reflects on his gradual spiritual ascent. Uttam Kumar writes in Hariye Jaoa Dinguli More that he did not consider himself to be so glorious as to be named son of the sun — Arunkumar — and therefore changed his name to Uttam.

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Uttam Kumar would often hold himself guilty of not helping his father enough in his struggles. In his autobiography, he expressed his wish to spend the rest of his life at his ancestral place to serve the abode of his parents and unload the heavy burden of guilt in his heart.

The trajectory from realizing his dream to becoming Bengali cinema's 'mahanayak' (superstar) to giving in to the urge to become an ordinary person through Ray’s Nayak is a rare example of an artistic full circle. On the one hand, Uttam Kumar continued to serve for the love he was offered by his admirers with his superstar image; on the other, he could not help but surrender himself as a common man.