The immortal Uttam Kumar

Wven after four decades of his death, Uttam Kumar (1926-1980) remains a towering figure in the Bengali visual and cultural world.

Published: 15th August 2021 10:14 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th August 2021 01:14 PM   |  A+A-

Legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar

Legendary Bengali actor Uttam Kumar (Photo | YouTube Screengrab)

Even after four decades of his death, Uttam Kumar (1926-1980) remains a towering figure in the Bengali visual and cultural world. His films such as Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), Nayak (1966), Chiriyakhana (1967), Anthony Firingee (1967) among others earned him both critical and commercial success. 

A newly-released biography, titled, Uttam Kumar: A Life in Cinema (Bloomsbury) focuses on the actor’s colossal contribution to Indian cinema. Kumar won the first National Award for Best Actor in 1967 and was the only living person whose life was fictionalised by Satyajit Ray. Author Sayandeb Chowdhury, who teaches in the School of Letters at Ambedkar University Delhi, tells us more. 

Why did you decide to write this book?

Our generation saw Uttam Kumar on weekend television broadcasts throughout the 1980s. Later, when cinema caught hold of me in my university years, I became increasingly intrigued by the Uttam figure, apart from admiring his screen naturalism. But it was in the last decade that my intrigue and admiration coalesced into curiosity as Uttam continued to remain a cinematic sovereign so many years after his death. This phenomenon had to be looked into. I started writing the book in mid-2017.

Was it difficult to compile the sources and commit to this biography 41 years after Uttam Kumar’s death?

A lot exists on Uttam Kumar in the Bengali press. I just had to look at them critically. I did not do any new interviews because all that people could say was already there. The new answers I was looking for lay in a kind of cultural autopsy of his cinema rather than in new opinions. The only major loss is that many of his key movies cannot be seen anymore. I wish our enthusiasm to convert such icons into items of fad and festivity was preceded by a desire to preserve their legacy better. 

Could you take us through his towering persona and vast contribution to Indian cinema?

It is difficult to articulate in a few words. I can only say that Uttam was indeed a star in the textbook sense, steering an entire popular industry for over two decades. In the peak years of his stardom, Uttam had, on average, an annual ‘turnover’ of two blockbusters and five films with healthy returns, a whopping number to have sustained for 20 years. The entire range, duration and extraordinary mass appeal was based on a singular platform of a screen stardom, and not from extra-cinematic buffers like political mobilisation, playing mythological characters, from advertising or from studio-propelled shepherding. This is a unique case of stardom in India. No wonder, Uttam piqued Ray’s interest. 

Tell us about the actors’ union he created and how it impacted the cinema community. 

The actors’ union he created in 1968 — Shilpi Sansad — was not a new organisation but a breakaway faction of actors and technicians. Till Uttam was alive, Shilpi Sansad gave a sense of anchorage to the industry’s overlooked foot soldiers. Uttam never tired of raising funds for the union. His demise in 1980 was mourned by the industry’s invisible class as a momentous loss not only of a dear colleague, but of an ever-caring brother-figure. 

Of the various characters he played, which one in your opinion is the most radical?

I would say there are five characters that are truly radical among several with such shades: the ethical atheist judge who must sit on judgment on himself Bicharok (1959), the rebellious medical student turned Jesuit doctor Saptapadi (1961), the orphaned, zealous, town-maker Shiulibari (1962), the cosmopolitan, Portuguese-origin bard Anthony Firingee (1967) are four of them. But Uttam’s most insurgent act was Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (1966); radical in an understated, cerebral way.


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