Remembering the ‘Mahanayak’ Uttam Kumar on His 93rd Birth Anniversary
The evergreen sensational and legendary actor Uttam Kumar who redefined the vitality of character roles will forever be the most celebrated actor in the film industry and worldwide.
Since time immemorial, Bengali cinema has been an intrinsic part of the Indian film industry. In the post-independence period, Indian cinema saw the advent of the sound film era. Bengali cinema was not far behind joining the course and soon established itself as one of the major regional film industries in the country. In a time when prominent filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak prepared to take Bengali cinema to newer heights, a young man from North Kolkata in his mid-20s struggled to make a name in the Bengali film industry. Perhaps, the man himself was oblivious that he would later go on to become the biggest name of Bengali cinema and would be helmed as one of the prime contributors in shaping the Golden Era of Indian cinema.
Known as the most distinguished actor to grace the Bengali screens, Uttam Kumar (born Arun Kumar Chatterjee) is a name that is now associated with the history of Indian cinema and the cultural identity of Bengal. As a memory of the legend on his 93rd birthday, we look back at his epic journey of stardom and becoming the first-ever recipient of the National Award for Best Actor in the country.
Kumar’s first stint in Bengali cinema was with Nitin Bose’s Drishtidan in 1948 becausehis debut film Mayador remained unreleased. This was followed by a string of unsuccessful releases and consecutive years of failure. He was often ridiculed and scoffed upon in the industry. The sheer dismay even led him to sacrifice his dreams of pursuing a career in acting. It was around that time that Basu Paribar came along his way as a ray of new hope. Despite being a part of an ensemble cast, Kumar’s character as the eldest son of the family stood out through the entire film. His portrayal of Sukhen Basu brought him to limelight for the very first time. Soon after, he was paired with Suchitra Sen for the first time in the comedy-drama Sharey Chuattor. Not only was the film another successful venture but it also marked the introduction of the most celebrated on-screen couple in Bengali cinema.
His biggest breakthrough arrived in the form of Agnipariksha that established him as the ultimate urban romantic hero who was set to tend the romanticized fantasies of the Bengali heart.
He later reprised the same role in the 1967 Bollywood romantic drama Chhoti Si Mulaqat. Following the success of Agnipariksha, Uttam Kumar became the face of Bengali romantic-drama with classic romantic films like Shap Mochan, Sagarika, Indrani, Shyamali, Trijama, Sabar Uparey, Pathey Holo Deri among many others. However, his most notable works in the same genre remain Harano Sur and Saptapadi, both alongside Suchitra Sen. Kumar plays an amnesiac character and falls in love with his nurse only to forget her memories later in life in the former. While the latter is about the blooming inter-caste love story between Krishnendu and Rina Brown with the iconic Othello scene and the ‘Poth Jodi Na Shesh Hoye’ bike sequence. These classics highlighted his enigmatic onscreen presence and gave birth to the charismatic Uttam–Suchitra era.
Uttam Kumar also established his stronghold in comic roles with famous comedy sequences from films like Mouchak, Chhadmabeshi, Deya-Neya, Bhranti Bilas, Abak Prithibi, Braja Buli and Dhanyee Meye among others. His perfect comic-timing further proved his calibre in dealing with versatility.
The most noteworthy works of Uttam Kumar’s career is considered to be his collaborations with Satyajit Ray. Nayak is a film written in golden letters in the history of not just Bengali or Indian cinema but also international cinema.This film is a rare treasure from Ray with a top-notch delivery from Kumar. Much of the film’s inspiration is believed to be drawn from Kumar’s life. Through the character of superstar Arindam Mukherjee, he bared opened the struggles of lone stardom, the emotional distress, societal pressures, anxiety and constant fear onscreen. The actor and the character truly blended into one single being in the film resulting in the most appreciated work of Kumar so far. He paired up with Ray once again to play Byomkesh Bakshi in Chiriyakhana. Kumar got into the skin of the character and brilliantly breathed life into Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay’s iconic fictional detective. His understanding of the character is visibly excellent as it allowed him to successfully pull off every phase of Byomkesh’s investigation. Despite being completely distinct to characters he previously essayed, Uttam Kumar shined through the course of the film. Right after this, he played the titular role in Sunil Banerjee’s biographical drama Antony Firingee. Kumar’s role as Portuguese poet Hensman Anthony showcased his acting prowess again. He essayed Antony’s accent, his recitals, his songs and every ounce of his emotions with remarkable realism onscreen. It was in the same year that he won the National Film Award for his performances. He is also the only actor to have ever received national awards for two films in the same year.
Uttam Kumar went to take up various iconic roles further ahead in his career. His growing interest in playing more character roles earned him even more appreciation from fans and critics alike.
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The victim of mental disability in Marutirtha Hinglaj, the double role of a king in Jhinder Bondi, the servant in Khokababur Pratyabartan, the complex judge in Bicharak, the iconic Sata Bose in Chowringhee, the fractious doctor in Agnishwar, Chunnilal in Devdas or Mahim in Grihadaha—he experimented with a wide variety of roles and completely owned these films, even after moving away from the image of a mainstream hero. He also played a few negative and grey characters in films like Stree, Sanyasi Raja, Kuhak, Sesh Anka and Aparichita. All of these roles are still remembered as some of the best deliveries from Kumar.
He also starred in nearly 15 Bollywood films like Amanush, Anand Ashram, Kitaab among others. Over a span of three decades, Uttam Kumar worked in about 217 films. Known for his naturalistic acting, his realistic performances, and charming demeanour, he is the symbol of versatility and talent. Uttam Kumar created a connection with his audiences the moment he appeared onscreen. Perhaps, it is the same connection that has kept the legend alive in the heart of every cine lover even after 39 years of his untimely demise. The ‘Mahanayak’ with his dhoti-kurta adorned self and the familiar mesmerizing smile is no less than a source emotion and a medium utmost pride to every Bengali and Indian. 93 years later, the day he graced the earth is still celebrated, cherishing his glorious existence in the past, present and future of Indian and regional cinema.