Last year when Suchitra Sen was seriously ill with a critical lung infection, a reporter from a Bengali news channel sneaked some pictures of the
Greta Garbo from the adjoining hospital room he had checked into posing as a patient. When threatened with legal action, he did not play up the photographs as intended, but did unveil an artist’s sketch of the elusive superstar, who had not been seen in public for almost 25 years, complete with a shock of white hair.
The diva is 80. Uttam Kumar, who serenaded her in a string of blockbusters, including Sagarika, Shilpi, Harano Sur and Indrani, would have turned 85 this September. I often wonder what he would have looked like. He was shooting for Ogo Bodhu Sundari in 1980 when he suffered a heart attack. For 16 hours, the doctors at the Belleveue Clinic battled to save him, but he passed away in the late hours of July 24.
No food today?
I remember school shut early that day. I also have hazy memories of the funeral… A flower-bedecked hearse winding its way from Bhowanipore towards the Keoratala Shashan Ghat, streets choked with bereaved fans, who brought traffic to a standstill, and a stray comment, “Aaj anek ghare haadi chodbe na.” (In many homes today, the kitchen fires won’t burn) that gave me some anxious moments. I wondered if I’d have to go to bed hungry and was relieved when I found my ‘ma’ cooking as usual. It was many years later that the enormity of his premature death struck me when I read movie legend Satyajit Ray’s comment on his ‘Nayak’, “It is the demise of a leading light of the Bengali film industry...There isn’t and won't be another hero like him.”
Arun Kumar Chatterjee aka Uttam has been gone since 31 years. But every year, film fests on TV, during his birth and death anniversaries, keet his memory fresh. As a ‘probashi’ (a Bengali who doesn’t stay in Bengal), I admit I don’t know the ‘Nayak’ as well as my true-blue Bengali friends but through my conversations with his colleagues in the film fraternity, I have learnt a little bit.
Once when chatting with Shakti Samanta I had casually enquired about ‘guru’, as Uttam was fondly called in Kolkata. The producer-director had smiled, “When I went for the first show of Amanush, I was mobbed by his Bengali fans. When I begged to be let out of the theatre, they lifted me on their shoulders and carried me out. From the next day there were two ‘gurus’ in Kolkata, Uttam and me.”
The 1975 Uttam-Sharmila Tagore starrer was a blockbuster and Shaktida was convinced that Bengal’s matinee idol, even at the age of 42, would have made it big in Bollywood had he chosen his films with care. “He agreed with me but the actress he was living with (Supriya Devi) believed he should make hay while the sun shone. The roles he signed were unworthy of him,” asserted the disgruntled filmmaker, who two years later made Anand Ashram with him. “The Bengali version was a huge hit but the Hindi one did just average business.”
I was introduced to another Uttam through Biswajit, who was like his younger brother. The jubilee star recalled how back in the 50s, when he was still a struggler, he had landed the coveted role of Bhootnath in a staged version of Sahib Biwi Gulam. Those days theatre was bigger than films and with novelist Bimal Mitra coming in for rehearsals and having to match histrionics with stalwarts like Saroja Devi, Johar Ray and Satya Bondhopadhay, Biswajeet was a nervous wreck. When he ran into Uttam in the studio, he pleaded with him to give him a few tips having played Bhootnath in a film earlier.
“Dada (brother) immediately agreed but since he was extremely busy, suggested I drop at home early in the morning. As he was shaving, I read out my lines aloud and he would cue me on the right pauses and mannerisms,” said a gratified Biswajeet.
On the day the play opened, at least 30 actors who had played Bhootnath, had lined up on the front row. Uttam Kumar wasn’t there. But one evening, peeking through the wings, Biswajeet was surprised to see him, casually dressed in a Hawai shirt. “Those days ‘dada’ rarely appeared in public for the fear of being mobbed. But he was curious to see my performance and one day, after early pack-up, had driven straight from the Tollyguage studio to Rangmahal Theatre,” recalled his protégé. “His reaction was short and sweet. Just one word, ‘shabash’ (well done).”
Later, they did a film together called Dui Bhai after which strangers would walk up to him and enquire about ‘dada’. “They actually believed we were brothers. His real brother, Tarun Kumar, was a good friend of mine,” laughed Biswajeet.
Another movie they starred in together was Pinaki Mukherjee’s Chowringhee. The director was a distant relative and the movie an all-time favourite. I read Shankar’s novel on which it was based recently and remembered Biswajeetda telling me about the parties they had during its making. Supriya Devi, who was a good cook, would feed them ‘chingri macher malai’ (prawn curry) and ‘sorsey illish’ (hilsa in mustard) and they would all sing Rabindrasangeet.
For me though, the lights at Shahjehan Hotel dimmed the day Sata Bose died...