Tomorrow is September 3… A day of celebration in Bengal... The day when a star was born. “I don’t know how many actors have their birth and death anniversaries hosted by devoted fans annually, 32 years after they have passed away, but then, Uttam Kumar was no ordinary nayak (actor), he was a mahanayak (mega actor and superstar),” says another of Bengal’s matinee idols, Prosenjit Chatterjee, who is also often referred to as a mahanayak, but shrugs off the tag, saying Amitabh Bachchan, Rajinikanth and Uttam Kumar are the only Indians who deserve the honour.
Around seven years ago, Boombada, as he is fondly known, paid his own shraddhanjali (tribute) to Uttam Kumar through a three-day event. Recently, he dedicated his superhit Autograph (2010) to Satyajit Ray’s Uttam Kumar-Sharmila Tagore 1966 classic, Nayak. Now, he’s in Iceland, shooting for a romantic crime thriller. But hours before he flew out to Reykjavik, Boombada took time out of his busy schedule to talk about his jethu (uncle).
Playing young Uttam It was close to midnight, my dinner had gone cold, but who cared! I was mesmerised as Boombada went back to 1980. “Jethu was shooting for Piyush Basu’s Dui Prithibi and they couldn’t find an actor to play the teenage Uttam Kumar. One day, he called my mother and told her to send me to the studio quickly,” he reminisces.
He’d acted in his father Biswajeet’s film, Chhotto Jignasa, when he was four. A decade later, Boombada was back in front of the camera: “We didn’t have any scenes together, but jethu would come to watch and coach. Since I’d studied in an English medium school, my spoken Bengali wasn’t good, and he helped me with my dialogue and scenes,” For Boombada, Uttam Kumar was more family than Biswajeet’s colleague. He remembers going to his house every weekend and growing up in the shade of this protective oak tree.
“My mother would go running to him with all her problems, and after my parents separated, she, my sister and I made it through a major crisis only because of jethus’s reassuring, Ami to achi. (I am there by your side),” says Boombada.
Obviously, the superstar saw the spark in the teenager because he decided to launch him opposite his partner, Supriya Devi’s daughter Shoma. He planned to direct the crime thriller-cum-teenage love story himself. “It had Soumitrada (Chatterjee) in a double role, good man/bad man, and ‘jethu’ was making it in colour which is why the photo-shoot we did was in colour too,” recalls Boombada.
End of a dream He was excited about his big break when tragedy struck on July 24, 1980. His mother, who had undergone a minor surgery, was shocked by a phone call informing her that Uttam Kumar, who’d been shooting for Ogo Bodhu Sundari, was gone. The world crashed for young Boombada who was sent across to his jethu’s house. “I remained there till all the rituals were over,” he says, flashbacking to the funeral. “It was as if the whole of Kolkata had come out to tearfully bid adieu to their mahanayak.”
I remember the sea of humanity from my school days and that for the next few days, in many a Bengali household, the kitchen fires didn’t burn because the ladies were mourning the loss of a demi-God. “He was Bangla’s Guru,” says Boombada, who had to struggle for three years after that, through two films, Protishod (’81) and Apurupa (’82), before Dui Pata (’83), a Bengali Bobby, came along and turned him into an overnight superstar. “But I’m still just a nayak, the mahanayak is Uttam Kumar.”