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The tragedy of Miss Comicality

This isn't about what was. It is about what could have been. But the utterly charming Tuntun is no more. She could have been much more than what she was allowed to be, says Saibal Chatterjee.

india Updated: Nov 26, 2003 16:54 IST

This is not an obituary in the strictest sense. This isn't about what was. It is about what could have been. But what could have been will never be known now. For the rotund and utterly charming Tuntun is no more. She could have been much more than what she was allowed to be.

Tuntun, whose very visage, adipose and dialogue delivery provoked much mirth for decades, is unlikely to be missed by today's multiplex crowd. Her career died long before she did.

Tuntun, Bollywood's original Miss Comicality, had dropped off the marquee many years ago as the roles dried up. Unfortunately, in the course of the long innings that she played in the Mumbai film industry she had never been allowed, even during her heyday, to go beyond bit roles as a comedienne.

In an industry where full-fledged comedies have been few and far between, Tuntun was saddled with a specific and hopelessly limited role: providing momentary comic relief between the more serious and central business of dramatic scenes.

Tuntun (real name: Uma Devi Khatri) entered Hindi cinema as a singer of note, discovered by Naushad. She sang Afsana likh rahi hoon dil-e-beqaraar ka and became a household name. Even as an actress, she continued to entertain people and acquired something akin to a cult status.

But stuck with an image that was as much her strength as a millstone around her neck, she had to suppress the actress in her in order to keep the legend alive.

Tuntun, for all the success she achieved, was a classic Bollywood victim - a talented performer whose fame far outstripped the quality of the on-screen work she was allowed to do. The film industry has had many more of her ilk - Ajit, Helen, Keshto Mukherjee, et al - who had to pay a steep price in exchange for fame and popularity. The industry put them in a slot and cut off all exit routes.

Ajit, Helen and Keshto Mukherjee became "brands" well before "brands" were a known quantity in India. Helen danced in film after film, Ajit performed his evil act in many a production and Keshto was trapped in the drunken routine for life.
Tuntun faced a similar predicament - the roles flowed in as long as she was willing to repeat herself in appearance after predictable appearance. She knew her limitations - and the industry exploited her lack of options to the hilt.

But all said and done, there has been nobody quite like Tuntun. She was Hindi cinema's first genuine comedienne and perhaps its last. Many actresses of similar girth have sought to follow her footsteps - but the likes of Manorama and Guddi Maruti have at best been pale imitations.

But how one wishes the Mumbai dream factory had had the vision to push Tuntun to explore other facets of her personality. Despite featuring in films like S.U. Sunny's Udan Khatola, Manmohan Desai's Bluff Master and Shakti Samanta's Kashmir Ki Kali, she was never quite able to build up a recognisable body of work. Several decades on, even the most inveterate of Hindi movie fans would be hard pressed to recall the titles of the 100-odd films Tuntun acted in.

Her appearance on screen, usually as a wise cracking mother of a huge brood of children, was all that mattered, the film didn't, certainly not in relation to her assigned role. Such was Tuntun's fate. Many others may have found themselves in a similar situation in the Mumbai industry, but no other story has had a heavier tinge of tragedy. Tuntun deserved better.

First Published: Nov 26, 2003 16:54 IST