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Tun Tun: Mistress of mirth

For most lovers of Hindi cinema, Tun Tun has epitomised comedy like no one else. Her rotund frame and distinct acting style in oddball roles made her a household name.

india Updated: Jan 15, 2003 15:29 IST

For most lovers of Hindi cinema, Tun Tun (Uma Devi before she was re-christened) has epitomised comedy like no one else. Her rotund frame and distinct acting style in oddball roles made her a household name. Can one forget an obese Tun Tun essaying roles of a paramour in hot (rather comic, actually) pursuit of her lover or a mother of half a dozen unruly children and a cantankerous husband?

In her heydays she was a name to reckon with. In the period between 1947-49, she was a singer whose talent none could dispute. When she arrived in Mumbai she was an untutored singer. It was under Naushad's tutelage that she learnt the ropes.

Born into a Punjabi family in an obscure Uttar Pradesh village, Uma Devi Khatri lost her parents early in life. Brought up by her conservative uncle she was not allowed to study. Displaying great strength of character she taught herself to read and write. However, the one thing that was to remain an enduring passion was her love for singing. She picked up her favourite songs from the radio and in due course mastered them.

This strong urge to sing led her to head straight for Mumbai. At the tender age of 13 she was knocking at the doors of reputed music directors. Her first assignment was for a film called Wamag Azra in 1947. It fetched her a princely amount of Rs 200.

The lady showed an amazing amount of spunk. Who would have the conviction so early in one's career to force oneself on the musical giant of the times, Naushad Ali? But that is exactly what the lady did. She was insistent and determined to sing only for him. Not that an audience was allowed easily. After repeated requests she was finally allowed a chance. She chose to sing Noorjehan's famous number Andhiyan Gham Ki Yun Chali, Bagh Ujar Ke Reh Gaye.

This was the song that clinched the deal for Uma Devi. An immaculate rendition, both in its emotional richness and requisite technical nuances, made sure that Naushad was to repeat her in many of the films he scored music for. What followed was the hit combination of Abdul Rashid Kardar (director), Naushad (music director) and Uma Devi (female playback) who did many a hit film of the times. Soon she signed a contract with Kardar which was to bound her in more ways than one.

Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon from Dard became a runaway hit. Uma Devi was on her way up. Yeh Kaun Chala, a duet with Suraiya, the leading songstress of the time, saw critics sniggering about her inexperience but she undeniably held her own. With little formal training, her voice had the distinct nasal quality made popular by Zohrabai Ambalewali, Noorjehan and Shamshad Begum.

Post Dard, Naushad would make sure she sang at least one number in every film of his. The year 1948 saw her receive much acclaim with songs like Kahin Jiya Dole and Dil Ko Lagake Kuch Bhi Ma Paya from a film called Anokhi Ada. The following year saw many more such successes - movies such as Dillagi, Chandni, Raat and Naatak - all had a number or two by Uma Devi, which further consolidated her position as a singer.

However, the film that in many ways was to seal her fame and be an undoing as well was S.S. Vasan's Gemini Studio production, Chandralekha. She sang seven classically tuned songs such as Saajan Re Aaja Re, Mairi Main To and Man Bhavan Saawan Aaya Rang Jamane. But success came at a price - Kardar, angered at the breach of contract, terminated her contract.

Uma Devi was finished. This non-cooperation coupled with the dwindling fortunes of the industry immediately after partition and finally the emergence of the talented Mangeshkar duo dislodged her. Innately aware of her inability in handling high-pitched notes as against the well-honed voices of the Mangeshkar sisters, she stopped playback singing. Around the same time Uma Devi put on an enormous amount of weight.

She then took to acting in a big way and fortune did favour her. Her comic persona was soon to bring her far more fame and popularity than singing had ever done. In Babul, she appeared for the first time opposite Dilip Kumar and Nargis. She was re-christened Tun Tun. She blossomed into a true-blue comedienne with movies such as Aar Paar, Pyaasa and Mr and Mrs 55 and Mom Ki Gudiya.

Unfortunately, she soon got typecast as a comic actress. Challenging roles within the comic genre were difficult to come by. Thus, only when some relief was sought, a scene or two would be included. Invariably her physical oddity was exploited to generate laughter. In movie after movie she was to play the female comic sidekick.

Yet it was her endearing though limited comic persona that remains fresh in the collective memory of the nation. In any case, the grand old lady of comedy in Hindi films still retains much of her verve and spunk despite being 85 years old.