A Tribute to the multi-layered persona of Utpal Dutt on his birth anniversary
tpal Dutt was born 85 years ago on March 29, 1929. He began his career as a stage actor when he was a schoolboy, in Shakespeare’s Richard III. He took theatre beyond the geographical parameters of the stage. Like Augusto Boal, Dutt felt that all theatre is political. He never wearied of stressing that theatre could never be meaningful if does not consider the political ethos within which it has to negotiate the terms of the volatile and fluctuating relationships between and among human beings.
His film career spans more than 100 films comprised of a colourful range beginning with the upright and honest government officer in Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969) to Satyajit Ray’s Agantuk (1991) and Gautam Ghose’s Padma Nadir Majhi (1993.) His range was happy mix of the comic and the villainous in Hindi cinema. He delighted the audience as the lovelorn Bhavani Shankar Bajpai in Naram Garam. The audience hated him for his diabolic villainy in Shakti Samanta’s Amanush. He played the despotic dictator in Ray’s Hirak Rajar Deshe while he used his Bengali-ised Urdu to make audiences laugh in a guest appearance in Dulal Guha’s Do Anjaane.
He stepped into cinema much later in his life after he had already done a lot of theatre. His entry into cinema was more by chance than by deliberate choice. When Shakespearana International Theatre Company led by Geoffrey Kendall left India for good, Utpal Dutt’s troupe continued to perform English plays. Once while they were performing Othello, the famous filmmaker Madhu Bose came to watch. He was looking for a leading man for his film on the life of the Indo-Anglian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Impressed by Dutt’s interpretation of Othello, Bose offered him the role. Dutt accepted the offer. This was the beginning of a long career marked by a thick portfolio of films while the stage remained his first love and his troupe continued its movement in serious political theatre.
Mrinal Sen admiringly described Dutt as an actor who could play roles from the sublime to the ridiculous with equal flair. His performance in Agantuk brought him the Best Actor Award from the Bengal Film Journalists Association in 1992. When asked how he made the switch from an outright commercial masala film like Fariyaad to a Ray film like Joy Baba Phelunath, Dutt said, “I have developed a technique of shutting my mind off, switching it off, rather. I will not be able to tell you even the names of the films I have acted in or even the name of the character I have just finished shooting.”
Dutt directed Megh (1961) a psychological thriller, Ghoom Bhangar Gaan (1965), Jhor (1979), Baisakhi Megh (1981), Maa (1983) and Inquilab ke Baad (1984.) None of these films met were commercially successful. Dutt strode like a Colossus over the realm of Bengali theatre staging one production after another and, at the same time, trying to evolve a comprehensive theory of Epic Theatre which, the indefatigable Thespian hoped, should serve as a model for others. Utpal Dutt, closer to his own theatrical tradition and Stanislavsky (the Russian theatre director and actor), aspired to raise his Epic Theatre based on the reinvigorating power of myths, while Bertolt Brecht formulated his vision by subjecting this very myth to question. In all his productions, some of them were breathtaking, Utpal Dutt achieved what he wanted to (in his own words) - "reaffirm the violent history of India, reaffirm the material tradition of its people, recount again and again the heroic tales of grand rebels and martyrs."
He carried with one experiment to the next, not once moving away from his belief in the need to merge politics, literature and theatre. “I do not advocate that things be portrayed either as black or as white. I say that is precisely what Marxism disallows. There is no such thing as black and white in life, there are only grays,” he would say and promptly enact a completely black character in a Hindi or Bengali film!
This contradiction is what makes Utpal Dutt stand apart from his peers in theatre.