Uttam Kumar's sabotaged tryst with Hindi Cinema
e all know the Hero of these dialogues from the Ray classic "Nayak”:
"I sense a bit of-"
"Change in me? Eh?"
"I guess so!"
"That has to be! Dialectics you see!"
But after the disastrous "Chhoti Si Mulakat" based on the late 1954 Bengali hit "Agniporikkha", Mahanayak did change!
Uttam Kumar’s downfall in the Mumbai film industry, referred to as Bollywood by many, is the so-called black spot in his career. However, the most popular Bengali Matinee Idol stands tall when it comes to blockbusters in the Bengali arena.
As Satyajit Ray once wrote about him, “Uttam was a star in the true Hollywood sense of the term. The question was: was he also an actor? Uttam, even in the most inconsequential of parts, exuded confidence which (Gregory) Peck never did… he constantly surprised and delighted me with unexpected little details of action and behavior and which came from him and not from me, which were always in character and always enhanced a scene. They were so spontaneous that it seemed he produced these out of his sleeve. If there was any cogitation involved, he never spoke about it.”
This certainly sums up Uttam Kumar’s aura as a star and a performer or to put it simply, a star performer - be it in true charisma or personality, Uttam never failed to charm the audience, added to this was his God-gifted sense in acting. Having done approximately over 203 Bengali films, Uttam also chose to do Hindi cinema and make it big there too, if not the best.
He debuted as a character artist with the 1965 film – Do Dil, by Hrishikesh Mukherjee; however his first Hindi film as the male lead, or in Bollywood terms – The Hero was “Chhoti Si Mulakat”. He immersed deep in the working of the script and paid undivided attention to every minute detail of his own production - “Chhoti Si Mulakat”, he had all his hopes pinned on this film. It is said that he even learned Hindi so well that he could effortlessly lip-sync to the playback songs – an art he had mastered so well, in the Bengali arena. All this noise was bound to throw someone off the track and that too, did happen.
An actor and a film maker, quite popular at the same time, mostly famous for his “showmanship”, was one of the chief names, who can be easily marked responsible, at least by many Bengali fans, for the entire turnout of events relating to the sinking ship – “Chhoti Si Mulakat”. As the rumor goes, it was “he”, who gave the entire distribution process of this Uttam’s dreamchild, a backseat; thereby effectively sabotaging that film. ‘He’ released his own two lesser known films – “Diwana” and “Around the World” with a wider network of distribution that Uttam’s film and even though those weren’t ‘his’ best works, it was a successful plan of ousting the one who could have been a bigger success!
Both monetarily and mentally, Uttam was delved too big a blow. He decided to withdraw himself from Hindi films soon after this dud. Even The regional film industry feared a loss of audience attraction, if Uttam could not be brought back to the silver screen. Finally Uttam returned, shedding his traumatizing past.
Uttam Kumar did two bilingual films with Shakti Samanta, namely “Amanush” (1975) and “Ananda Ashram” (1977) – successfully captivating both the Hindi speaking, as well as the Bengali speaking audiences.
Though he had pledged to his close circle, as not to work in a single Hindi film after the “grand” collapse, he still did cameos in Gulzar’s “Kitab” (1977) and in mainstream Hindi cinema with the 1982 Manmohan Desai film - “Desh Premi” alongside Amitabh Bachhan; and 1987 film “Mera Karam Mera Dharam” alongside Dharmendra; both appearances posthumous, as they released after his death in 1980.
As the popular saying goes, visionaries and trend setters always have more enemies than well wishers!! Uttam Kumar probably sets the most prominent example of this, amongst many. And to answer that, he has always let his work speak with his ever inspiring motto, “I will go to THE TOP, THE TOP, and THE TOP!”
Text By: Tathagata Ghosh & Annesh Bilas Thakur