Uttam Kumar’s hypnotic screen presence, mellow voice, unique charisma and dazzling smile made him not just a heartthrob, but also a legend of Bengali Cinema. For the Bengali fraternity, he was undoubtedly the ‘mahanayak’ the great hero, the undisputed king of the Bangla silver screen for nearly three decades.
He was born Arun Kumar Chatterjee on 3rd September, 1926 at Ahiritola, North Kolkata but was called ‘Uttam’ by his maternal grandmother. His huge joint family had its own theatre group Suhrid Samaj which staged many amateur shows within the community. No wonder then, Uttam Kumar was bitten by the acting bug right from childhood itself. Besides acting, he was also into sports and physical fitness. He took up wrestling, swimming, lathi-khela (sparring with wooden sticks), horse riding and tennis. In fact he was the swimming champion at the Bhowanipur Swimming Association three years in a row.
By the time Uttam Kumar cleared his Matriculation, it was clear to him that he wanted to be an actor. He thus started taking singing lessons from the then well-known voice trainer Sri Nidan Banerjee. Initially Uttam Kumar followed the Kolkata theatre scene avidly but soon became dissatisfied with the existing trend of theatrical acting and always aimed for a more natural performance in his films. After graduation, the financial condition of the family forced him to take up employment as a clerk at the Port Commissioner’s office. To supplement his salary, he also gave singing lessons at a music school.
In 1947, he got an offer for a brief role in a Hindi film, Mayador. The film never saw the light of day. His first release in fact was the Bengali film Drishdidaan (1948), directed by the great Nitin Bose. Uttam was credited as Arun Kumar and played the youth of well known actor Asit Baran. The film was a flop. 1949 saw his first film as lead man – Kamana crediting him as Uttam Chatterjee, but this too bombed, as did all his films, till Basu Parivar (1952). The Industry had labeled him as a flop master by now! During this time he had got married to Gauri Ganguli in 1948 and his son Gautam was born in 1950. With these additional responsibilities, he seriously considered quitting the film industry and concentrating full time on his job. But fortunately for him, Basu Parivar co-starring Sabitri Chatterjee was a big hit. Incidentally, Supriya Devi worked with him for the first time in this film, playing his sister.
Reuniting with his Basu Parivar director, Nirmal Dey, Uttam Kumar delivered another big hit, Sharey Chuattar, in 1953. This film saw him paired for the first time with Suchitra Sen. With Agnipariksha, the following year again hitting the bullseye, the Uttam-Suchitra pair ushered in the so called Golden era of Bengali Cinema. They went on to become icons of Bengali romantic melodramas for more than twenty years becoming almost a genre into themselves. Their films were famous for the soft-focus close ups of the stars particularly Sen and lavishly mounted scenes of romance against windswept expanses and richly decorated interiors with fluttering curtains and such mnemonic objects as bunches of tuberoses etc. The story lines often revolved around a pattern wherein the lovers would meet and fall in love. And then either the family or difference in status of the two would cause hurdles in the romance. Often Suchitra’s family was shown to be better off than Uttam’s. Thus he not only had to win her but also surpass material differences to prove that love conquers all. Some popular films of the pair include Shap Mochan (1955), Sagarika (1956), Harano Sur (1957), Indrani (1958), Chaowa-Paowa (1959), Saptapadi (1961), Bipasha (1962) and Grihadaha (1967).
Shonar Harin (1959) saw Supriya Devi (who would win great accolades for her performance in Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara the following year) play the lead opposite Uttam Kumar. As they began to act in more films together, the two got involved off screen as well. In 1963, Uttam left his wife and stayed with Supriya for the next 17 years till his death. Many of Uttam’s films with Supriya too were huge successes at the box office but there was a marked difference in audience perception to these films as compared to his films with Suchitra. With Suchitra what superceded everything was their screen romance whereas with Supriya since the audience was aware of a personal relationship as well, they always went to see these films with that firmly in their mindsets.
When the great Satyajit Ray made Nayak (1966), he created the lead role of actor Arindam Mukherjee keeping Uttam Kumar in mind. Many people feel the film is autobiographical to Uttam Kumar’s own life – the sense of anxiety and restlessness of the superstar mirrored Uttam’s insecurities about his phenomenal success and abiding fear that his superstardom might not last. Uttam made the role of Arindam his own and Ray later confessed that if Uttam had refused the film, he would have abandoned the film. He worked with Ray again the following year in Chidiakhana (1967).
When the Indian Government instituted the Nation Awards for Best Actor and Actress in 1967, Uttam Kumar was the first ever recipient of the Best Actor Award for his performances in Chidiakhana and Anthony Firangee (1967), while Nargis won the Best Actress Award for Raat Aur Din (1967).
There was more to Uttam than just the actor. He also explored new avenues of filmmaking by trying his hand at production, singing, composing music, screenplay writing and yes, directing. The success of his Bengali films as Producer – Harano Sur, Saptapadi, Bhrantibilash (1963), Uttar Falguni (1963), Jotugriha (1964), Grihadah – won Uttam great acclaim. This prompted him to try and launch himself in Hindi films. He produced Chhotisi Mulaqat in 1967, starring himself and Vyjayanthimala. The film was adaptated from Agniparikhsha and had some good music by Shanker-Jaikishen . The film, however, was a dismal failure at the box-office leaving him with a pile of debt and it is said, led to his first heart attack. Though he recovered and returned to full time acting, thus clearing his debts, he was never to produce a film again. Uttam Kumar did return sporadically to Hindi films however with a memorable performance in Amanush (1975), perhaps his most well-known Hindi film, and also Anand Ashram (1977), Kitaab (1979) and Dooriyaan (1979). He also came out with his autobiography in 1979.
On July 24, 1980 Uttam Kumar was admitted to the Belleveue Clinic with a massive heart attack. The doctors did their best for 16 hours but sadly, he passed away that night. As his hearse wound its way across Bhowanipur and finally to the Keoratala Burning Ghat, traffic in Kolkata came to a halt as thousands flocked the streets to pay their respects and have a last glimpse of the legend.
Quoting Satyajit Ray: “It is the demise of a leading light of the Bengali film industry…There isn’t – there won’t be another hero like him.”