When Tehaai asked me to do a piece on Uttam Kumar, the doyen of Bengali cinema and imagination, I realized that this is a territory I hardly know. People in Bengal knew far too much and I, far too little about the icon who has defined the Bengali culture almost single-handedly after Rabindranath Tagore. My strongest impression of Uttam Kumar is the procession that accompanied his corpse to the crematorium. The sheer swell of the crowd reminded me of the photos I saw of Rabindranath Tagore’s funeral procession. My cousin’s wife who is a Punjabi and never seen a single film of the deceased star stood for two hours with her infant child in arms and precariously holding up an umbrella against the monsoon drizzle to have a last glimpse of the doyen. Many homes, my friends reported, did not light kitchen fires on the day of the funeral and my mother tells me that the last time that happened in Bengal was on the day Gandhi was assassinated. These instances were enough to prove that Uttam Kumar was no less a defining force of the Bengali culture, ethos and ideology than Tagore or Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose.
As I worked on the stardom of Amitabh Bachchan, I realized that Uttam Kumar was a very different image, the difference being due to the way a Hindi film and a Bengali film was structured. The Hindi film stars usually represent a single strong image to which the diverse roles add attributes to make it more wholistic, inclusive and perhaps also exhaustive. This peculiar feature of the star in popular cinema makes many scholars denounce their appeal as being ideologically hegemonistic and politically manipulative. The viewer of such cinema identifies herself with the star and the point of view of the film is usually that of the stars. But in regional cinema, the star is not the one with who the audience typically identifies with but the character who becomes the star’s significant other. The appeal of Uttam Kumar is not in his persona, in which his millions of viewers would imagine themselves as being the star, but rather whenever in their lives they would require a significant other, they would find him. Hence he appears as son to the mother, older brother to the younger sibling, lover to a lonely woman, a doctor to the patient, teacher to the student, justice seeker to the wronged, and judge to the accused. Even in his negative roles, Uttam Kumar seems to be committing those sins that the Bengali urban professional middle class was guilty of and hence served as a way of purging our souls. Uttam Kumar emerged as Bengal’s conscience creator and its cleanser.
I have watched Uttam Kumar in Satyajit Ray’s film Nayak, a film that seems to be about the star, my senses have revolted. The popular film star is seen as a greedy, Mammon worshipping soulless person. Were Uttam Kumar to really be a soulless professional who prostituted his talents by playing up to the gallery, he would not have been the huge banyan tree for the Bengali cinema industry. The reminiscences of all and sundry in the Bengali film industry implied that he was there for the technician, the junior artist, the new heroine, the elderly editor, the experienced cameraman and the nervous journalist very much in the same manner as he was for the best of producers and the greatest of directors. I guess that such a persona also had a personality to match with it and the on-screen charisma was very much a part of the off-screen one. This and not as Ray has shown was the reason why Uttam Kumar was the institution that he became for the Bengali film industry without actually being a producer or a distributor or even a director of any significance.
It is difficult to understand the stardom of Uttam Kumar without appreciating the deep changes in the Bengali society of the 1950’s and the 1960’s and why did the star persona mean so much to the people of Bengal? Broadly we could suggest that Uttam Kumar was a comforting image in a society that had its own anxieties and anger after the Partition of Bengal in 1947.
1947 for the Bengalis means Partition rather than Independence. As the territory was Partitioned and so was the economy. Both sides lost money, property, business, occupation, social contacts and human capital. Both sides also lost homes, neighbours, land, rivers, ponds, familiar paths to the bazaar, the walks by the water bodies, the hills of Chittagong, the purple evenings of Jibananda’s poetry, the blue monsoons of Chandidas, the village fairs, the local schools, the pot bellied school master, the boatswain, the phaeton puller, the fisherman and the vegetable vendor. In other words, for the Bengali bhadralok not only the familiar world collapsed but it was as if the entire middle class intelligentsia came to be located in the city of Kolkata. Many came in as refugees who the native population had to accommodate. Slums and make shift residential colonies came up overnight with little attention to civic amenities or the basic properties of town planning. People lived in cramped spaces often accommodating many others, perhaps of their own social class but otherwise unknown persons. A strange concept of the “paara” or the locality as a space for significant others emerged in Kolkata, a phenomenon which still persists in contemporary times. Inside homes not only strangers and faint acquaintances lived together but many who had some kind of a home in Kolkata had to accommodate brethrens and kins into their household. This made many Bengalis live with large families of extended ties but also give up living spaces and the privacy of a nuclear family. The dream of a neat and compact flat with a small family of husband, wife and infant children continues to be the dream of most Bengali men and women just in order to overcome this huge lack of privacy in the domestic space. Uttam Kumar inhabited this constricted city space, often negotiating for larger hearts that grew self-centred in the search of personal space by emerging in roles of the significant other.
In terms of public spaces the influence that Bengal had waned after the Partition. Not only Bengal’s economic dominance got a jolt but its political ideology too waned because politics of Independence led not to the establishment of the nation but to its Partition. In the land of the Renaissance, the country had been divided; Bengal had to become apologetic about this blasphemy and this kinked the intelligentsia’s confidence. The middle class became so absorbed in its own resettlement and in the management of its relations and reproductive economy that quite unknown to itself, its civic life came to revolve around the concerns of the home, relationships, and insecurities of the middle class rather than about the wider society. The Bengali cinema, which like any other commercial cinema represents the partisan interests of the middle classes everywhere in India and perhaps of the world, came to reflect the narrow interests mentioned above. I think that Uttam Kumar’s roles by bringing in romance and softer sentiments made us cushion partisan interests in kinder and more generous terms.
Post Partition Bengal did not consolidate its capitalist or the entrepreneur class. While on the one hand assets were lost and much of access to credit wiped out for the Bengali businessman, for those capitalists from non-Bengali communities had theirs intact. This was the beginning of a Marwari dominance of Bengal when this community came in to fill the space of the productive economy. As the Bengali bhadralok came to be relegated into a job seeking person who was contended only to do a regular employment in an “office” and return home so that he could attend to his household duties, he came to regard his home as the end of the world. Associations outside the homestead was looked upon with suspicion and he turned away from clubs and other civil gatherings treating these as immoral or bachhanalian. The bhadralok was far more concerned with the politics at home, the control of sexuality of young persons, the containment of unfamiliar persons into some structure of the domestic space and also most importantly to make the limited incomes work for ever increasing claimants. Uttam Kumar’s presence was inside this kind of a home, but one who was also in large hotels, at clubs and elite gatherings, spanning two worlds comfortably and without offending any.
This withdrawal of the middle class Bengali from the public space created a wedge between itself and the rest of the society. The communist movement of the 1960’s had very strong strains of an ethnic struggle in which the capitalists, who were overwhelmingly non-Bengalis were attacked instead of negotiated with. The bhadralok also developed a consciousness vis-à-vis the “chhotolok” that contained all the negative categories that the bhadralok feared and loathed to become. The “chhotolok” could be anybody from a peasant to a worker to a shop keeper and even a servant or a municipality sweeper. The politics of egalitarianism was only against the rich but not to include the less fortunate. To the best of my understanding, Uttam Kumar emerged as a comfort zone in this kind of a cultural stress of the Bengali middle class. His demeanour of a quintessential Bengali bhadralok was sufficiently distanced from the old aristocracy of Chhobi Biswas and Pahari Sanyal and yet he was clearly identifiable as one who could never be very low down in the social ladder. He lived in the new spaces of a “mess baari” or in a compact Kolkata flat. He was unknown, sometimes with a past not too fine, but one who came in and won all hearts. It is here that we find the most outstanding attribute of the star – his ability to emerge not as the self of the viewer but as her significant other. He was a stranger who became a friend, a relative, a confidante and a succour. The endearing smile had an assurance that smoothened rifts and healed wounded memories. He was perhaps not a swash buckling hero, and which later generations construed as being effeminate, but his softer qualities came in as the core of the new Bengali culture that had suffered the politics of violence of communal riots. Any assertion of masculinity in the aftermath of rape, loot, arson and murder would have been lethal for Bengal of its times. Uttam Kumar seemed to have appropriated a resentful, vengeful conscience of the Bengali into an interesting, lovable and attractive new neighbour of the next door flat in Kolkata. His was an image of absorption – the loss, the violence, the separation, the displacement, the dishonour and the defeat that Bengalis suffered all through the Partition.
Scholars often say that while the wave of fascism made Europe reflect upon its thought categories from the Enlightenment, the Partition did not appear to have created commensurate reflections on the Indian side. This is far from true and our commercial cinema will prove this. The Indians have tried to recover principles that could have averted the Partition. The Hindi film harped on equality, plurality, freedom of speech, choice and movement, law and order and tried to fight the communal politics by distracting the viewers mind into discourses of liberal and sometimes harder socialist politics; the Bengali cinema harped on kindness, compassion, sentiments, relationships, romance, love, trust and faith, all of which were compromised during the bitter communal riots that preceded the Partition.
Uttam Kumar is mostly remembered as a duo with heroines, especially with Suchitra Sen, Supriya and Sabitri. These women represent not only three faces of the Bengali society but also three rather distinct moments of the state and its people. Suchitra Sen, the beauty, arrogant, confident woman of Bengal who could have had everything had not circumstances totally beyond her control constrained her. Uttam Kumar emerged as the man in who she could find comfort and solace if not shelter. Uttam Kumar appeared the most romantic with Suchitra and it was with her that his appeal soared. Suchitra Sen was Bengal’s sense of ultimate beauty that had to be nurtured by a caring, considerate and soft gloved person, very different from the hard hearted cynics who lost Bengal to Partition.
Supriya Chaudhuri was far more ordinary than Suchitra, more submissive than arrogant, somewhere more giving than seeking, more at home than being forced being at home and committed to her relations than seeking subservience and surrender. Such an image demanded more of a complete man and not merely the romantic hero. Uttam Kumar was far more settled as a person in his films with Supriya. Personally, he stayed with Supriya forming a lasting relationship with her even though they were not legally married.
Sabitri Chatterjee’s image was distinctly different from the above two heroines. She was more middle class, more of a housewife with rather simplistic and straight-jacketed views on life, limited in her thoughts. When Uttam Kumar romanced Sabitri, he romanced a middle class that was already getting entrenched into a far narrower wedge of partisan concerns and despite their strong presence on stage, the Uttam Sabitri duo did more for the image of Uttam Kumar as a solo performer rather than as a profiling star. The engagement with Sabitri established Uttam more in his masculinity than in his romantic image and indeed in many comic films, Sabitri got to work opposite the star.
Indeed Uttam Kumar’s films opposite the three heroines seemed to trace not only the star but the Bengali middle class’s journey from a more elitist to a plebian but more inclusive social category. One of the biggest challenges to Uttam Kumar’s monopoly was Soumitro Chatterjee, a star who had been nurtured by Satyajit Ray. Soumitro was quintessentially masculine, who wooed women in his own terms, and who focused more on himself, his sentiments, his feelings rather than absorb the others. Soumitro Chatterjee was the emergence of the selfhood of the Bengali rather than be merged inseparably with the identity of the significant other. This probably explains why Uttam Kumar was always the bad guy in films in which Soumitro was his co-star, often playing the effete zamindar, a class that had to totally disappear to make way for the post-Partition middle class.
To conclude, to the best of my understanding, Uttam Kumar seemed to have lent an emotional support to the Bengali middle class that had overwhelmingly been displaced out of communal politics and bloody riots and therefore had every chance to slip back into anxiety, violence and depression. He also seemed to have created once more a space in which the middle class morals and ethos and finally its hopes and aspirations were defined and refined and thus lending a shape to class that had lost itself in the frenzy of the Partition, both territorially and culturally. Uttam Kumar was a crucial element in returning a divided Bengal into the normalcy of everyday life and integrating it slowly into the mainstream of national politics.