Sunday, October 16, 2011

Uttam Kumar: An Obituary by Satyajit Ray

This is  my least original (read: non-original) post. 
Enthused by a couple of wonderful illustrations of Uttam Kumar and Satyajit Ray by Kunal Kundu, I dug out an old magazine which carried this piece and copied it out.
This obituary appeared immediately after Uttam Kumar's death in Sunday (August 1980).

I was not a filmmaker yet when I first saw Uttam on the screen. I had heard of the emergence of a new hero and was curious to see what he was like. The heroes that one saw on the Bengali screen those days - Durgadas Banerjee, Pramathesh Barua, Saigal, Dhiraj Bhattacharji - were hardly in the same league with the Hollywood heroes one admired.

I saw three of Uttam's films in a row all made by one of our ablest directors, Nirmal Dey. First impressions were certainly good. Uttam had good looks, a certain presence, an ease of manner and no trace of the theatre in his performance. He also, obviously, had a future.

The opportunity to work with him came much later. By that time, Uttam Kumar had already become something of a legend. Every other Bengali film had him in the lead, usually paired with Suchitra Sen. This was a romantic team which for durability and width of acceptance had few equals in world cinema. Uttam was certainly a star in the true Hollywood sense of the term. The question was: was he also an actor?
This is a moot question. There is at least one known instance in Hollywood of an actor with no acting abilities, who was propelled into stardom on the strength of the fan mail he received after this first film opened. This was Gregory Peck, who remains to this day, I am told, an actor who 'needs handling'. But Uttam, even in the most inconsequential of parts, exuded confidence which Peck never did.

I was anxious to work with Uttam and wrote a part with him in mind. It was a part I thought he would find easy to identify with, being that of an ordinary middle-class youth who gets a break in films and quickly rises to the top. In fact, a rags-to-riches story with some resemblance to Uttam's own life.
Uttam liked the part and accepted to do it although he could see it meant shedding - at least for the time being - his glamour-boy mannerisms. He also agreed to use no make-up although, a recent attack of chicken-pox had left its mark on his face.
I must say working with Uttam turned out to be one of the most pleasant experiences of my film-making career. I found out early on that he belonged to the breed of instinctive actors. I have worked with the other kind too, the cerebral one, the one that likes to take a part to pieces and probe into background, motivations etc in order to 'get beneath the skin of the character'. But the fact is, there is no guarantee that a cerebral actor will make a more substantial contribution than an instinctive one.
I hardly recall any discussion with Uttam on a serious analytical level on the character he was playing. And yet he constantly surprised and delighted me with unexpected little details of action and behaviour 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.

I understand Uttam worked in something like 250 films. I have no doubt that well over 200 of them will pass into oblivion, if they have not already done so. This is inevitable in a situation where able performers outnumber able writers and directors. Even the best of actors loses his edge and languishes without a reasonable steady supply of worthy material to keep him on his mettle. It is even worse with 'stars', whom circumstances have brought to the pitch where they must stick to their 'image' or topple. And this usually means doing the same thing over or over again.
An artist, however, must always be judged by his best work. On that basis and within the gamut in which his talent was best revealed, Uttam's work shows rare virtues of grace, spontaneity and confidence. Such a combination is not easily come by and it is hard to see any one taking his place in the cinema of West Bengal in the near future.

There is a very interesting anecdote about one of the 'unexpected little details' Uttam 'produced out of his sleeve'.
In the first interaction between Uttam Kumar and Sharmila Tagore in Nayak, she asks for his autograph (for her cousin, she hastily clarifies) and he obliges.
To shoot the scene, Uttam had a pen in his pocket that he was supposed to produce and sign the proffered paper. However when Uttam started to sign, the ink had dried and nothing wrote. Ray was about to say 'cut' when Uttam casually - and in mid-dialogue - shook the pen. When that did not work, he dipped the nib in the glass of water in front of him and signed with his customary flourish. All this, while carrying on with the dialogues! (Watch the scene here.)
In another article, Ray observed that no amount of preparation can get an actor to pull this off. Only a star of the highest order is equipped to do something like this.

Check out all of Kunal's work here. And get wowed.