Kolkata: Uttam Kumar who was born as Arun Kumar Chatterjee; 3 September 1926 was an Indian film actor, director, producer and singer who predominantly worked in Indian Cinema. Kumar is widely regarded as one of the most popular and beloved actors ever in India. Through his career he earned commercial as well as critical success, and he remains as an Indian cultural icon.
Considered as the most popular film star of Indian Cinema, popularly known as “Mahanayak”, Kumar managed to have a huge fan following, that mainly concentrated in the regions of Bengal, India and also in Bangladesh.
He was a recipient of many awards over his lifetime, including National Film Award for Best Actor. A Metro Station in Kolkata was renamed in his honor.
Uttam’s first release was Drishtidan (The gift of sight, 1948) directed by Nitin Bose, though he worked in an earlier unreleased film called Mayador (Embrace of Affection). Then he acted in about four to five films, all of which were flops. In those films he constantly varied his name: Arun Chatterjee, Arun Kumar, Uttam Chatterjee and finally Uttam Kumar. He was dubbed as the ‘Flop Master General’. When he entered the studio, people would laugh at him and comment “Here comes the new Durgadas…” “Meet the new Chabbi Biswas..”. He considered leaving the world of cinema and start working at Calcutta Ports. But his wife, Gouri Chatterjee told him that it would be better if he did not to do a job his heart was not in. He later got the contact at M.P. Studios for three years. M.P. studios produced the film Basu Paribar in which he came into prominence, but his breakthrough film was Agni Pariksha in 1954, that began the success of the all-time romantic pair of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen, though they had first paired in Sharey Chuattor (1953). The film ran for 65 weeks and established Uttam in the industry.
Apart from Bengali, Uttam Kumar also acted in 15 Hindi films such as Chhoti Si Mulaqat (along with Vyjayanthimala), Amanush, Anand Ashram, Dooriyaan (with Sharmila Tagore), Bandie with Sulakshana Pandit and Kitaab with Vidya Sinha, etc. He was also offered the role of Rajendra Kumar in the Raj Kapoor-starrer film Sangam, but for some reason he refused the role.
Perhaps his most lauded appearance was in Satyajit Ray’s Nayak (The Hero). It is now widely accepted that Ray wrote the script with Uttam in mind. Many people feel the film bears resemblance to Uttam Kumar’s own life – the sense of anxiety and restlessness mirrored Uttam’s insecurities about his phenomenal success and abiding fear that his superstardom might not last. Uttam made the role of Arindam (Mukherjee) his own and Ray later confessed that if Uttam had refused the film, he would have abandoned it. He worked with Ray the following year in Chiriyakhana (1967).
Uttam also worked with another great film director Tapan Sinha in his film Jhinder Bondi (with another great actor Soumitra chatterjee). When the Indian government instituted the National Film Awards for National Film Award for Best Actor and National Film Award for Best Actress in 1967, Uttam Kumar was the first-ever recipient of the Best Actor Award for his performances in Antony Firingee and Chiriyakhana in 1967.
He explored new avenues of film-making by trying his hand at production, singing, composing music, screenplay writing and directing. The success of his Indian films as producer — Harano Sur, Saptapadi, Bhrantibilash, Jotugriha(1964), Grihadah — won greatest acclaim. On producing Chhoti Si Mulaqat in 1967, which was a Hindi film starring Uttam and Vyjayanthimala, Uttam almost used up all his savings, since the film had to be shot in colour and was shot in extravagant locations. Both Uttam and Vyjayanthimala had huge hopes associated with the film, but the film was a flop leading to great disappointment for Uttam Kumar. It was later said that this flop was one of the main reasons for triggering the heart attack, which ultimately led to his death. Later, Uttam directed much-lauded films such as Sudhu Ekti Bochhor and Bon Palashir Padaboli. He composed music for the film Kaal Tumi Aleya in which Hemanta Mukherjee and Asha Bhosle sang to his tune.
He came out with an authorised biography Aamar Ami in 1979–80. He had a phenomenal fan base which continues even to this day. In 1960, he started writing an autobiography named Harano Dinguli Mor (My Bygone Days), but could not complete it. Parts of that book were published by the magazine Nabokallol. On the day Uttam died, the original manuscript was stolen. Later, a member from Times of India had found the manuscript and the national library helped to find old editions of Nabakallol and then the incomplete book was finally published in the 37th Calcutta Book Fair. As a singer, he recorded songs for the AIR – All India Radio – and very recently, an album of Tagore songs (Rabindrasangeet) sung by him, has been brought out.
There was a time, when at the heights of his popularity Uttam Kumar was approached to recite the Chandi Path in the AIR studios. Traditionally this had always been done by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. but there was a huge uproar amongst the audience as to why Uttam Kumar had been chosen instead of Birendra Krishna. Uttam personally met Mr. Bhadra and apologized and from the next year Mahalaya on AIR was again done by Bhadra.
Reruns of his films on television decades after his death are still eagerly watched. Uttam Kumar’s time is considered by most as the golden era of Bengali cinema.