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Uttam Kumar: The man who almost gave up on films
Film critic Monojit Lahiri salutes the memory of Bengal's evergreen legend on his 33rd death anniversary.
When Bengal's ace-of-hearts, the one and only Uttam Kumar breathed his last on July 24, 1980, he unleashed the kind of public hysteria unprecedented in the annals of Bengal's movie history. Millions of Uttam lovers, suddenly orphaned, dazed and unbelieving, kept asking just one question, all along: "Is it true?" For the 54 year old Mr. Box-office with the Midas touch, unfortunately, this time it wasn't reel life. It was exit time. The final irrecoverable fade-out.
To people outside Bengal, it may be difficult to comprehend in full measure the kind of magic, power and hold Uttam had over generations. He evolved and embellished into his persona (the romantic hero par excellence) the charisma of Dilip Kumar with drawing power of Amitabh Bachchan, and with Suchitra Sen redefined the whole equation of screen romance. It was indeed fitting that as the numero uno's lifeless body lay in his Girish Mukherjee Road house that fateful day, Suchitra, in a fantastic cinematic re-play, garlanded him - one last time.
An ordinary clerk in the Calcutta Port Commission, Uttam's early efforts on screen ran into such heavy weather that he seriously considered packing-up and returning to his nine-to-five routine! Mercifully, providence had other plans. His brand of acting, in an environment dominated by "theatrics" came as a storm of fresh air to a new cinema-literate generation desiring "naturalness" fluid, easy and relaxed ("Hollywoodian" as Ray was to describe it) Uttam seemed to share a very special communion with the camera with this incredible range of heroines too- many of whom were in their nappies when his star first hit the firmament! From Suchitra Sen to Aparna Sen, he romanced them all in typical, heart-stopping style.
Thirty three years have passed without Uttam, but a melange of memories persist: The charmer whose mesmeric smile lit up the souls and fantasies of generations of women - from 16 to 60, the ultimate icon whose Uttam-cut and Uttam-drawl were the cult models of males out to conquer female hearts; the warm and wonderful human beings whose friendship, loyalty and helping hand launched so many to the big time; the mega star whose very name on the dotted line and marquee invited huge smiles from the trade - and serpentine queues from frenzied fans; the towering personality whose very presence (commercially) defined, as it were, the Bengal Film Industry and can the last scene of the legend's farewell ever be forgotten? As the cortege inched through its seven hours route to the burning ghat (with heart wrenching, poignant stops at the studios in Tollygunge) Calcutta, pulling out all the stops, collapsed. Schools and colleges declared half-holidays and theatres downed its shutters as waves upon waves of humanity (most of whom were women) used up every conceivable space, crying, screaming, swooning, and fainting to pay their last respect to their "Guru". And as the flames licked the air and hysteria hit an all-time high, one suddenly wondered about the future of an already crippled industry without its one solitary, dazzling luminary. And shuddered.
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