“Uttam is Uttam. I am delighted to be part of a function to honour him. I have seen most of his Bengali films. They are wonderful. Such mooch, Uttam Saab lajabab kalakar hai. (Truly Uttam Saab is an artist without a parallel.)” As rains lashed the beach outside, the words showered music on the ears of Uttam Kumar, who was in the audience as Dilip Kumar uttered those words.

It was one of those monsoon-soaked September Bombay evenings in 1976. Uttam was in attendance at the city’s glitzy Sun and Sand, the premises of which were famously dedicated to the whimsy of Bombay’s self-indulgent stardom. Uttam was there to celebrate the blockbuster hit Amanush, Shakti Samanta’s double-version weepie, which was Uttam’s first and only success in Bombay.

It was ten years after his Chhoti Si Mulaqat disaster, Uttam was fifty and no one knew more than him that he had missed the bus to India’s so called cine capital forever. Yet, in that September, if not august, gathering Uttam was delighted to note the appreciation of Dilip Kumar.

Dilip Kumar was four years older than Uttam, had preceded the latter in attaining stardom, ruled the 1950s, and had since the mid-1960s bowed out. Uttam had soldiered on, unable to leave or unable to lead, because at fifty, he was still the only asset the Bengali industry could bank upon.

But in many other ways Uttam and Dilip Kumar were complementary – being leading men who could gravitate between genres and roles, had led their respective film dominions to maturity, and helmed it in moments of crisis and contemplation. It was indeed a gathering of Bombay’s leading stars, producers and directors, and Dilip Kumar’s endorsement clinched the deal.

Uttam responded humbly, saying that he had been apprehensive about signing Amanush because in his middle age, he thought he may not be the right choice anymore for a leading role in a film. But the film was his biggest success, both in Hindi and, surprisingly in Bengali as well, receiving nine Filmfare nominations and taking home two. It was later remade in Telugu (with NT Rama Rao) and Tamil (with Shivaji Ganeshan), among others.

The unmade or rejected Hindi films

What is somewhat surprising is that during the six-day stint in Bombay that week, Uttam signed six new films, both in Hindi and Bengali. Clearly, in his autumn of discontent, Uttam was not a pushover as yet.

In the same gathering at Sun and Sand, Samanta’s Ajnabee was feted too, which had Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman in the lead. Incidentally, before Ajnabee, the last film of the hit Samanta-Khanna pairing (after Aradhana and Kati Patang) was Amar Prem (1972), a remake of Uttam Kumar’s Nishipodmo (The Night Flower, 1970). Impressed by Uttam’s splendid performance and the film, Samanta wanted to remake it in Hindi.

Rajesh Khanna or Dilip Kumar were vociferous in their praise but he was no exception. Uttam had a long list of admirers in Bombay – Guru Dutt, Shashi Kapoor, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan. They were part of Hindi remakes of his films; or knew the language. And little did they hide their great admiration.

Raj Kapoor for example, as early as 1956, is said to have considered him for the Bengali version (Ekdin Ratre) of the bilingual Jagte Raho, where Uttam’s veteran contemporaries Chhabi Biswas and Pahari Sanyal played key roles. But Uttam was too busy to spare dates and Kapoor came to play the panicky thief who startles mute into middle class corruption and treachery in both the versions.

Later, Uttam was seriously considered by Raj Kapoor for Sangam (1964), but here too the script played a spoiler. At the height of his stardom, Uttam Kumar did not want to play Gopal, the better but sacrificial guy, as his entry role in Bombay, though he was far from picky about such things in Bengali films.

In fact, Dilip Kumar had also refused the role. Uttam is said to have later regretted his decision because Sangam, a Technicolor romance epic of three hours, went on to become a blockbuster. The missed bus of Sangam hurt him especially after Uttam’s own vehicle Chhoti Si Mulaqat, which was his Bombay debut in 1967, was a debacle. From its expensive making to the insipid response, the film, in which Uttam had invested his own money, was a mammoth failure, leading not only to a state of despondency and financial ruin but also the first of several cardiac arrests.

Chhoti Si Mulaqat repeated the antediluvian story of Uttam’s Bengali blockbuster Agniporikha, which catapulted him to stardom but which seemed dated even in 1954. In 1967, it was more so and even if the subtleties of the script in the Bengali version made it bearable, the Hindi version, with its over-the-top requirements, seemed hopelessly forged.

Also, a film in which Uttam had built expensive sets, signed Vyjayanthimala, Shailendra and Shankar Jaikishen, was ultimately directed by an untested underling called Alo Sarkar...

Who was he, except being a small-time technician in New Theatres who had a few contacts in Bombay? But he, of all, came to direct Uttam’s debut Hindi dud. And Uttam did not learn from the mistakes of his Hindi venture. Sarkar continued to milk Uttam and no amount of advice from others could remove him from Uttam’s close group of minions. An outrage called Bandi (1978) – one of Uttam’s shady films from his sunset years – was also directed, if one can call it direction by any measure, by the same Sarkar. Along with other dreadful massacres such as Nishan and Desh Premee, Bandi signifies the depths of despair that any film can stoop to.

Bengali cinema’s ‘primary breadwinner’

In 1954, when he became a star, Uttam was twenty-eight. And since then it was the same story. At thirty-three, and then at thirty-eight, he was the leading man in Bengal cinema, the chief supplier of its box office and its only hope of subsistence. At forty-three, he was still the leading man, the chief supplier and the only hope. At fifty, he was still....

In other words, Uttam Kumar was at the top from when early Dilip Kumar was at the helm to a period when Amitabh Bachchan became a star. Those who knew him in person have recounted numerous times how Uttam would often get up in the middle of night, that too after a hard day, to rehearse in solitude. Wasn’t he tired? He was indeed but how could be fail his audience?

But by the mid-1970s, this involvement with the audience had turned into a desperation to not fail the industry. So, if one part of this absurd longevity is about Uttam’s transcendental appeal; the other part, equal startling, is about an industry that shamefully failed to grow beyond the custodianship of its primary breadwinner.

It was like one of those profligate families of nincompoops which survived on the goodwill of a renowned, resourceful but ageing patriarch. Uttam could have played a hand in changing that. But in the end, he did not. At least not in a forceful way.

It was destined to end in a moment of shameful heartbreak. And it did. One day in 1980, Uttam accosted Satyajit Ray’s longtime assistant Punu Sen on the precincts of a Tollygunge studio. “Punu, ask Manikda (Ray) if he has any roles for me. Even an insignificant, walk-on role would do. I can’t continue to do anymore the rot I am doing”, Uttam said in an unguarded moment to Sen. The Dantesque descent of the once mighty hero – Ray’s hero – could not have been more telling. Ironically, within two days of his telling Punu so, Uttam was to suffer his fatal cardiac arrest.

Excerpted with permission from Uttam Kumar – A Life in Cinema, Sayandeb Chowdhury, Bloomsbury India.

Also read:

There are movies about the movies and then there is Satyajit Ray’s ‘Nayak’

Uttam Kumar is at the top of his game as a folk singer in ‘Antony Firingee’