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Hemanta-Uttam, a bond that bent, but never broke

16 June, 2021 11:19:17
Hemanta-Uttam, a bond that bent, but never broke

The year was 1947, with India about to take its place in the world as an independent nation. As freedom came ever closer, a 22-year-old songwriter-composer wrote a song about the horrors of the great Bengal famine of 1943, which he had witnessed first hand. That experience had led him to tour the province for three years, spreading awareness against the cruelty of British rule and profiteering capitalists through his revolutionary songs, and inviting his listeners to rise up in protest. By 1947, he had become a veteran of his craft and, having joined the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) in 1944, was an active member of his organisation. The young man was called Salil Chowdhury.

For his new song, the singer he had in mind was a fellow young IPTA member and friend, who had been trying to break into the professional music circuit for a few years, despite relentless opposition from his father. This friend had recorded his first song for Akashvani (All India Radio) at the age of 14, and had already earned a small amount of fame as a Rabindra Sangeet exponent in the years that followed. His name was Hemanta Mukhopadhyay. When Salil approached him with the song, he saw no reason to refuse, and thus was born the unforgettable ‘Ganyer Bodhu’, a song which not only broke every existing convention of the time, but firmly established both composer and singer as powerhouses of talent. 

The popular perception is that Uttam and Hemanta first met in 1955, while working for the film ‘Shapmochan’. However, researcher Susanta Kumar Chatterjee has said that Hemanta actually sang for Uttam in the 1951 film ‘Sahajatri’, not a single print of which survives today, so we can no longer verify the truth of the researcher’s assertion. If we were to accept that the two first met in 1955, then both their careers had well and truly taken off by then. At 29, Uttam Kumar was the most exciting rising star of Bengali cinema, and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, then 35, was being hailed as a successor to legendary Rabindra Sangeet exponent Pankaj Mullick.

At around the same time, a third young man was on the hunt for name and fame. Arunkumar Chattopadhyay had left the stage to try his luck in cinema, but ‘Mayador’, his first film, never saw the light of day. In 1948, director Nitin Bose cast him in ‘Drishtidan’, which was released all right, but did very little business at the box-office, with the new actor creating barely a ripple in the public mind.

Arun stuck to his guns, however, acting in one film after another, all of which more or less sank without a trace. In the ruthless world of film studios, he gradually became what can only be described as a joke, with some people beginning to call him ‘flop master’. Thrown into depression by the twin prospects of failure and unemployment, he finally decided to give it all up and return to his clerical job at Calcutta Port. The one person who refused to let him do so was his wife, Gouri Debi. And then came ‘Basu Poribar’ (1952), ‘Sarey Chuattar’ (1953), and ‘Agnipariksha’ (1954), three monster hits which turned the flop master into a future megastar, and Arun Chattopadhyay into Uttam Kumar. 

The popular perception is that Uttam and Hemanta first met in 1955, while working for the film ‘Shapmochan’. However, researcher Susanta Kumar Chatterjee has said that Hemanta actually sang for Uttam in the 1951 film ‘Sahajatri’, not a single print of which survives today, so we can no longer verify the truth of the researcher’s assertion. If we were to accept that the two first met in 1955, then both their careers had well and truly taken off by then. At 29, Uttam Kumar was the most exciting rising star of Bengali cinema, and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, then 35, was being hailed as a successor to legendary Rabindra Sangeet exponent Pankaj Mullick. What’s more, he had now become ‘Hemant Kumar’ and shifted to Bombay on the invitation of filmmaker Hemen Gupta, cutting his teeth as singer-composer with smash hit soundtracks for ‘Anandamath’ (1952), ‘Jaal’ (1954), and ‘Nagin’ (1954). 

Director Sudhir Mukherjee wanted Sachin Dev Burman to compose the music for ‘Shapmochan’, and travelled to Bombay to meet the great man in person. Happily, the enormously busy ‘Sachin karta’ didn’t have the dates to give Mukherjee. We say happily, because news of the meeting reached Hemanta, who was looking for any excuse to return to Calcutta, the city of his soul. Determined not to let this opportunity pass, he met Sudhir babu uninvited, and the very next day, was hired for ‘Shapmochan’. We will never know what expectations the director had of the composer, but the mesmerising soundtrack, coupled with Uttam’s spontaneous yet muted performance, created a storm. Indeed, tracks such as ‘Surer Akashe Tumi Je Go Shuktara’ and ‘Jhor Uthechhe Baul Batas’ cast the same spell today as they did nearly 70 years ago.

For most vocalists, their singing voice tends to be different from their speaking voice. But with Hemanta and Uttam, their voices were so perfectly matched as to seem almost unnatural. This became evident in ‘Harano Sur’ (1957), where Uttam Kumar’s character had to call out to Suchitra Sen’s character (Roma) during a song sequence. Because Uttam was unable to attend the dubbing session, it was Hemanta who spoke the words instead. Not a soul could spot the difference once the film was released.  

Inseparable on the silver screen, the two soon became fast friends in real life too. However, that was not meant to last. In 1976, when Akashvani Calcutta replaced Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s enormously popular radio play ‘Mahishasurmardini’ with the ill-fated ‘Debi Durgatiharini’ conducted by Uttam Kumar with music by Hemanta, it is said that the latter would never have agreed to host the programme had Hemanta not reassured him personally (and mistakenly, as it turned out). The programme was universally criticised, and so strong was the backlash that Akashvani issued a public apology and resumed broadcasting Bhadra’s programme from the following year. 

For most vocalists, their singing voice tends to be different from their speaking voice. But with Hemanta and Uttam, their voices were so perfectly matched as to seem almost unnatural. This became evident in ‘Harano Sur’ (1957), where Uttam Kumar’s character had to call out to Suchitra Sen’s character (Roma) during a song sequence.

This rift between the public and two giants of the entertainment industry was also indicative of a rift that had sprung up between the icons themselves. In fact, for a few years before this, Hemanta’s voice had been used increasingly irregularly for Uttam, with singers such as Shyamal Mitra and Manna Dey coming into the picture, even when Hemanta had continued to compose for films starring Uttam. A public used to viewing the two stars as a package deal now began reading and hearing about arguments and differences between them. 

What exactly led to the rift has never been clear, with the real reason lost in a sea of speculation and rumours. There were reports at the time of an ugly altercation at a party to celebrate Uttam and Gouri’s wedding anniversary, where Hemanta had apparently mockingly said something to Gouri which Uttam took exception to. In 1972, yet another dispute reportedly cropped up when the actress Moushumi Chatterjee turned down Uttam’s son Goutam’s proposal of marriage and chose Hemanta’s son Jayanta for a husband instead. Both Uttam and Goutam apparently saw this as a ‘defeat’.

It is important to note that none of these stories have ever been verified, so it is perhaps best to not dwell on them. Instead, let us fill our hearts and minds with the magic these two legends created for our eyes and ears. Rather than adversaries, they will each forever remain incomplete without the other.

Uttam Kumar left this earth on July 24, 1980. Amidst the sea of condolence messages, one name was conspicuous by its absence. Yet, a short while before his own death on September 26, 1989, Hemanta described how his younger brother Uttam had taken a large part of Hemanta’s soul with him when he died. On his birthday, what better way to remember Hemanta Mukhopadhyay than to imagine him reunited with his alter ego, somewhere over the rainbow?
 

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