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Uttam Kumar-Soumitra: The War that never was

25 February, 2021 16:25:49
Uttam Kumar-Soumitra: The War that never was

Early in the 1960s, Bengali film producer Bijoy Chattopadhyay decided to commission a film based on Tarashankar Bandopadhyay’s novel, Abhijan. The story centred around a proud and hot-tempered Rajput taxi driver, Narsingh, with a passion for his car. Uttam Kumar was at the height of his career then and was the reigning superstar of Bengali filmdom. He had already attained a cult status and there was nobody anywhere close to him in terms of popularity. Uttam Kumar was also a brilliant actor and he was naturally Chattopadhyay’s first choice for the protagonist’s role. He approached the star and offered him the role. However, there was one condition – Uttam Kumar would have to shed his glamorous persona and enact the role of the rough and tough taxi driver. Uttam Kumar refused to comply and excused himself.

Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chattopadhyay have remained the primary bone of contention among generations of Bengali cinephiles as greater actor and the actor with the X-factor. But, in real life, their sphere of work was so different and far removed from each other that such comparisons did not hold water.

Chattopadhyay was encountering a host of problems in other spheres of the project as well and was frustrated. In fact, there came a time when he decided to shelve the film. However, as a last ditch effort, he decided to approach Satyajit Ray and request him to direct the film. Ray readily agreed to the proposal. As soon as he took up the baton, he visualized his protagonist Narsingh in Soumitra Chattopadhyay. Ray had worked with Soumitra before in Apur Sansar and Debi and this time again he went for Soumtra to play the lead role. Soumitra had once said, “Thank God, Uttam-Da refused the role.”

Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chattopadhyay have remained the primary bone of contention among generations of Bengali cinephiles as greater actor and the actor with the X-factor. But, in real life, their sphere of work was so different and far removed from each other that such comparisons did not hold water. Uttam Kumar was the quintessential glamorous star while Soumitra consciously chose different types of roles to challenge his histrionic abilities. He always strived to free himself from the entrapments of stardom that invariably led to predictability and stereotypes.  However, Uttam Kumar’s majestic aura did influence him just like other Bengali film actors of his generation. 

Uttam Kumar had already become the heartthrob of Bengali film industry a decade before Soumitra joined the film industry. Cine audience raved and worshipped Uttam Kumar and lapped up every film where Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen appeared as the lead pair. Soumitra was still a college student then and he would often debate with his friends on the superior acting prowess of Uttam Kumar. Guys were ecstatic about Suchitra’s ethereal beauty. 

Soumitra was introduced to Uttam Kumar much before he took up acting as full-time career. Uttam Kumar had gone to attend a family invitation where Soumitra was also present. They were cast together for the first time in the cult film, Jhinder Bondi. The film required outdoor shooting for a long stretch and during this phase the duo formed a lifelong bonding and camaraderie. Soumitra never copied Uttam Kumar’s acting style but he did learn the finer nuances of acting from Uttam Kumar. 

The next encounter of the titans was in the film Stree which once again divided the audience opinion vertically who left no stones unturned to establish the superior acting skills of one star over the other. But here too, the different acting methods that the roles demanded were very distinct. Uttam Kumar was the rich, reckless landlord, with his glamorous aura and Soumitra was a commoner, a mere photographer who gradually etched his character deftly on the screen. In his later life, Uttam Kumar did discard his chic persona and tried his hands in different types of character roles. In fact, Soumitra strongly believed that Uttam Kumar would have really flourished as a character artiste.  

Soumitra was introduced to Uttam Kumar much before he took up acting as full-time career. Uttam Kumar had gone to attend a family invitation where Soumitra was also present. They were cast together for the first time in the cult film, Jhinder Bondi.

But then, Uttam Kumar must have realized that Bengali film industry required a star and Soumitra’s life-long quest was for an artiste who could delineate diverse characters with equal ease. Hence, there can be no comparison about their capabilities. It is not required.  Uttam-Soumitra and their ilk belong to a golden phase of Bengali film industry. They may not be with us any more physically but their films will remain to remind cinephiles for generations to come about  that glorious chapter in Bengali cinema.

Story Tag:
  • Uttam Kumar, Soumitra

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