“Could you change the channel to Uttam Kumar movies please…” my Mom said to me in a matter-of-fact manner while she dipped the crunchy nut breakfast cereal into the bowl of warm milk. As I flipped from Netflix to YouTube with the Apple TV remote, it was clear to me that for my Mom, YouTube had become the equivalent of a channel devoted to Uttam Kumar.
Uttam Kumar was a legendary actor of Bengali Cinema who dominated the Bengali movie industry for more than 3 decades. Born in the year 1926, he died at a young age of 53 in the year 1980. He acted in more than 200 films including 15 Hindi films, and he still has a wide fan following across generations. He holds an iconic status in Indian cinema, with a metro station named after him including life size statues as well as commemorative stamps released to celebrate his birth anniversary.
My Mom would have watched at least a hundred of Uttam Kumar’s films but she doesn’t mind watching them again. The natural and effortless style of acting of this great actor impresses even the most discerning viewer. Uttam Kumar had more than 50 megahit movies to his credit and was hailed as a one-man industry but even he had a lot of critics during his time, as is natural for any successful person. Some people said he was fit only for commercial movies as a matinee idol, and he could not cater to the intellectual taste of certain segments.
This gap between commercial and intellectual had given rise to parallel cinema creating a new genre of art films. However the ultimate tribute was paid to Uttam Kumar by Satyajit Ray, one of the greatest art movie directors of all time, when he cast him to play himself in the movie “Nayak” (The Hero).
I asked my Mom to rate the Uttam Kumar movies along the two dimensions of “Story” and “Acting”. Some movies had a good plot but the acting was not that great. On the other hand some movies had a lousy storyline but the acting was superb. Then there were some where both the story and the acting was great leading to the megahits.
My Mom diligently rated each movie along those two dimensions and her ratings led me to create an analytical view of Uttam Kumar’s movies. I have actually plotted the ratings in a little 2x2 with Acting as the X-axis and Story as the Y-axis, leading to four quadrants. On the upper right quadrant are movies that are strong in Story as well as Acting. There are at least 50 films in that quadrant alone. On the bottom right quadrant are movies that are weak in Story but have strong Acting. Most of the remaining movies of Uttam Kumar fall in this quadrant!
Both the quadrants on the left side in my little 2x2 are fairly empty, with just a couple of entries. What does this mean?! Well it just goes to prove that there are not that many movies where Uttam Kumar has not acted well. This is perhaps one of the reasons behind the unbeatable success of Uttam Kumar – there is hardly any movie where he did not do justice to his role!
In the beginning of his career, starting with “Drishtidan” in 1948, he had struggled a bit to establish himself. But after “Sharey Chuattor” in 1953 and “Agni Pariksha” in 1954, both turning out to be superhit movies - there was no looking back for him.
No matter who was his director, and who was his heroine, no matter how good the plot or how different the music, no matter how well the co-stars acted, Uttam Kumar was like a constant – he worked equally hard for every single role. A one-man industry indeed! For almost 30 years he maintained the same physique and the same charisma. Even at the height of his success, he continued to set new records. This level of discipline and diligence is rarely found.
Uttam Kumar’s wish was to die on the job in a studio - and that is exactly what happened. It was while shooting his last film (“Ogo Bodhu Shundori”) that he suffered a massive stroke and was taken to hospital - never to return again in person, but securing a permanent place in the hearts and minds of millions of his fans - to this day.