Poster of Satyajit Ray’s Nayak

In 1971, Satyajit Ray took his turn in defining what he means by a star. “A star is a person on the screen who continues to be expressive and interesting even after he or she has stopped doing anything.” This was as fair and ingenious a definition as any. But how long is that ‘even after’, one might want to ask. This is because the star in question is none other than Uttam Kumar, for whom that ‘even after’ is a full forty years; for, not only has he stopped working, he has in fact been gone for exactly four decades to the day. And forty years in this precipitous planet and in the perfidious world of cinema is enough — even for a star as titanic as Uttam — to have atrophied into a historical artefact, or an academic curiosity, or a mummified cultural trophy.

But Uttam’s afterlife has been extraordinary. Part of it is because of learned commemoration: there are countless memoirs, nostalgic ruminations, visual revisits and cinematic histories. There are reams of felicitous homage from colleagues and co-actors, directors, technicians, distributors, theatre-owners and other luminaries from all walks of life, which has created a riveting tableau of lives Uttam had directly been able to touch, if not also transform. Part of it is because of the readiness of a gregarious culture ever ready to collapse into the past. Bring a few talkative Bengalis together and in no time at all they will be in an immersive adda about Uttam and his films; humming a song or two, replaying a scene here and there, momentarily lost in the redolence of those monochrome hours, in the imagined greatness of a golden period.

For every bit of this purportedly bhadrolok acts of retention, there are also spontaneous, streetwise displays of exuberant adoration. Land in Calcutta and you would see broadsheets, hoardings, shops, posters, books dangling with his face. In quickly disappearing atriums of single-screen theatres across the city, he is ubiquitous. Uttam’s smiling portrait also peeps out from sudden nooks and corners — neighbourly salons, dusty tailor-shops, bare-boned photo-studios, rusty sweetshops and grimy eateries that are either in thrall of his everlasting charm or touting the honour of his visit into their midst many moons ago. The scale of Uttam’s easy visibility across Calcutta and towns of Bengal four decades since his death makes one singular claim: that Uttam has not only refused mortality but has made a permanent home in the collective memory of Bengal.

This is about the stardom bit. What about the performances? There are many indices. First, the institutions — inaugural national award for best acting in 1967; six BFJA Awards, numerous felicitations and other displays of collective reverence from public organisations. Second, metaphorical — a film by Satyajit Ray at the peak of his powers (Nayak, 1966) that was based on Uttam’s life and had Uttam as the protagonist. Ray has never eschewed his admiration for Uttam, calling him an unparalleled cinematic icon. Consider the following brief passage from Pico Iyer’s New York Review of Books essay on The Hero, which accompanied the Criterion Collection release of the film in 2018. Iyer writes, “The film is anchored at every moment in Kumar’s performance, and to me it’s an astonishment[…] The beauty of Kumar’s Arindam Mukherjee is that he has the capacity to surprise us, again and again. He can be witty and charming and kind. As Ray and Kumar push beneath the leading man’s smooth surfaces, we expect, perhaps, demons and sleepless nights; but we may not be prepared for such grace.”

There is also a possible third index. Note that some of Hindi cinema’s milestones: Saheb Bibi Gulam (Saheb Bibi Golam), Hum Hindustani (Bosu Poribar), Hum Dono  (Uttarayan), Kala Pani (Sobar Opore), Lal Pathhar (Lal Pathor), Angoor (Bhrantibilash), Jibanmrityu (Jibon Mrityu), Chupke Chupke (Chhadmabeshi), Amar Prem (Nishipodmo), Kati Patang (Surjotopa), Anurodh (Deya Neya), Abhiman (Bilombito Loy), Bemisal (Ami She o Sokha) and Ijaazat (Jotugriha) were all remakes of Uttam’s films. This is to say that nine of Hindi cinema’s big names — Guru Dutt, Sunil Dutt, Dev Anand, Rajkumar, Sanjeev Kumar, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Amitabh Bachchan and even Naseeruddin Shah — have together brought to the screen multitudinous leading characters which in their original belonged to just one actor. This might give a hint of the range and depth of Uttam’s original talent.

And this is not counting his stellar performances in ‘never-remade’ films: Bicharak (The Judge, 1959), Shiulibari (The Townmaker, 1961), Kanna (The Cry, 1962), Sesh Onko (The Last Act, 1963) Kal Tumi Aleya (The Negotiator, 1966), Chiriakhana (The Zoo, 1967), Antony Firingee (Poet from a Foreign Land, 1967) Chowringhee (Chowronghee, 1968), Ekhane Pinjor (The Prisonhouse, 1971), Agniswar (Lord of Fire, 1975) and Baghbandi Khela (The Hunting Game, 1975) among others. This example might also give a hint as to why one kind of performative stardom travels poorly across terrains but forms a larger-than-life incarnation in their home soil: Toshiro Mifune, Alain Delon, Innokenty Smoktunovsky, Tony Leung Chiu-wai and yes, the hearth-throb Marcello Mastroianni are some other robust examples.

It is somewhat epiphanic that the quadragennial month of Uttam’s death falls bang in the middle of a globe-rummaging pandemic. And that gives me a final reason to reflect on why Uttam’s screen persona is worth revisiting. As he rose in public reckoning in the mid-1950s, Uttam’s stardom emerged as the key figure around which the architectonics of Bengali popular cinema announced its re-organisation. The changed circumstances of Bengal’s chequered years could, in the young man’s ordinariness, trace the hapless new citizen, the displaced refugee, the troubling aspirations of an artiste or the youth hopelessly in love. This was the initial capital of Uttam Kumar’s fledgling stardom and he built unfailingly upon its wide appeal. Much of the magnetism of his 1950s melodramas hence lay in this incorporation of a self-assured, footloose, companionable figure. In fact, it was this everyman figuration which in besieged, beleaguered Bengal explored resolutions to a series of crises that could interchange what was desirable and what could be realisable. In other words, Uttam’s appeal was built not only on an edifice of feel-good, gratifying romances but on the ability of his screen persona to conform and contradict; to understand the melancholic heft of the period while also being able to navigate it gently, with dulcet humility; and without rebellion and rancour. Surely, there is a lesson or two to learn from that persona as it saunters into another era forty years after his mortal frame had turned into dust.