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Decoding the Uttam-Suchitra chemistry by Satyabrata Ghosh

Cinema could have been only a spectacular experience for the ticket-paying audience for a decade or two, if it had limited itself to moving pictures only, following the Lumiere Brothers’ path. With the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘bioscope’ as it was called those days became a popular business when Hiralal Roy, Dhundiraj Gobind Phalke, Jamshedji Framji Madan et al successfully ventured into filmmaking and film productions. Even in those sun-rising days, literature in form of dramas and novels was adapted for the screen, where the actors moved their lips intercut with words written on the black cards. The appearances of the actors and their indomitable spirits (remembering Reena Mohan’s 1991 film ‘Kamlabai’) conveyed the emotions to a curious audience and amused them.

The technology of marrying sound with films arrived in the early 1930s and made the most impact on the world of filmmaking. The universality of watching silent films occasionally with the accompaniment of orchestra almost remained a perfect proposition for the individuals and production houses who canned the exposed negatives regularly indoors and sometimes outdoors, processed and spliced them to final shape to distribute the final positive prints to exhibitors at a standard cost and earned some profits. This changed once the specific language spoken or sung by actor/singers on the sound stage were recorded and then projected to the audience of whom, some or many failed to catch the lines, which till then were either written on the screen or interpreted/narrated by a person specifically assigned by the halls all over the world. Walls made of words were built through nations till the method of inter-titling was replaced by subtitling (although introduced in 1909, subtitling of films on regular basis came in the wake of World War II).

Uncannily, the undivided Bengal was among the firsts in India to embrace the new technology. Studios like New Theatres (established in 1931) were not only appropriating sound film technology but also produced film after film with a general tendency to adapt literature for the screen. Soon they were in tandem with the production style of major Hollywood Studios. The lighting methods, cutting techniques and even the symphonic orchestra for the Title sequences were similar. Instruments like piano, guitar and cymbals were often heard as background scores instead of clarinet, flute, violin and dhols which were the standard instruments used to create tailor-made moods for the scenes and acts of theatres and jatras. In composing the songs though, the western influences were evitable, and distinct local melodies, especially folk songs remained dominant.

This was also the time when the prevalent style of the stage appeared too magnified for the film directors like Devaki Basu, Hemen Gupta, Naresh Mitra et all who were scared that the audience would get distracted by the magnified loudness. And they were not wrong if we recall a scene from Satyajit Ray’s Nayak where the newcomer Arindam Mukherjee (Uttam Kumar) was being taunted by a veteran actor (Bireswar Sen) in the film set when all technicians and the director were the silent witnesses to the humiliation.

Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay aka Uttam Kumar (1926–1980) could have been an average middle-class government employee in Port Trust and could have pursued a career in singing, boxing, and acting in local amateur theatres at Bhawanipur in South Kolkata during his leisure time and after he retired from the government job. However, the difference was etched in his heart by the influence of his father Satkari Chattopadhyay, who was a projector operator in the Metro cinema hall, one of the most prestigious and luxurious halls at that time in the city (Inox took it over now and turns it into a multiplex). Here, in this cinema hall, the latest Hollywood films were released for the amusement of ‘gora saheb and mems’ and the 'brown sahibs' who were at the helm of state affairs during the colonial era. It is not illogical to guess that the snippets of his father’s excitement of watching the top-rated Hollywood movies at that time had infected the culturally sensitive Arun, the adolescent boy.

Suchitra Sen & Uttam kumar in Harano Sur(1957).

The aspiration to become a film actor and to turn one into reality requires persistence and diligence. His hopping from one studio to the other as a rooky actor bore results, most of which were not at all in his favour to pursue the way to screen. One can draw a parallel with the early career of Amitabh Bachchan, who was decent enough to return the money given to him as an advance, to one producer who estimated him to be in the wrong profession after a series of his films had flopped in the late 1960s. Like the Big B, Arun Kumar Chattopadhyay too did not deter from the path his artistic instinct guided him, although the cynics in the then Bengali film industry had named him ‘flop master general’.

In films like Basu Paribar (1952), and Sare Chuattar (1953) which were done more as an ensemble, his bhadrolok look and acting were noticed individually, which helped him to metamorphose as Uttam Kumar – a star. But then the magic of the 1950s would have been half-done till the enigma called Suchitra Sen flared up the screen. Destined to be a proud housewife of a well-to-do family, Roma Dasgupta from Pabna (now in Bangladesh) reluctantly entered the world of films and evolved with time. She worked with Uttam Kumar for the first time in Nirmal Dey’s Sare Chuattar and the pair made an immediate impact on the audience, though the camaraderie of the ensembled artists (which included some singers like Shyamal Mitra and Manabendra Bandyopadhyay with the celebrated pair of maestros in Bengali comedy Bhanu Bandyopadhyay and Jahar Roy with the inimitable Tulsi Chakroborty) remains a thing to cherish even now and will be. But as romantic leads, they first appeared in Agradoot (Bibhuti Laha)’s Agni Parikhya the next year and won the hearts of young and old alike.

What still appeals to the audience is the simple dignity they project on the screen, which neither makes them appear neighbour-like nor garner awe of being far-away stars beyond the reach of ordinary people. They rather inspired such an affinity among them, that they long to have one of the two as a dear friend and even a member of the family. In terms of content too, the script and makings of most of these films were ditto in following Hollywood’s process of making stars, whose names were enough to pull the audience to cinema halls. While the gossip magazines kept emphasizing their intimate relationship, they restrained themselves in reality and maintained the competitive spirit to outperform each other.

It is quite difficult to single out from the oeuvre of more than 28 films that starred Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen. Much spoken Agni Pariksha (1954), Pathe Holo Deri (1957), Harano Sur (1957), Saptapadi (1961), et al the stars continued to bewitch the audience and many of them especially Saptapadi is never bereft of the new audience when they are telecasted in TV channels or being streamed in OTT platforms. Uttam Kumar was so deeply involved in films that he produced Ajoy Kar’s Saptapadi after an ego clash when Suchitra Sen claimed to have her name on the poster and title card over Uttam Kumar. And he even produced Asit Sen’s Uttar Falgunii (1963) (made into Mamta, a Hindi film by the same director 3 years later) in which he didn’t even appear on screen! In all these films the natural acting of Uttam Kumar perfectly matched the high pitch acting of Suchitra Sen with her lustrous smiles and set postures like turning around the camera, chinning up, gazing at each other’s eyes and other signatures. More and more crowds gathered at the cinema halls which made the Uttam-Suchitra pair irresistible for almost every urban and suburban household for at least two decades and more.

Besides the on-screen persona of the inimitable pair, what distinguished their films is the melodious songs by Hemanta Mukhopadhyay, Sandhya Mukhopadhya and Geeta Dutt, which were penned by stalwarts like Gouriprasanna Majumdar, Pulak Bandyopapahya, Shibdas Banerjee and composed by veterans like Anupam Ghatak, Robin Chatterjee, et al and young Nachiketa Ghosh and Hemanta Mukhopadhyay. These songs and many others are part of the Bengali heritage which is continued to be cherished in a nostalgic trip down memory lane.

Suchitra Sen & Uttam kumar in Saptapadi(1961).

Vibrant lighting and deft cinematography of Bibhuti Laha, Bijoy Ghosh, Anil Gupta, Bishu Chakraborty and Ajoy Kar also lent the conjuration of black & white of the earlier Suchitra-Uttam films. These painters of light and shadow were abreast with the latest Hollywood techniques of choosing the lenses and made the most of the lights available in the studio system of production. They lit the sets according to the requirements of scenes along with what cinematographer John Alton (1901–1996) described, as “an eight-point system for close-up lighting. It is based on the three-point system (key, filler & back lights) and included some extra lights that helped to improve the aesthetic effect. Three were directed at the actors: an ‘eye light’, which brought out a sparkle in the actors' eyes; a ‘clothes light’, which showed up the details of their costumes; and a ‘kicker light’, which added further definition to their hair and cheekbones and was normally positioned between the backlight and the filler light. Additionally, a ‘fill light’ provided diffused lighting for the entire set while a ‘background light’ illuminated the set behind the actors.”

Nitai Bhattacharya along with the versatile dramatist Bidhayak Bhattacharya, author and noted translator Nripendrakrishna Chattopadhyay, and the Agragami triad of Saroj Dey, Nisith Mukhopadhyay and Bimal Bhowmik mostly scripted these films coherently with a deep understanding of Bengali sentiments. Even though most of these films are adaptations of romantic Hollywood films like Colman Garson’s Random Harvest (1942), they successfully brought out the melodrama to which the Bengali audience is akin.

It is interesting to note that against the strong persona of Suchitra Sen on and off screen after a pan-Indian exposure of Parboti in Bimal Roy’s Debdas (1955) against Dilip Kumar, the persona of Uttam Kumar became that of a softer lead male instead of the stereotypical man in almost all their films except Ajay Kar’s Saptapadi (1961) and Pabitra Chattopadhyay’s Alo Amar Alo (1971). A case in point is Niren Lahiri’s Indrani (1958).

This film based on Achintya Kumar Sengupta portrays a daughter Indrani (Suchitra Sen) of an idealistic but caste-sensitive father (Pahari Sanyal) who arrived at the city to pursue her higher studies and was enamored by the gentle and sensitive Sudarshan (Uttam Kumar). Indrani was firm about her decision to marry the educated and unemployed man even going against the elders in both families. In a scene when her in-laws cold-shouldered her, Indrani wondered, “The same ones who welcome their daughter’s friend, humiliate their son’s wife!” She took a job far away and shifted there with her husband. Docile and hesitant Sudarshan so long suffered from an inferiority complex and self-pity. He left home and found himself participating in and then leading a mission undertaken by a benevolent retired teacher (Chabi Biswas) to build a colony in Shalboni for the hapless ones. Their endeavour got praised and publicized which brought Indrani to Shalboni. Once she reached there, a storm raged over the colony as Sudarshan pulls up the morale of the shattered people to rebuild the homes from ruin Indrani approached Sudarshan pleading, “Whenever we tried to settle ourselves alone, we failed. Why don’t we try again together?” to which Sudarshan finally relented.

The submissive, gentle and disarming charm of Uttam Kumar was fully utilized in this film against the strong-willed, self-asserting image of Suchitra Sen. Gulzar’s Aandhi (1975) showcased this woman who had evolved to live an independent life, perhaps had a seed in Indrani who was then hesitant to sacrifice her love. Uttam Kumar as Sudarshan in Indrani was no less dignified than JK (Sanjeev Kumar) in Aandhi, but helpless in the callous environment of post-independent India, which was reluctant to acknowledge merit, [as it did to Vijay (Guru Dutt) in Pyasa (1957)], defied the preference of the same woman (Suchitra Sen) in two different ways – one directly (Aandhi) and the other, simply missing from her life (Indrani).

As actors playing the lead roles, both Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen responded to the respective values they imbibed genetically and through their own experiences. Most of the Scriptwriters and Directors understood that and knew how to make the most of it. And the actors while listening to their instincts, were quick to acquire the norms and disciplines expected by the industry from the actors. Together, they make the tough job of filmmaking a pleasant teamwork. The symbioses between the people at the two ends of the camera during the filming and after it, resulted in the enigmatic chemistry that we know as Suchitra-Uttam and vice versa.

Satyabrata Ghosh is a Kolkata based film critic & screenwriter.

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