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Movie Memories-8: Ranjan Das's cringeworthy experience of an Uttam Kumar film!

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

When AMANUSH was released in 1975, I was a kid and not taken to watch the film. Starring Uttam Kumar who was the reigning superstar of Bengali cinema for more than two decades, the Bengali-Hindi bilingual directed by Shakti Samanta went on to become the biggest hit of Bengali cinema till that time. Its songs, sung by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle became a rage and the crepe, cotton shirts that Uttam Kumar wore became a fashion statement amongst Bengali youth; even I had one. But I fumed inside at being deprived of this phenomenal cine experience that assumed cult status.

Many years later when the film was released again and I had attained the age to watch films on my own, I was delighted – now comes by chance! And I went to watch the film at Purabi, a theatre in North Calcutta with a couple of my local friends who also had not seen the film earlier. Set against the picturesque wilderness of the Sunderbans, it had Uttam Kumar playing the scion of a zamindar family, an orphan who is wrongly accused of theft and banished from inheritance by his cruel uncle (Utpal Dutta) who takes over the zamindari. Shunned by society and his beauteous girlfriend in Bengali ‘taant’ sarees (Sharmila Tagore), he suffers unmitigated hardships and insults, becomes an alcoholic, till a new police officer (Anil Chatterjee) – after malicious disinformation fed by the bad uncle that leads him to whip our hero mercilessly on one occasion – takes it upon himself to transform the wronged man. Eventually, he redeems himself by some noble deed and clears his name and is united with his sweetheart, and all the bad men meet their obligatory fate. In between all this, the town prostitute played by Prema Narayan in half saree provides the sex appeal whose association with the leading man is frowned upon by the villagers, despite it being platonic!

My cinematic tastes were not very refined at that time; I was not exposed to world cinema when I watched this film – I was in 12th standard, and was a huge fan of Amitabh Bachchan, and the usual quota of Hollywood films released in specific theatres in central Calcutta. But what I remember was that I was appalled by AMANUSH. Uttam Kumar’s performance was cringeworthy, wallowed as he did in self-pity and sickening sentimentalism throughout its running time of more than 2 hours 30 mins. The situations were simplistic and loud; the plot points earth-shattering. The director used all the usual tropes built around the themes of good vs. bad, misunderstandings created by wicked minds, and fake sorrows. There was no grey area; everything was in black and white.

The cinematography was the only redeeming factor; I still remember the sudden cut to the crystal blue water of the sea from the running steamer on which a beleaguered Uttam Kumar breaks into a Kishore song – Ki aashaye bandhi khelaghar / Bedonar baluchorey… I loved the song, for a long time – even the Hindi version of it, which had a different tune – Dil aisa kisine mera toda. Shyamal Mitra who scored all the songs did a marvellous job. But now when I stumble into those songs on social media or FM, I find them ridiculous; they are the most stupid, embarrassing lyrics that I have ever heard, filled with self-pity and trite emotions. Come on, how can an adult mouth lines like Dil yaisa kisine mera toda / Barwadi ke taraf yaisa moda / Ek bhale manush ko / Amanush banake chora…? Really? Go fcuk yourself and drown in the river.

Now when I think back on the film, I am not even irritated. It was too funny actually – and so bad that it is good!

TRIVIA: The film went on to be remade in Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. And it was inspired by a novel written by a popular Bengali writer Shaktipada Rajguru whose another novel inspired Meghe Dhaka Tara by Ritwik Ghatak in 1960.

Ranjan Das is a Mumbai based filmmaker & faculty.

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