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Utpal Dutt: a maverick who seamlessly moved between the trite and the hallowed by Ranjan Das

Remembering Utpal Dutt on his 94th birth anniversary

Most Indian viewers remember Utpal Dutt from the Hindi films that he acted in, from the 70s and 80s, shuttling between comic roles and villainous parts with an ease that set him apart as one of our greatest actors. His acting was marked by a distinct style of dialogue delivery, body language and comic timing that is still fondly remembered by film aficionados, ordinary viewers, and professional actors.

Profusely awarded for his performances, he received the Filmfare Award for the Best Comedian thrice – for Gol Maal (1979), Naram Garam (1981) and Rang Birangi (1983), all directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Before that in 1969, he received the National Award for the Best Actor for Mrinal Sen’s Hindi outing Bhuvan Shome, a film that officially ushered in the Parallel Cinema movement in India.

Utpal Dutt in Golmaal

Some of the other Hindi films he is remembered for are Guddi (1971) and Kotwal Saab (1977) by Hrishikesh Mukherjee; Priyatama (1977), Shaukeen (1982) and Hamari Bahu Alka (1982) by Basu Chatterjee; and Amanush (1975), Anand Ashram (1977) and Barsat Ki Ek Raat (1981), all Hindi-Bengali bilinguals directed by Shakti Samanta. He also starred with Amitabh Bachchan in films like The Great Gambler (1979) and Inquilaab (1984), playing the main villain in his trademark style. In fact, he was the main lead in Amitabh Bachchan’s debut film Saat Hindustani (1967), directed by K. A. Abbas. He also starred in three Merchant-Ivory Productions – Bombay Talkie (1970), The Guru (1969) and Shakespeare Wallah, all directed by James Ivory and written by Ruth Praveer Jabhvala.

In Bengal he was a regular face, essaying a wide variety of roles – not necessarily always comic or villainous – since the early 1950s. He featured in the films of three of the greatest directors from Bengal – Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. He played the globe-trotting cynical protagonist in Ray’s last film – Agantuk(The Stranger) in 1991, apart from the master’s Jana Aranya (The Middleman, 1976), an evil Marwari businessman who challenges Feluda’s wits in the detective film Joy Baba Felunath (The Elephant God, 1979) set in Varanasi, and the tyrannical king in Hirak Rajar Deshe (The Kingdom of Diamonds, 1980). He also appeared in numerous mainstream fares where he sparkled the screen with his electric performances in otherwise mundane productions. The popularity of Uttam Kumar, the then reigning superstar of Bengali cinema, or the attraction of a more cerebral Soumitra Chatterjee could not make a dent in the appeal of Utpal Dutta (as Bengalis know him, with that extra ‘a’ in his surname); he had his own mass following.

But to compartmentalize him just as a film actor would be doing injustice to him, because he was also one of the greatest theatre personalities of India who pioneered what later came to be known in Calcutta as the ‘Group Theatre Movement’. Way back in the 40s – he was born in 1929 in Barishal, now in Bangladesh, and studied English Literature at St. Xavier’s College in Calcutta – he developed a passion for English theatre and formed ‘The Shakespeareans’ in 1947 where he directed and acted in the bard’s plays, which brought him to the notice of Geoffrey and Laura Kendal. The Kendals led an itinerant ‘Shakespeareana Theatre Company’ and hired the young Dutt who travelled along with them for two years to different parts of India, performing Shakespeare plays. It is reported that he fell in love with their daughter Jennifer Kendal during the tours but lost her to Shashi Kapoor who was also a part of the itinerant company.

When the Kendals left India, Dutt renamed his group ‘Little Theatre Group’ and over the next three years staged plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Tagore, Gorky and other playwrights. But gradually he developed a love for his mother tongue and began to write and direct plays in Bengali and perform in them.

He was one of the founder members of Indian People’s Theatre Associations (IPTA), an organisation known for its leftist orientation, but left it after a couple of years, despite remaining a committed Marxist throughout his life. Influenced by the radical German playwright Bertolt Brecht who sought to break the barrier between performance and the audience, he travelled extensively across rural Bengal, staging didactic, political plays.

Gradually, the plays that he staged in Calcutta became controversial for their political contents and in 1965 he was jailed by the Congress government in West Bengal as it feared that his play Kallol (Sound of the Waves), based on the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946 might provoke anti-government protests. While in jail, he wrote and staged Louha Manab (The Iron Man) with the inmates and utilised his time writing several political plays. Many of his other political plays, despite drawing huge crowds were banned by the State Government in the turbulent 70s, but he remained undeterred.

Utpal Dutt in Bhuvan Shome

In all, he wrote twenty-two full-length plays, fifteen short plays, nineteen Jatra scripts, acted in thousands of shows, including street theatres, and directed more than sixty productions. The Last Lear (2007), an English-language film directed by Rituporno Ghosh was based on Dutt’s play Ajker Shahjahan (Today’s Shahjahan) in which Amitabh Bachchan played an aging Shakespearean actor. Apart from theatre productions, he extensively wrote serious studies of Shakespeare, Stanislavsky, Brecht and others. He was an intellectual of the first order who seamlessly moved between the trite and the hallowed without batting an eyelid. He also directed a number of films but frankly, they are not noteworthy. In 1990, he received the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship for his lifetime contribution to Indian theatre.

As they say, they don’t make the likes of them anymore. He was a phenomenon who left an indelible mark on viewers, and we continue to miss the maverick.

Ranjan Das is a Mumbai based filmmaker & faculty.

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