Amitava Nag reviews “Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen- Bengali Cinema’s First Couple” by Maitreyee B Chowdhury, the first book in English on Bengali cinema’s evergreen couple
[U] ttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen are the two names that any one remotely connected to Bengali cinema can associate with even today, more than three decades after they ever acted on screen. Today’s media and the cultural space which is filled up with the modern day hero and the bit-sized starlets hanging from his shoulder in all directions cannot still quite shrug off the magnetic presence of this romantic on-screen couple who swayed Bengali cinema in its golden period – the 1950s and the 1960s. Strangely, there had not been any book on the duo in English (a few are available in Bengali though but not very authentic in any sense) so far till one comes across Maitreyee B Chowdhury’s Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen – Bengali cinema’s first couple (published by OM Books International, ISBN: 978-81-87108-56-6).
There are certain markers which identify the progression of a race and their flattened behavioral pattern. As far as cultural identity is concerned, unmistakably the biggest icon of Bengalis is Rabindranath Tagore. In films, similarly, there is the towering Satyajit Ray and in parallel to him, in the popular domain, the romantic offerings of any Uttam-Suchitra pot-boiler. Hence it doesn’t come as a surprise that Maitreyee, the author of the book, could identify her Bengali roots in the films of Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar as much as she finds in her submersion in Tagore’s work. And that is why the snippets of Tagore pieces as the appetizer of every chapter also seem appropriate and set the chapters up – a nice and novel ploy that works.
The book is carefully woven to first focus on the stars separately – as actors and as persons in their own lives and then taking on to the chemistry between the two and then discussing few of the high-points in the different films they worked together and some of the palpable reasons for their success – music and script. As the text mentions more than once, the dynamics of their chemistry is something which will remain a mystery – Suchitra Sen was probably the most glamorous Bengali actress of all times, a perfect foil for Uttam Kumar, the handsome smart debonair. It is a point of conjecture though as to why the couple looked so passionate on screen – whether they were involved in real life or not as well. There were better looking actors than Uttam in Soumitra Chatterjee or Basanta Chowdhury, yet none of them had the magnetic charm which Uttam exuded in screen cohabitation with Suchitra. In conferring Uttam-Suchitra as the ‘first couple’ of Bengali cinema in the sub-title of the book the author has provided a fitting adage to them.
The book is strewn with numerous anecdotes, well researched and yet not veering on cheap sensationalism on two most distinguished and respected stars of Indian cinema. The tantrums vented by them and the associated glitches are described in details along with some telling revelations like that of Kanan Devi for example, probably the biggest female star of Bengali cinema before Sen – “Suchitra helped improve the lot of actresses of our times. In one word, she symbolized the revolution of an entire age through her stance”. Or the reminiscence of film critic Pradip Biswas who was overwhelmed and awe-struck by Suchitra Sen’s analysis of Senegalese film director Ousmane Sembene’s Ceddo in the International Film Festival of India.
Also interesting is to find Uttam Kumar humble enough to admit “Had Suchitra not been by my side, I would never have been Uttam”. Sharmila Tagore who acted in a few films opposite Uttam commented, “Dilip Kumar is a fantastic actor; Uttam was even better…He remained a top-draw as a romantic hero till his death…No actor in Mumbai could have that kind of romantic appeal after 30 years in the industry”. Quite a tall claim no doubt. Is this popularity because of the nostalgia-stricken Bengali middle-class intelligentsia which is more often than not criticized for laying back and ruminating on the past, probably the same reason why they clung on to a quasi-functional Governance for more than three decades?
The book hence springs up quite a few interesting debates and takes us through the films of the star duo and highlights some of the fascinating jewels in the fabric. However it would have been nicer if the repetition of their mysterious chemistry and their supremacy was downplayed a bit in-lieu of some more analytical entries to their stoic off-screen demeanor. One for example, amongst the 30 odd films they had acted together, 22 were in the 1950s and 4 a piece in the next 2 decades. Why is it that they decided to break away from each other and concentrated on acting with other lead artists? And interesting enough, both attained dizzy heights with their acting laurels when not paired with each other – Uttar Falguni, Sat Pake Bandha, Deep Jwele Jai for Suchitra and Nayak, Bicharak, Jatugriha, Jhinder Bandi and a host of many others for Uttam Kumar. Secondly, in trying to decipher the popularity of the Uttam-Suchitra pair it has to be kept in mind the political and social environment of the 1950s – the period of Nehruvian socialism when the joint-family breaks away for the more nuclear one, the man and his woman – the Uttam Kumar for a Suchitra Sen.
The other yearning stems not from any short-coming of the book but from the general lackadaisical approach towards statistical data collection in general – the box office numbers of the so-called hit films of the duo. In today’s parlance where mode of film availability is multi-pronged, number of weeks cannot be the sole parameter to determine a hit. However along with other metrics like population density, expense-capacity etc. an interesting study can be to figure out exactly how ‘hit’ were Uttam and Suchitra in today’s definition.
It is really strange why both of their Bollywood advances didn’t pay off in the way they would have wanted and also why no one thought of casting them together in Hindi cinema. The chapter on their experiences in Mumbai is intriguing and insightful but the one comparing some of the sizzling pairs of Hindi cinema (with a surprise omission of Amitabh-Rekha) seems a bit out-of-place. But these all are minor blemishes in an otherwise interesting reading of the book. It has already charted itself with a nomination for the Crosswords Book Awards. A book on this subject for the national audience was long pending. Maitryee did take up the task, did thorough research and the results are in front of us. The printing and packaging of the book is fine with nice photographs to back it up. Probably few off-screen pictures of the couple could have added to the flavour. In all, a book worthy of possession if one is interested in Bengali cinema’s first couple.