In the mid-1960s, the Bengali director Mrinal Sen reportedly accused his contemporary Satyajit Ray of selling out. “Mrinal said—now he has sunk to the level of using a matinee idol!” Ray would later laugh to his biographer, Andrew Robinson. The star in question was Uttam Kumar, whom Ray handpicked for the title role of The Hero (1966).
Steeped in the world of commercial Bengali cinema, Kumar represented a departure from Ray’s art-house sensibilities, at least on paper. He was no boy plucked from anonymity, as Subir Banerjee of Pather Panchali (1955)had been, nor was he a novice being given a big break, like Soumitra Chatterjee of Apur Sansar (1959). Kumar, indisputably the leading male performer of Bengali cinema at the time, was an actor who spoke to the masses.
To Ray, Kumar was the only actor suited to play the role of megastar Arindam Mukherjee. The Hero, drawn from Ray’s original screenplay,follows Arindam as he journeys from Kolkata to Delhi on an overnight train to accept a prestigious film award. He is doing so on the heels of a potentially career-imploding scandal: a recent drunken brawl with a man has made the papers. Arindam unravels on that train ride, confronting the personal demons that the public doesn’t see.
Throughout his career, Ray brought his empathetic eye to a wide gallery of characters, including a village girl mistaken for a goddess (Devi) and a married working woman in Kolkata (The Big City). A movie star was no less worthy a subject for him. With The Hero, he was hoping to interrogate the mechanics of fame: what goes on in the minds of performers who seem superhuman, and what draws audiences to them. When writing the screenplay, Ray constructed Arindam from his impressions of Kumar. The actor fascinated him. Ray had been keeping tabs on him for over a decade. In that early period of Kumar’s career, he was still feeling his way through commercial cinema in both smaller and starring roles. Ray found him to be “very bad” in those days, as he told Robinson. That was before Kumar found success in the 1950s and ’60s. Fame, Ray thought, uncorked Kumar’s gifts as a performer.
Ray was right. As he grew older, Kumar blossomed into a fluid and passionate actor. His soft, forgiving face could convey shifts in emotional registers at astonishing speed. Kumar’s smile may have been his most effective weapon. “If Uttam Kumar committed a crime and then he gave that smile, I was ready to believe he was innocent,” Chatterjee, a frequent Ray collaborator after Apur Sansar, reportedly once declared.
Kumar would reign over Bengali cinema until his sudden death from a stroke in 1980. He was just fifty-three. His funeral processions congested the streets of Kolkata. That he died early and unexpectedly has done a great deal to cement his status as a legend. Train stations and thoroughfares in West Bengal bear his name; his life inspired a Bengali television serial, Mahanayak (2016). Few would dispute his gifts as an actor today. One can point to a number of his performances as displays of his unique blend of charisma and craft.
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