That there were only two major heroes in Bengali cinema between the 1950s and ‘70s says something about this film culture: either it is not where heroes were sought or they both had it all to cater to the dreams of millions of viewers.
One is Uttam Kumar, the mahanayak mentioned in almost every discussion of popular Bengali cinema. His performances were relaxed, often understated. He always seemed at ease, even while playing a despondent character, especially when cast opposite his equally famous heroine Suchitra Sen whose unpredictable exaggerations were a satisfying foil. Fifty years before Fan , Satyajit Ray had cast the ultimate star in his disturbing portrait of a celebrity’s psychological exhaustion ( Nayak, 1966).
Kumar, before his sudden death in 1980, had been experimenting with roles atypical for a hero — darker and supporting such as that of Chunilal in a regrettable adaptation of Devdas. But for most of us, he is frozen in our memories as the charismatic matinee star that he was at his peak. Probably not coincidentally would Prosenjit Chatterjee emerge shortly after Kumar’s death as the next major hero for over two decades.Contrasting styles
The other major hero of the time was Soumitra Chatterjee, all finesse and articulation. There was thoughtfulness in his performances, as though the characters he played were constantly analysing. Brooding has never been executed with so much empathy and depth as it was by Chatterjee, a contrast to Kumar’s ease. Chatterjee was known worldwide as Ray’s leading man, but was also fully a part of Kolkata’s popular cinema. He has always merited consideration far beyond ‘the other guy’, but because of the dominance of Kumar it is impossible to ignore a consideration of how the two fit together in the cultural imagination.
I cannot imagine either of these actors performing a character as well as the other did in a film. This indicates that there were specifics to their talents and attractions. Both played romantic, righteous, and dutiful leading men but never in the same way. The contrast in their styles was embodied in an early film they did together. In Tapan Sinha’s Jhinder Bondi , an adaptation of The Prisoner of Zenda , Kumar plays the bluffing yet confident duplicate king (as well as the imprisoned real ruler whose debauched lifestyle does not permit him to function); Chatterjee plays the sneering antagonist.
Bengali cinema in those decades also featured a rich range of character actors, some of whom were occasionally heroes in contemporary films or had been in earlier eras. Anil Chatterjee, Chhabi Biswas, Pahari Sanyal, and the magnificent Utpal Dutt proved that male characters in different roles and shades were needed for strong storytelling — fathers, friends, bosses, clients. Comedians were also prominent: Bhanu Bandyopadhyay (often paired with Jahor Roy) acted in hundreds of films and Robi Ghosh was scrappy, smarmy, or blunt to great effect. All these men had meaning that was different from that of heroes. They provided diversity in age, energy, style, and strengths that hinted at the kinds of complicated worlds we live in. The distinctions between the hero and others weren’t as sharp as we — or marketers — tend to think of them today.Yesterday’s heroes in present times
What influence do Kumar and Chatterjee have in today’s films? Kumar is still evoked as a romantic figure. A metro station in Kolkata was renamed for him, and there’s a larger-than-lifesize statue of him just down that road, striding forward in dhoti-kurta. Chatterjee is active in Bengali theatre and cinema. He is interviewed and profiled regularly, he participates in cultural events, and he appears on advertising billboards. And because of his integral contributions to Ray’s work, he continues to be a figure in world cinema.
However, most of the contemporary films I’ve seen are so different in content and tone that it is probably a fool’s errand to look for yesterday’s heroes in them. Their styles are completely unrelated to macho action movies and to the straining, almost artificial, drama of some art films.
It is actually in Hindi films by Bengali directors and set in Kolkata that I see some similarities. Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani is the best example: the hero of the film is the female lead (something both Kumar and Chatterjee were clearly comfortable with in their films), but in making the police officer who helps her a dutiful, soft-hearted dreamer, Parambrata Chatterjee echoed the wistfulness that Soumitra Chatterjee’s romantic heroes often had. The witty, weary driver in Shoojit Sircar’s Piku reminded me of Chatterjee’s droll comedies like Basanta Bilap and Baksha Badal . My last selection may get me banned from West Bengal, but Uttam Kumar would suit the ego and frantic pace of Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! brilliantly, even though it’s a very different style of Bakshy than what he played under Ray in Chiriyakhana . Kumar didn’t do nervous and edgy very often, but when he did it was a treat to watch.
Beth Watkins has been blogging about Hindi cinema since 2005 at Beth Loves Bollywood (www.bethlovesbollywood.com).