Narrating Lives and Constructing Selves: Uttam Kumar and the Construction of the Hero

Adrija Guha
Adrija Guha 

Assistant Professor of English, JIS College of Engineering, Kalyani, Nadia, West Bengal.

Abstract

This paper seeks to study various intentions and objectives behind writing autobiographies and how various factors come together in the writing of this text. With a close textual analysis of Uttam Kumar’s autobiographies Amar Ami (1979-80) and Harie Jawa Dinguli Mor (1961-63), this essay will explore the various reasons that are responsible for the making (or writing) of an autobiography, the factors responsible for that and the complex relation between the subject, author, reader and the publisher, and the construction of an image or an identity. The paper will focus on the construction of image, how autobiographies and life narratives are reflexive by nature and how they are constructed by human beings through active ratiocination and, in doing so, will offer a new paradigm for an understanding of the autobiographies of film stars.

 

Keywords

construction of an image, ratiocination, creation of ‘star’ persona, publicity.

 

Main Text

The film Nayak begins with the matinee idol, Arindam Mukherjee, who is going to Delhi to receive a prestigious award. In the train he meets Aditi Sengupta, editor of a women's magazine, Adhunika. Though not his fan, she expresses her wish of taking his interview for her magazine as this would increase its popularity. When asked about his life, he replies that his biography has been published in quite a few journals and hence many people already know about his life. Aditi reveals that she already knows what others know about his life; she is more interested to know about his regrets. He sternly says that revealing his regrets might have a drastic effect on his career; they (filmstars) wander in the world of shadows and hence it will be better not to expose their body of flesh and blood in front of the public. When asked whether she has understood what he has said, she replies in positive, saying that they always want to remain a ‘hero’ in the eyes of the public. Hence only those facts about his life are published which will help him to maintain this status quo. Though it is said that Nayak is the fictionalized autobiography of Uttam Kumar, Bengal’s matinee idol, this essay will not focus on the film’s autobiographical elements. Rather, the essay would take this film as a starting point to understand the various intentions and objectives behind writing autobiographies and how various factors come together in the writing of this text. Focussing primarily on Uttam Kumar’s autobiographies Amar Ami (1979-80) and Harie Jawa Dinguli Mor (1961-63), this essay will explore the various reasons that goes into the making (or writing) of an autobiography, the factors responsible for that and the complex relation between the subject, author, reader and the publisher, and the construction of an image or an identity.

 

Uttam Kumar needs no introduction. He was and is a well-known personality not only in Bengal, Bangladesh but also all over India. Describing Uttam Kumar, Shoma A. Chatterjee writes, “Uttam was to Bengali cinema what Amitabh Bachhan has been to mainstream Hindi cinema …” (Chatterjee 30). The Bengal film industry never ever saw the rise of another star. Till today, all the Bengali heroes taken together cannot match Uttam Kumar’s charisma and his versatile performances. He is still the Matinee Idol. His father was the chief operator in Metro cinema and his mother was a simple housewife. Born in an extremely middle class family, Uttam Kumar worked at the Calcutta Port Commissioner’s Office, before making it big in cinema. Till now, Bengali cinema can boast of only three ‘stars’ – Durgadas Bandopadhyay, Pramathesh Barua and Uttam Kumar. Durgadas Bandopadhyay was primarily a theatre actor and during that time (in the early 1900s), film acting was heavily influenced by the theatre. Pramathesh Barua was primarily a director. However, Uttam Kumar was a complete package: be it his versatile acting, bewitching smile, golden voice, demeanour, ‘star’ status or attitude towards others – he was unparalleled. No doubt various eminent personalities have tried to pen down his biography and, most of the time, have earned a positive result. However, this essay will discuss the autobiographies written by Uttam Kumar . Harie Jawa Dinguli Mor was published in the Nabakallol journal in a serialized form from 1961 to 1963 and covers his life till 1962 when he was at the peak of fame, success and popularity. Thus it is incomplete. Amar Ami was published in a serialized form in Prasad journal in 1979-80. The 1st edition was published by Mitra & Ghosh and the 2nd edition, by Dey’s Publishing House. In a letter to the editor, Uttam Kumar writes that he did not want his autobiography to be published then but he could not say no to the young writer-journalist Gourango Ghosh; hence he has given his consent. Having said so, he also confesses that though the genre of autobiography demands to be told everything, at that time it was not possible for him to reveal everything about his life. However, in the second edition, he promises, that he would write more about the unknown things about his life.

 

Harie Jawa Dinguli Mor begins with an interesting line: ‘At first I thought that I would not write. Later I was forced to take the pen in my hand, thinking that I also have something to tell you. Hence here I am to give voice to my unsaid words’ (my translation). He goes on to write what audience thinks about him – that he lives in a fairy-tale-like-world – and what he actually is and how his life is shaped by the joys and sorrows, just like anyone else’s. He tells us in great details where he was born, why he changed his name from Arun Kumar Chatterjee to Uttam Kumar, his family members, the lasting impact on him of the death of his elder sister, Putul, his struggle to become an actor, all those years of frustrations when he vacillated between the idea of resigning from the job (which would have been a high risk as he was the only earning member of the family) and giving up on acting (as the films where he managed to get some roles, flopped and he was tagged ‘flop master general’ by the industry) and, above all, he tells us about his relationship with his wife, Gauri, how he madly fell in love with her, pursued her, quite in the manner of a film hero, and, at last, married her. Said in a nutshell, this story does make him a real life hero who never quits. His is the story of rags to riches, a story which is a common story of all the successful people! It follows the same pattern: how poor they were, the struggles they had to go through, how they put up with life, faced the hurdles and, ultimately, turned out to be winners. Thus he comes across as the exact persona whom the audience have imagined all throughout. Hence we cannot dismiss this autobiography as a mere confession, where he is simply letting out his thoughts to the audience. It was in 1961-63, when he was at the peak of success. Publication of this autobiography, in a serialized form, helped him to add to his ‘star’ value.

 

Shoma A. Chatterjee in her book Suchitra Sen: The Legend and the Enigma addresses this question – Who is a ‘Star’? Quoting Richard Dyer, who in his Stars has said how a ‘star is an image’ and not a real person and how this image is constructed out of a range of materials, Chatterjee writes how “icons and celebrities are constructed by institutions for financial gain, and target a specific audience/group of people” (Chatterjee 77). She goes on to write:

[T]he ‘star’ persona is a fictional identity that almost subconsciously creates fashion trends, popular phrases for the audience to imitate and imbibe and so on. The persona of the star is, therefore, a fictional identity created, constructed and designed, consciously by the film industry and the media, and subconsciously by the audience. Thus when an individual attains ‘stardom’ and becomes a star, like Suchitra Sen, and reigns over the audience and the industry for a long span of time, she can influence her audience and her fans if she so wishes. Even if she does not wish to do so, they can get influenced by the screen image of the star as they see her on screen and through magazines, interviews and so on. (Chatterjee 77).

The same thing can be said for Uttam Kumar as well. In this connection we should keep in mind that during that time there was no outburst of media and the only place where the audience got a glimpse of their favourite stars was the print media and film magazines. Whereas the films portrayed them in a stereotypical manner, the print media was the only platform where the audience could see or read about the private lives of the stars. Since there was no television during that time, these magazines played an important role: they helped the stars in publicity which helped them to retain their images even when they were not doing any film. On the other hand, the audience got to know about their favourite stars and the more they came to know about them, the more they craved for. This helped the ‘stars’ to maintain their image which was really important for the marketing of their films. Uttam Kumar was well aware of his image. It is said that Satyajit Ray had once thought about filming Ghare Baire with Soumitra Chatterjee playing the role of Nikhilesh, Uttam Kumar playing the role of Sandip and Suchitra Sen playing the role of Bimala. The project did not materialize then as Uttam Kumar declined the role of Sandip because he did not want to do a negative role at that phase of his career as that would have destroyed his ‘image’. Years later, Ray did the film with a different casting. Thus Uttam Kumar was very much aware of his position as a ‘star’ and did everything to maintain that image.

 

The years mentioned here – 1961 – 1963 – were some of the turbulent years in Uttam Kumar’s life. It was in 1963 that he left his house forever and started living in with Supriya Devi. Though he mentions this incident in Amar Ami, still other details were consciously omitted. Writing about his love life, he writes in great details about his wife Gauri Devi but hardly mentions the names of Suchitra Sen and Sabitri Chattopadhyay with whom, he once admitted to a reporter, he had an emotional attachment. In an interview, director Saroj De once told Himangshu Chattopadhyay, a reputed journalist, that after the release of the films Agnipariksha and Sobar Upare – films that ushered the Uttam-Suchitra pair and made them ‘stars’ overnight – Uttam Kumar was offered two films – Bhalobasa by Debaki Kumar Bose and Sagarika by Saroj De. Undoubtedly, Debaki Kumar Bose’s film was a better choice considering Debaki Kumar Bose’s stature as one of the top directors of that time. However, Uttam Kumar chose the film Sagarika just because of his friendship with Suchitra. Incidents like this were in abundance. However, their friendship went through a tough time and often there were ego clashes, which have been accepted by the biographers of both Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen and the technicians and personalities of the film industry. It was around 1958-59 when he got involved with Supriya Devi. Stories of their escapades were quite known to everyone. In her autobiography, Madhabi Mukherjee, a renowned actress of that time, also writes at one place how Uttam Kumar had made a pass on her during the shooting of one of their films. Though in his autobiographies, there are mentions of how due to his work load, he could not give time to his son, hardly there is any reference to the marital problems between him and his wife and his cheating on her. There is also no mention of his proposals to Suchitra Sen of marriage. In this connection we have to remember that love outside marriage was considered a taboo and his image was that of an ideal man, a one-woman man, an upright and honest man. Any revelation regarding his romantic relationships would have had disastrous effect on his career. Uttam, the author, knew this very well and hence he did not make Uttam, the character, do any such thing.

 

In this connection other things should also be mentioned. He had ego clashes with Suchitra Sen, Satyajit Ray and Soumitra Chatterjee. As a result, many times he referred to Supriya Devi for the female lead role instead of other heroines. Incidents like his insecurity related to Supriya Devi; how he forced her to decline various projects in Bombay or the news of Supriya Devi being pregnant with his child and the eventual abortion - have been carefully averted. There were also incidents where his murder was planned. Apart from this there was a constant tussle between his two families regarding his property. Even the initial flame of the Uttam-Supriya romance did not last long and he was a lonely person. Uttam Kumar consciously did not mention these too. Of course he did not want to expose the dark sides of the industry where he had to survive. We come to know about these incidents (except the financial one) in Supriya Devi’s autobiography (Amar Jiban, Amar Uttam). The logic is simple. The author Uttam Kumar knew very well what the public would like to know about him. Even when he mentioned Supriya Devi in the 2nd edition of Amar Ami, he repeatedly said that Supriya Devi was passing through a troubled time in her marriage; he tried to patch things up; later he realised how dependent she was on him and hence, one night when he had a quarrel with Gauri Devi, he left his home and came to Supriya Devi. This narrative again makes him the ‘hero’ that he was onscreen, rescuing a damsel in distress.

 

Apart from this there were mentions of Shilpi Sansad and his contribution as its President. He has also highlighted his social roles and how he has tried to stand by the people in times of need; be it flood or Indo-china war or any personal problem. He has always been there for everyone. There is also a mention of an incident in Amar Ami regarding the shooting of his film Harano Sur. He was also the producer of this film. According to the incident he was busy shooting for another film and just because the director requested, he decided to complete the shooting of this film. This required him to cancel the shooting of his own film – Harano Sur- on that day. Without thinking about the loss he would face, he cancelled his shooting of Harano Sur just for the sake of the director of the other film. Even when he had left his Bhowanipur house and was living with Supriya Devi at Moira Street, we are told that he visited his mother daily before he went to the studio and always fulfilled his responsibilities. I am not questioning the authenticity of these incidents. What I want to highlight is that his autobiographies are filled with such instances only. Thus the image of a responsible, dutiful son, husband, father, friend, colleague, and above all, a citizen is maintained all throughout.

 

Does this mean that Uttam Kumar, the author, invented Uttam Kumar, the character? Definitely no. Autobiography is not a fictional narrative of a person’s life written by the same person; it is rather factual. Various factual narratives of a person’s life are chosen and are integrated and incorporated into a structured narrative which is then told to others and also to oneself so that the author of the autobiography can lead a functional life. According to Louis A. Renza, “we can stress that in selecting, ordering, and integrating the writer's lived experiences according to its own teleological demands, the autobiographical narrative is beholden to certain imperatives of imaginative discourse” (Renza 269). James M. Cox is of the opinion that many autobiographies are “charged, condensed narrative[s] through which the autobiographer symbolically reckons with his life as it was lived in socially dramatic situations, in revolutionary periods, for example, "when politics and history become dominant realities for the imagination" (p. 252)” (Renza 269). The same theory can be applied on Uttam Kumar’s autobiographies. Whether the deaths of Rabindranath Tagore or the charismatic figure of Subhash Chandra Bose or the Indo-china war or the Vietnam War or Naxal Andolon or the deaths of famous personalities, for example, Charlie Chaplin, Uttam Kumar has tried to live the life in his autobiography as he was ought to have lived. In that case the author-Uttam Kumar is a double of the character-Uttam Kumar.

 

Writing autobiographies by the celebrities have become a common phenomenon. Almost all the famous stars of the Golden period of Bengali cinema have written their autobiographies, with the exception of Suchitra Sen. Quite interestingly, Suchitra Sen not writing her own autobiography led to the publication of her numerous biographies by various authors which still have a huge market demand. Whether it is the autobiography of Uttam Kumar or Amitabh Bachhan or Prasenjit or Priyanka chopra, autobiographies of famous celebrities are always in demand as one gets to have a peek into the life of the celebrity. Secondly, a market is also created for the same. Most of the time the catch line is that in his/ her autobiography, the celebrity has opened his / her heart and has revealed the secrets which are unknown to the audience so far. This traps the audience’s curiosity and works in both ways. It helps the audience to get to know some factual details of the life of the star; the stars get a chance to be in the limelight and this helps in their marketing; it helps them to earn a lump sum also; the publishing house encashes the popularity of the star and makes the most out of it. The more popular a star is, the more his / her biography/autobiography is in demand.

 

2020 and 2021 are years which have left a lasting impact on the people all over the world. Amidst this pandemic, Penguin Random House released the much awaited book on 9 February 2021. The book is Unfinished: A Memoir and is written by Priyanka Chopra. Soon after its release, it got listed as the Number 1 bestseller on Amazon. Com and Amazon.in, a fact shared by the author herself in an Instagram story. Announcements of its publication was made long ago in 2018. The book was to be published by Penguin Random House in India, Ballantine Books in the US and Michael Joseph in the UK. Regarding the book Chopra said in an interview, “The flavour of the book will be honest, funny, spirited, bold, and rebellious, just like me” (“Priyanka Chopra”). She added, "I have always been a private person; I've never spoken about my feelings during my journey but I am ready to do so now" (“Priyanka Chopra”). Talking about the purpose behind writing this book, she said: "I would like to tell my story in the hope of inspiring people - especially women -- to change the conversation, to shatter glass ceilings. Women are always told we can't have everything. I want everything, and I believe anyone else can have it too. I'm proof of it" (“Priyanka Chopra”). The few aspects which get highlighted here are the social position of a person, his / her ‘life story’ as an inspiration, a specific motive behind writing that ‘life story’ and the role of the publishers; all these aspects come together in a life narrative. Priyanka Chopra is not the first person in the film industry to write an autobiography. This path has been treaded by many celebrities.

 

Various factors come together in the writing of an autobiography. No doubt the wish to explain oneself to others, to share one’s experiences with others are there. But one cannot ignore the other factors behind the writing and publication of an autobiography. No doubt, biographies of Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen are still written and are reprinted whereas hardly any biography is written of Sabitri chattopadhyay, undoubtedly much more gifted actor than Mrs. Sen though could never match her ‘star’ personality. Her only autobiography was published in 2010 !

 

Once in an article ‘ Nijeke Janai’, Suchitra Sen wrote that it is impossible to know an artist through a few factual details of his/her life. She adds that there are questions which can never have any specific answer; whatever answer the artist gives, is superficial. Though she was talking about interviews of artists, still the point she raised is applicable on any writing by an artist. Autobiographies and life narratives are reflexive by nature. Keeping aside the problems of verification, determinacy and authenticity, there are other problems too; especially with the “autobiographical narrator’s irresistible error in accounting for his acts in terms of intentions when, in fact, they might have been quite otherwise determined” (Bruner 13). In Aristotlean sense art imitates life whereas in Oscar Wildean sense life imitates art. Similarly, narrative imitates life and life imitates narrative. “ “Life” in this sense is the same kind of construction of the human imagination as a “narrative” is. It is constructed by human beings through active ratiocination, by the same kind of ratiocination through which we construct narratives” (Bruner 13). Hence, an autobiography can be best read as another text where the author and the protagonist are the same person and the characters do not have any fictional names but real-life names. As about the details provided in the autobiography, the facts are taken from real life (though sometimes we can question their authenticity as well) and to that is added a reflection and imagination which more often than not colour any narrative.

 

Works Cited

Bruner, Jerome. “Life as Narrative.” Social Research, Vol. 54, No. 1, Reflections on the Self            (SPRING 1987), pp. 11-32.

Chatterjee, Shoma A. Suchitra Sen: the Legend and the Enigma. Harper Collins, 2015.

 “Priyanka Chopra to come out with memoir in 2019.” Business Standard. 19 June 2018

            https://www.business-standard.com/article/pti-stories/priyanka-chopra-to-come-out-       with-memoir-in-2019-118061901176_1.html

Renza, Louis A. “The Veto of the Imagination: A Theory of Autobiography.” New Literary           History 9 (1977), pp. 1-26.


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