Not just a funny man
Utpal Dutt. The name brings to mind a pot-bellied, bald man in his late fifties or early sixties who laughed funny and had impeccable comic timing. But a nice man nonetheless – whether it’s Bhavani Shankar from Gol Maal or Bhavani Shankar Bajpai from Naram Garam, Dhurandhar Bhatawdekar from Rang Birangi or Kailash Pati from Kissi Se Na Kehna.
In stark contrast to this mental imagery we just conjured up, Dutt was a fiery leftist intellectual, known for his caustic remarks about industrial society, private ownership of property and cultural appropriation and all the other stuff that used to rile up left-leaning folks back in the day. For instance, this is what he had to say about the hit TV serial Ramayan in the late 80s: “monkeys and bears speaking Sanskritized Hindi, holy men flying over painted clouds”. [Source]
Despite being widely known for playing comedy parts in Hindi cinema, a huge expanse of Utpal Dutt’s life was dominated by theatre. And like most celebrated actors of the stage, he started with the Bard’s plays. In the 1940s, when he was in his teens, Dutt enacted a particularly powerful rendition of Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the audience was Geoffrey Kendal, father of Jennifer Kapoor née Kendal, soon to be Shashi Kapoor’s young wife. The Kendals were known for their troupe Shakespearana with which they traveled the length and breadth of India and staged Shakespeare’s plays.
Kendal was bowled over by the young Dutt’s antics and recruited him for his troupe. They collaborated on a staging of Othello that created quite a stir among the cultural circles in Calcutta (that’s what the city was called then). Kendal quotes one of the many glowing reviews in his autobiography Shakespeare Wallah:
“Two promising young actors, Utpall Dutt and Pratap Roy, joined us for a while. The Calcutta audiences and critics were enthusiastic. The Statesman critic wrote of Othello:
“Nobody appreciative of good acting and fluent stage-management should miss this performance…we come away from the Garrison Theatre with a feeling of integration, which no other available form of amusement is able to provide for the residents of the city, and having once enjoyed it, we cannot but wish that the English Repertory Company would prolong their stay here indefinitely. …””
Dutt himself used to review plays under the pseudonym Iago, which made it a double irony when he reviewed his own performance in Othello:
“Mr. Dutt as Othello was rather a pitiable sight, with his voice gone, his breathing laboured and his bulk enormous.”
In fact, when Bengal’s matinee idol Uttam Kumar fell short of delivering crucial lines from Othello for his iconic film Saptapadi, it was Utpal who voiced the role, while Jennifer Kapoor did the same for Suchitra Sen as Desdemona.
Dutt was at loggerheads with the government most of the time, owing to the reflection of his radical leftist views in his plays & writings. In September of 1965, he landed up in jail on the charges of sedition due to an article he wrote for a Bengali periodical. In fact, it was his most radical – and iconic – play which placed him in the eye of the storm, also gained him the attention of Hindi film industry. In his memoir I Am Not An Island, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas writes:
“The admiral stood, tall and erect, on the quarter-deck.
“Surrender” he bellowed and the quarter-deck man translated it into the morse code of his flags.
“They are refusing, sir!”
The man with the flags interpreted the brief message that came from the other side.
“Then fire” the admiral ordered in a loud voice.
The guns on either side of him boomed, belching out flames of fire.
This was a scene from one of the most astonishing and vivid plays I have ever seen…
…The admiral seemed to have a sadistic tendency, he continued to chew his cigar and urged the gunmen to fire again and again at the mutineers.
It was a performance of the Little People’s Theatre at Minerva Cinema in Calcutta and the scene was from the play Kallol, written and produced by Utpal Dutt, who seemed to have no end to his versatility. …
…Since then the image of the man – Utpal Dutt – was ingrained in my memory. When the time came for me to think of the casting of Saat Hindustani (Seven Indians) the first thing I thought of was Utpal Dutt. Of course there was no role of a sadistic admiral in my film.”
Thus, Utpal Dutt landed the lead role of a Punjabi farmer and ex-serviceman, heading a squad of daredevils who set out to liberate Goa from the Portugese. Along side him, Hindi filmdom was introduced to another new bloke, a lanky young man who in another four years will change the face of the industry. In the same year (1969), Dutt also appeared in Mrinal Sen’s seminal Bhuvan Shome, in which the aforementioned lanky young man provided the voiceover.
In Bengal, Dutt’s collaboration with Satyajit Ray is the stuff of legends. The one film in which his anti-establishment, bohemian persona was given full rein (and the author of this post may be profoundly biased here) was Ray’s Agantuk/ The Stranger. Sample this epic conversation from the film:
It may have been his grounding in theatre that granted the man his unmatched flair for physical comedy. For instance, fighting a losing battle on a fat-reducing belt, humming “Mann ki ankhen khol, baba…” (Gol Maal) or chasing after Farooq Sheikh on a playground slide (Rang Birangi). Or that bit in Gol Maal where he’s chatting up the suspicious Mrs. Srivastav (Dina Pathak), who’s going to and fro on a swing. Dutt tries his best to sit on it as the swing comes his way, but misses it every time, only managing to catch it at the fourth attempt. All this, while he carried on a conversation with her.
He didn’t shy away from appearing in the worst, the shittiest films that made an unflattering caricature out of him. But Dutt made no bones about the fact that most of these crappy films fuelled the financial engine so necessary to keep his work in theatre flourishing and thriving. He once said: ”I have developed a technique of shutting my mind off, switching it off, rather. I will not be able to tell you even the names of the films I have acted in or even the name of the character I have just finished shooting.”
But despite winning three Filmfare Awards, Dutt had no misconceptions about where he stood in the industry food chain. An anecdote from the 70s will illustrate this point. The episode was mentioned in a Bengali article by Soumyajit Bhowmick on the pages of Anandabazar Patrika.
It was 1973. Bhowmick was posted at Dum Dum Airport at the time, working for Central Board of Excise and Customs. Both Raj Kapoor and Utpal Dutt were there to catch a flight to Bombay. Kapoor was there to promote his new film, Bobby. Obviously, the star was there with his entourage and being mobbed by people while Dutt was on his own, maintaining a respectful distance. Bhowmick approached Raj for an autograph. Beaming that zillion-watt smile of his, Raj quips “Why me? I am just the star, after all. The real actor is out there. Go get his autograph first, please.” A little flummoxed, Bhowmick went to Utpal Dutt, who said “I’d love to. See, I am but an actor-writer. He is the real star. You should get his autograph first.”
This time Raj Kapoor obliged. Dutt followed suit. Once he was told about Raj Kapoor’s little comment earlier, Utpal Dutt was grinning in his inimitable style. As if to say, “Gotcha!”