Smita Banerjee’s intriguing study of the iconic Uttam Kumar- Suchirta Sen era helps us get a better understanding of how a generation was shaped by these stars. Her book, titled Modernities and the Popular Melodrama: The Suchitra-Uttam Yug in Bengali Cinema, gives us a peek into how this pair defined love and modern romance for millions over decades. The stars who were in their prime from the 1950s to the 1970s found themselves at the vanguard of a revolution post-independence.
The book explores how deep an imprint they left on Bengali and Indian cinema in general. In an interview with News18, Banerjee helps us understand the ‘Mahanayak’ and ‘Mahanayika’ of Bengali cinema with a human lens.
Excerpts from an interview:
What was the idea behind writing the book?
It was an under-researched area. I had grown up listening to their hit romantic songs and had heard about their films from family and elder acquaintances who had grown up watching those films in the 1950s or 1960s. The germ of the idea came out of an archival project, that eventually drove my PhD dissertation at JNU and then became the book.
How influential were Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen to the then-young Bengali population? And how far did their reach extend outside Bengal?
Very influential as I have heard my family who have been in Delhi since the 1930s mention the regular Bengali film screenings at the Regal theatre which has now shut in CP. Also, the Durga Puja pandals in Delhi and many cities outside Kolkata were either doing Film screenings or the songs would play in the pandals. The circulation of Bengali literary and film magazines outside Bengal was also very influential in that enterprise.
Suchitra Sen is a fascinating personality. Can you tell our readers about how enchanting she was? What made her different from the others?
She arrived at a particular point in the industry where her screen presence and charisma created a fantastic aura of allure that was quite spectacular. She navigated her stardom very effectively by the dint of her performance, her beauty and her meticulous attention to her persona. I have heard stories of her refusal to give shots if her favourite Max Factor pancake was not available! She was known for being very punctual and dedicated to her acting and her producers. Very few people know (and I mention this in the book) that Satyajit Ray had wanted to cast her in his adaptation of Bankim’s Devi Chaudhurani in the 1950s but she refused as she was unable to give block dates for his shoot as she was busy with other productions.
This was the Nehruvian era. How different was a Bengali star or a superstar in general compared to now?
We are in a very different era now, of course, due to the ubiquitous social mediascape, nonetheless the then Film star was equally in the public eye and had to perform their personas in all senses of the word. But the kind of superstar status that both Suchitra and Uttam achieved is still unparalleled. Suchitra received the Best Actress award in 1962 for Saat Paake Bandha (remade as Kora Kagaz in Hindi), and the committee that chose this film had Ray on board; the point being that despite her refusal, Ray didn’t think twice about recommending a good film that deserved the nomination, personal differences aside.
While researching the book, you are also revisiting those times, was it a nostalgic affair? What was that experience like?
Of course, nostalgia played a big role in the process, not only mine but multiple people who took an interest in my project and opened their doors to me. I was also fortunate that I was invited to screen one of the top hits of the pair Saptapadi at IHC, Delhi and was excited to discover that the Bangladesh High Commissioner was in the audience with his elder sister who had actually seen the film when it had released in 1961 in Kolkata! The nostalgic recall is still very strong about the pair, and the contemporary media is also very invested in this recall value, the multiple anniversaries of their birthdays, deaths, film anniversaries, remakes etc. all testify to that nostalgic remembrance at present.