Utpal Dutt: The professor-playwright who became a comic star, chilling villain in Bollywood and Tollywood

March 29, 2024
Bhawani Shankar or the stern ACP Dhurandhar Bhatawadekar in a brace of breezy

His portrayals of the idiosyncratic, moustache-fanatic, and rule-imposing Bhawani Shankar or the stern ACP Dhurandhar Bhatawadekar in a brace of breezy Bollywood comedies are undeniably unforgettable, but he played a more realistic role in ‘Guddi’ – that gentle deconstruction of the glittering yet hollow edifice of filmdom.

Utpal Dutt, as Prof Gupta in the 1971 film, knows neither scolding nor advice will change the filmstar-struck teenager (then Jaya Bhaduri in her first Hindi film), and the only way out is to let her indulge in fascination with films and learn first-hand the artificiality, heartbreaks, and struggle that lies behind them.

Portraying a teacher, with innovative ideas, was not difficult for Dutt, who was born on this day (March 29) in Bengal’s Barisal (now in Bangladesh) in 1929. He had been an English teacher in (then) Calcutta’s South Point School in the 1950s and earned his students’ admiration for his insights into literature, especially Shakespeare’s plays, and impeccable diction.

He would be seen again as a wise elder, like Mr Bhattacharya who ensures a happy ending in ‘Julie’ (1975), and Mr Singh of ‘Baat Ban Jaaye’ (1986), who gives full freedom to his niece (Zeenat Aman) to choose her life partner.

On the other hand, he would use his fluent English to browbeat the Police Inspector (Om Prakash) in the denouement of ‘Gol Maal’ (1979) – though he also derisively called him “munchmunda”.

It was Dutt’s sense of timing, funny intonation, especially his pronunciation of “achha” – and the maniacal gleam and laughter he could produce, that enabled him to shine in comedy – ‘Gol Maal’, ‘Rang Birangi’ – especially his slapstick chase of Farooque Sheikh through a children’s playground, ‘Kissi Se Na Kehna’ (both 1983), and ‘Lakhon Ki Baat’ (1984).

He could use the same mannerisms to play a chilling villain too – crafty munim Ghoshal who drives the hero (Uttam Kumar) to despair and ruin in ‘Amanush’ (Bengali and Hindi, 1975), the covetous Maganlal Meghraj in Satyajit Ray’s ‘Joy Baba Felunath’ (Bengali, 1979) and the bane of Amitabh Bachchan’s life as underworld don Saxena in ‘The Great Gambler’, Sahuji in ‘Barsaat Ki Ek Raat’ (1981) and venal politician Seetaram in ‘Inquilaab’ (1984).

All this histrionic capability owed to his thorough grounding in theatre – on which he was keen since his school days and made a name for himself both as a performer and a playwright. It also led to a spell in jail on charges of sedition!

However, it was Shakespeare that was lucky for him – his performance as ‘Richard 3’ brought him to the attention of the Kendalls (who subsequently became Shashi Kapoor’s in-laws) and he accepted their invitation to join their troupe and toured India with them for the next two years.

Earlier, his performance as ‘Othello’ led to his first film ‘Michael Madhusudan’ (Bengali, 1950).

Dutt later founded his own troupe and staged plays of Shakespeare, as well as those of Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, Rabindranath Tagore, Maxim Gorky, and Bertolt Brecht, before deciding to concentrate on Bengali plays and move out onto the streets to reach the people.

While he translated and adapted many Shakespearean and modern playwrights, he also wrote nearly two dozen plays, including ‘Aaj ka Shahjahan’, which was the inspiration for Amitabh Bachchan’s ‘The Last Lear’.

It was ‘Kallol’ (1965), on the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946, that was a watershed. His role as the cigar-smoking Admiral, who orders the shelling of the mutineers, prompted K. A. Abbas to cast him as the Punjabi ex-serviceman who commands the ‘Saat Hindustani’ (1969) – which was Amitabh’s debut and his own entry into Bollywood.

But, Dutt’s theatre and Kendall association had already made him one of the cross-over Indian stars for the Merchant-Ivory duo – playing a maharaja in their ‘Shakespeare-Wallah’ (1965), a picky sitar maestro in ‘The Guru’ (1969), and also appearing in ‘Bombay Talkie’ (1970).

He came to national prominence with Mrinal Sen’s ‘Bhuvan Shome’ (1969) as a “rule-book tyrant”, who rediscovers his humanity after a spell in the wilderness. The film fetched him a National Award.

Dutt went on to do many Bollywood and Tollywood films for the next two decades and more – ranging from those which became cult classics to those ‘masala’ kitsch which sank without a trace. He later confessed that he had done most of the films for the money, and forgot the plot and even the movie’s name after completing his shooting.

His swan song – as for Satyajit Ray – was that masterly tale of vanishing family ties and trust ‘Agantuk’ (1991), derived from the latter’s short story ‘Athithi’. Dutt, before he passed away in August 1993, revealed he treated the role as a “responsibility” since Ray had told him that the character of Manomohan Mitra drew on the auteur himself.

(Vikas Datta can be contacted at [email protected])

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