Uttam Kumar, the greatest matinee idol who passed away on July 24, 1980, at the relatively young age of 54, lives on 38 years since he passed away when he remained at the top of the Bengali film industry. Like every year, this year too, the state of West Bengal and the city of Kolkata kept busy celebrating festival screenings in his memory across the map. These screenings are always crowded and some do not charge gate money so crowds go crazy.

Every Bengali television channel from Doordarshan to the fast-mushrooming entertainment channels, are flush with films starring Uttam Kumar right through July and then September. Uttam fans have set up the Uttam Mancha, an auditorium for staging plays at South Calcutta which belongs to the West Bengal State Government.

As a tribute to this actor, a life-size statue was installed in Tollygunje where Uttam Kumar spent a major slice of his working day. The Tollygunge Metro station was christened Uttam Kumar Sarani. In a rare tribute to Bengali cinema’s greatest matinee idol, Uttam Kumar, Department of Posts, India, released a postage stamp on his 84th birthday in Kolkata on September 3, 2009.

In his authorized biography Amaar Ami (1980) by Gouranga Prasad Ghosh, the reader gets a glimpse of the image of a middle-class urban Bengali who invested tremendously in hard work, perseverance, diligence and grit. It speaks lucidly about a man’s single-minded determination to work his way up the ladder to reach the top, who never takes his success for granted, who is ever ready to learn everything his roles demand him to.

Apart from dancing, horse-riding and tennis, he also learnt wrestling at an akhara near Indira cinema, unknown to many. He was a very good singer and tabla player but refused to playback for himself. Before testing the waters of Hindi films, he tried to master Hindi and Urdu too. The book also refers to his commitment to better the working conditions of junior artistes and to improve the status of the film industry in his home state.

He would arrive on the sets much before time, repair to his make-up room, put on his make-up and costume and would sit in absolute silence, dwelling on the scenes to be shot that day. The director would summon him when the shot was ready and he would face the camera, living his screen character. “His commitment to acting– the sequence, the chronology of shots, the light arrangements, the make-up and costume, the character he was portraying – was total”, said Tapan Sinha who directed Uttam Kumar in Upahaar, Bicharak, Hansuli Baanker Upakatha, Jhinder Bondi and Jotugriha. This director-actor bonding cracked when Sinha dropped Uttam Kumar to pick theatre personality Manoj Mitra for Banchharaamer Bagan.

Supriya Devi insisted that it was this shock that brought about the heart attack that finally ended his life. “He heard it from others, not from Tapan-da. He was so totally involved in the role after long discussions with Tapan-da that all he could talk about at home was this film. So when he heard he was dropped, he could not cope,” she said sadly.

Uttam Kumar’s five by five feet make-up room at New Theatres Studio is kept locked till this day. Gadadhar Patro, a worker at the studio, opens the door everyday and burns incense sticks in memory of his famous master. It is a simple, non-descript room with a small divan, a wall mirror, a dressing table, a chair, a clothes shelf and a pair of wooden sandals the actor wore as he waited for his shot. A portrait of the star stands on the tabletop. He would slip into the character after make-up till he was called to the floors. No one could disturb him around this time.

Shilpi Sansad or Artists’ Forum of which the actor was an active founder-member, an organization that helps artists in dire economic circumstances or in need of medical aid, organized an unique film festival that began on the 24th of July and went on till 30th July with 14 films featuring Uttam Kumar in the lead. The selection is a pleasant mix of hit films and flop films and also, out-of-the-box films.

Among the hit films were Deya Neya, with Tanuja paired with him, Sarey Chuattar, a thumping box office hit which paired him opposite Suchitra Sen, Kaal Tumi Aleya based on a novel by Asutosh Mukherjee who also wrote the script of the film. There was the film version Tarasankar Banerjee’s Manjari Opera which is a classic both as a novel and as a film among his “out-of-the-box” films including the wonderful Jodubongsho which turned out a flop and this extends to Hotel Snowfox.

Bilambito Loy, Rajbongsho, the ghost-horror film Kayaheener Kahini with Aparna Sen, Biraj Bou based on the Sarat Chandra novel, the very rarely screened Oshadharon, the unusual Bibhas and Ray’s Chiriakhana rounded off he festival. Uttam Kumar did not like Satyajit Ray presenting him in Nayak without make-up. He had never done this before. In mid-1965, when shooting for Nayak began, Uttam Kumar had just recovered from a bout of chicken pox. Ray asked him to touch up his face only in the flashback scenes as a younger man. When shooting was over, Uttam Kumar said, “I have discovered a new side to myself. Unhindered by make-up, I felt freer while expressing my emotions.”

Asked to comment on his experience of having worked with Uttam Kumar, Sayajit Ray said, “It turned out to be the most pleasant experience of my filmmaking career. I found out early that he belonged to the breed of instinctive actors. I hardly recall any discussion with Uttam on any serious, analytical level on the character he was playing. He surprised and delighted me with unexpected little details of action and behaviour, which came from him and not from me, which were always in character and always enhanced a scene. They were so spontaneous that it seemed he produced them out of his sleeve.

If there was any cognition involved, he never spoke about it.” Nayak looked like an autobiographical performance of a struggling actor who rises to the top, gets the National Award, but finds himself completely alone, distanced from his friends and peers, misunderstood by everyone.