29 March 1929: Utpal Dutt, Indian stage and film actor, was born

Utpal Dutt, a talented and versatile actor who was equally comfortable acting on stage and in front of the camera, was born on 29 March 1929 in Calcutta (now Kolkata). Dutt, whose roles made him a popular name in both Hindi and Bengali cinema, studied in St. Edmunds School (Shillong) and Calcutta’s St. Xavier’s Collegiate School before securing a degree in literature from St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta.

As a young man, he founded the Little Theatre Group and acted in many English plays. Later, his interests turned to more radical and political theatre.

He played the role of Richard III as part of the Shakespeareana Theatre Company, which had been set up by Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Kendal. He toured with the Kendals across the subcontinent for a couple of years. Later he continued acting and producing plays as part of the Little Theatre Group. 

Eventually, the group started staging Bengali plays and later, Bengali films.  

Dutt was also associated with the Gananatya Sangha, which took theatre to rural West Bengal, and the Indian People’s Theatre Association.

He made several Shakespearean plays in Bengali. Among the well-known plays he directed in Bengali in the 1950s was Maxim Gorky’s Lower Depths.

Kuldip Singh wrote after Dutt’s death in The Independent in August 1993, “A living legend in Bengal, Dutt responded to political developments in India and abroad through vibrant Bengali theatre; no Marxist election campaign in Bengal was complete without his 30-minute street-corner or ‘poster’ plays replete with poignant political messages.”

On-screen persona 

Dutt’s first role in a film was in Michael Madhusudan (1950), directed by Madhu Bose.

He played the lead role of Michael Madhusudan, the brilliant and eccentric 19th century Bengali poet. Over the next four decades he went on to act in scores of Hindi and Bengali films, both commercial and art.

In Hindi films, in particular, he came to be regarded as a very good comic actor.

His notable Hindi films include Guddi, Naram Garam, Gol Maal, and Shaukeen.

His well-regarded Bengali films include Bhuvan Shome, Agantuk, Jana Aranya and Hirak Rajar Deshe. He worked with internationally renowned directors like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.

In Mrinal Sen’s 1969 film Bhuvan Shome, which is regarded by some critics as the beginning of the ‘Indian New Wave’, Dutt’s portrayal of a disenchanted bureaucrat who rediscovers life and love in the countryside, fetched him a National Film Award for Best Actor.

Most Hindi film viewers remember Dutt for his comic roles in films like Gol Maal.

The film critic Dinesh Raheja wrote in rediff.com (April 2003) about the charming 1979 film: “Ram [Prasad’s] (Amol Palekar’s) . . . belligerent boss, Bhavani Shankar (Utpal Dutt), is not only magnificently moustachioed himself, but is also a stern subscriber to the motto: A moustache is the mirror of the human soul and mind. Bhavani is a man further circumscribed by a list of inherited principles that include hiring only single-minded people who do not waste time in dissecting sports, entertainment and other ‘irrelevant’ issues.”

A vast oeuvre

However, to look at Dutt as merely a comic Hindi film actor is to overlook most of his creative and intellectual output. As the writer and critic Chandrahas Choudhury wrote in the Mint in July 2009: “I suspect that outside of West Bengal, most Indians remember Dutt today as the goggle-eyed, hectoring patriarch of Hindi comedies such as Gol Maal (1979), in which he memorably asserted a continuum between Indian tradition, manhood and virility, and moustaches. But Dutt’s work for commercial Hindi and Bengali cinema was only a small part of his oeuvre, and to him probably the least important. . . . Dutt’s range was vast. He acted in and directed jatra plays, and reviewed new plays and films for journals; one month he might be seen in a Satyajit Ray film, the next in a speedily made farce.”

The artiste and the citizen

Dutt, who was jailed in 1965 for a supposedly anti-establishment play, was a lifelong Communist sympathiser. He frequently spoke and wrote not just about art and cinema, but society and politics as well.

Utpal Dutt suffered a heart attack and died on 19 August 1993. A year earlier in an impassioned speech in Delhi after Satyajit Ray’s death in 1992, Dutt had said: “The Government of India, as usual, woke up later, [and] after a night of revelry, discovered a genius in Calcutta and hastened to confer something called the Bharat Ratna upon him [Ray] — only because the Americans gave him the Oscar. . . . [The government] approves heartily when the young filmmakers are denied channels of release . . . Free competition is the watchword, competition between millionaires and paupers. And if the paupers cannot survive — why, they can go and look for jobs elsewhere. This is the substance of an exit policy enforced on the cultural world, the forced exit of every serious filmmaker . . .”

Also on this day:

1969 — Ranjit Hoskote, Indian poet, art critic, and curator, was born 

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