Uttam Kumar Comes Alive Again!

‘Uttam Kumar transcended the conflict between being a star and an actor… he combined both and became a cultural and social icon for the Bengali race.’

IMAGE: The Oti Uttam poster.

Srijit Mukherji, the prolific Bengali director, has always been a fan of Uttam Kumar, the beloved Bengali acting legend who died aged 54 in 1980, leaving millions of Bengalis grief-stricken.

“It’s one of my greatest regrets that I was not working at the time when he was, so I could not work with him,” he tells Subhash K Jha.

“On his birth and death anniversaries, the media keeps asking what I would have made with him. So I thought, why not give it a shot? That’s how the germ of an idea came,” he says, referring to his new film, Oti Uttam.

“I grew up watching Uttamda‘s films and understanding what a great star-actor he was and also understanding that beyond a star-actor, he became a great social phenomenon. Just speak to any Bengali. The kind of glow that comes on to the face will tell you that he has gone way beyond being just a superstar.”

IMAGE: Director Srijit Mukherji. Photograph: Kind courtesy Srijit Mukherji/Instagram

Uttam Kumar appears in the film through computer graphics, and the idea came to Srijit on seeing how relevant the actor remains till date.

“I think the fact that he transcended the conflict between being a star and an actor… he combined both and became a cultural and social icon for the Bengali race. I think his persona attracted me from a young age.

Oti Uttam is a modern day fairytale. It is a rom-com. It is also tributes to the charisma of Uttam Kumar. It is about the ghost of Uttam Kumar being brought down by planchette and how he helps a fan of his to succeed in love. Of course, there were lot of technological hurdles that I had to work around.

“Given the resource constraints of the Bengali film industry, to do something like this for the first time in the history of Indian cinema, to cut out existing footage of Uttamda and place it in a new film… I think we are quite happy with what we have achieved.

“It’s a novel concept and I am happy that it is happening in Bengali cinema.”

IMAGE: Director Srijit Mukherji shares a post by Amitabh Bachchan about Oti Uttam and writes, ‘Thank you @amitabhbachchan sir, this means a lot to us!!!’ Photograph: Kind courtesy Srijit Mukherji/Instagram

Recreating the actor through computer graphics was not easy.

“Oh, it was a long arduous task,” Srijit says.

“Oti Uttam took six years to be made. The first thing I did was to write a rom-com which assumed that Uttam Kumar was alive. Then I went through almost all of his films to find dialogues that I could use in my film.

“Once I got a match, I replaced that dialogue with a dialogue in my film, so this process was undertaken till I got a match from 56 Uttam Kumar films. Then came the tough part of getting the digital satellite rights of these clippings, not just his dialogues but clippings of his silent reactions or just a walk. These became the building blocks on which I could build a script.

“Then I started shooting and editing simultaneously. The source material was so grainy at times that some shots of Uttam Kumar look like bad special effects. We solved this problem by putting a disclaimer in the credit titles. But the audio was still noisy. For that, we used artificial intelligence.”

What does he think about the eternal Uttam Kumar versus Soumitra Chatterjee debate in Bengali cinema?

“Oh, I’ve been an Uttam advocate in all Uttam-Soumitra arguments,” responds Srijit. “Of course, Soumitra Chatterjee is the finest actor of Bengali cinema. But Uttam Kumar is much more than an actor.”

“Once you get into the superstar-matinee idol space, it is very difficult for an actor to denude himself of his style and mannerisms and play character, which Uttam Kumar did with a lot of panache,” Srijit adds.

“Also, the sheer number of mediocre scripts that Uttam uplifted with his acting prowess is something even the great Satyajit Ray acknowledged.”

Oti Uttam releases on March 22.