For the better part of the 20th Century, Mumbai and Kolkata often collaborated in the art of making motion pictures. Actors from Kolkata would go to Mumbai for a role and see their Mumbai counterparts do the same. But there was always one problem. By the nature of their design, the two industries, despite being in the same business, were quite different from one another. The Hindi film industry had a higher penchant for glamour. The Bengali film industry mostly worked within itself.
However, these two industries found an anomaly in Dilip Kumar. When a popular actor from Mumbai worked in a regional film, they were still that: a Bollywood superstar in a regional film. It was hard to shrug the ‘hero’ image. Similarly, actors from Kolkata had a hard time doing things the ‘Bollywood’ way. But Kumar, in spite of being one of the biggest stars in the country, was able to seamlessly seep into the role of a rebellious factory worker in his only non-Hindi film, Sagina Mahato.
The film was released in 1970, a time when film shoots were largely scheduled by sunlight. A sunny day meant work; a cloudy day meant nothing. So, on overcast days when leisure time was ample, Dilip Kumar passed his day playing cricket with his colleagues.
“When they weren’t filming, he used to teach my husband various cricket techniques and, in return, my husband taught him to play Bridge [card game],” Sucheta Dutta, wife of late Swarup Dutta, who worked with Kumar on the film, told The Federal.
Swarup first met Kumar on the sets of Sagina Mahato and the two developed a camaraderie that lasted a lifetime.
“I spoke to him last when he came to Kolkata to receive an award in 2005. As soon as the function ended, he called Swarup at 10.30pm and asked about his wellbeing. Swarup had retired from the industry for almost two decades by then. So the fact that Dilip Kumar remembered him enough to want to meet him was a big deal. We felt honoured,” Sucheta said.
An ephemeral stay in 1960s West Bengal and multiple projects with Bimal Roy throughout his career made Kumar a sucker for Bengal cuisine. In particular, he enjoyed relishing home-cooked fish curry, a staple diet in most Bengali households. When he met Swarup in 2005 for the final time, he requested that meal.
“Most restaurants prepare fancier dishes but Dilip Kumar wanted to have the kind of fish curry Bimal Roy used to bring from his home whenever they worked on a project. Swarup had the chef make that for him. He was very pleased,” Sucheta said.
The Bollywood legend was also pleasant on set. This sentiment is shared by many who worked with him.
“While working with him on Sagina Mahato, I found him to be very friendly. He was quite jovial during intermissions. He cracked jokes and kept us entertained. At work, he was very focused,” actor Rudraprasad Sengupta told The Federal.
The answer to why Dilip Kumar decided to go to eastern India to the west of Bengal for his only non-Hindi film can be found in his filmography. He had immense respect for the director Bimal Roy, and he starred in Roy’s 1955 film Devdas, playing the titular character which ended up becoming an iconic role for Kumar.
“While working on Devdas, he told Nabendu Ghosh [one of the scriptwriters] that he was obsessed with Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay [author of Devdas]. He said that the author was posing a great challenge for him and he has to overcome it to bring justice to his work,” film critic Sanjoy Mukhopadhhay told The Federal.
When conceptualising Sagina Mahato, director Tapan Sinha realised that he wanted his lead to have the appearance of an ordinary man. But the two biggest actors in Kolkata at the time, Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee, came across as very urban folk. They didn’t fit Sinha’s vision but somehow Kumar, a national celebrity, did.
“If you look at him and observe his mannerisms, you could see that he is a son of the soil and doesn’t come across as a typical urban worker. When you look at the Indian working class, the image is a semi-feudal and semi-urban one. This could only have been represented by Kumar. He is unparalleled when it comes to defining a rural presence in the urban landscape,” said Mukhopadhhay.
Mukhopadhhay added that Kumar developed a liking for the city of Kolkata. He used to hang out at Basusree Cinema Hall, a classic theatre in the city, chatting with local celebrities and common folk. This was unheard of for a Bollywood megastar, at the time. Kumar felt deeply saddened for the victims who fell prey to the 1978 flood in Bengal. He even organised a charity cricket match against Uttam Kumar’s team on February 11, 1979, to provide philanthropic support to help rehabilitate the affected areas.
Sagina Mahato is a fictional take on the 1942-43 labour uprising against British-owned factories in the Himalayan foothills of Darjeeling and Siliguri. Just a few years prior to the film’s release, the Naxalbari incident had taken place (1967) and the political climate of West Bengal was nearing a change.
Coincidentally, that incident also saw common folk taking up arms against the establishment in Darjeeling district, an area dominated by tea plantations, many of which were again run by British-owned companies. In a very real way, Dilip Kumar and Tapan Sinha created a fictional story about an historical incident in the 1940s whilst simultaneously providing subtle commentary on the societal problems of the then-present day West Bengal.
However, Kumar wasn’t the only Hindi film actor to work on Bengali films. Some of the notable names include Amitabh Bachchan (Anusandhan), Amol Palekar (Kalankini, Chena Achena, Abasheshe), Naseeruddin Shah (Protidan), Vidya Balan (Bhalo Theko) and Smita Patil (Debshishu).
The tragedy king passed away leaving a legacy of countless Hindi films, numerous awards, widespread acclaim and one Bengali film. West Bengal is a large place and a lot of it is rural. Here, many Bengalis predominantly lurk in local circles and aren’t well versed in Hindi. Yusuf Bhai, as Kumar was affectionately called, left them with one film to watch without consultation. Not many Bollywood stars can say that.