Gender Role Blueprint: Uttam Kumar Melodramas

The type of melodramas and socials Uttam Kumar did in the late '50s, early '60s are the Bengali film equivalent of milk and cookies before bed. They're not terribly long and offer an instant escape into a softer world of clean collars and even cleaner ideals. For me, they fit a niche quite near that of early '70s Rajesh/Sharmila or Dharm/Hema films: a romantic, affective, and soft lit world just right for a crowded schedule and a tired brain. These Uttam films also share something the best of the Sharmila or even Hema starrers have: female heroes. With a Bengali twist, of course.

Here are several examples of this Bengali twist from my recent Uttam watches ... followed by a summary of the common threads between them. [This is a long post, but hey, I want to spotlight the films, too, not just their gender roles. At the end of the day, we're all here to be entertained first, edified after.]

Pothey Holo Deri (1957)

Suchitra Sen is a millionaire's daughter who decides to help the poor local doctor (her beau) to go abroad to finish his F.R.C.S. She even sells her inherited jewels on the sly to make it happen. After the secretly-engaged lovers are separated by an ocean, FAKE letters and FAKE marriage reports come between them. The heiress is disowned and disappears. (Bet those jewels started to look real great in hindsight.) But suffering to prove one's love is an essential part of the Uttam/Suchitra romance.

Memorable for:

*The filmi medical "anxiety disorder" Suchitra finds herself in when she believes her long-awaited lover to have jilted her ... an illness that involves psychosomatic paralysis! and a coma! It apparently can be solved by a renewal of honest communication, but only if it is delivered in epistolic (not conversational) form. Add it to the collection of murky filmi medical cures.

*A wealthy patient/fangirl who manufactures a disastrous relationship between herself and the engaged doctor. "The best thing I saw in my Europe trip is you..."

*A sequence of love/affirmation letters from Suchitra to Uttam's character while he's in school.

*A lovely seaside recovery cottage. You can't go wrong with some Uttam-by-the-sea.

Does she get credit?

*Uttam's character attributes all his success (somewhat truthfully) to his beloved's emotional and financial support ... multiple times throughout the film.

*Suchitra's heiress also does quite well supporting herself as a teacher (until she goes mad). This self-sufficiency is obviously meant to show that even though she was brought up in privilege, her character has been proved pure enough for our unadulterated, working-class hero.

Sabar Oparey (1955)

A recently lawschool graduate (Uttam Kumar) finds out that his father is not dead (as he has believed since childhood) but is still in prison for a murder he did not commit. Instantly, the naive but determined fellow rushes off to solve the mystery and clear his father's name. Along the way, he meets a charitable woman (Suchitra Sen) who decides to help him in his cause.

Memorable for:

*A lovely song or two.

*Courtroom Drrramarama.

*A convoluted mystery that Uttam's later Byomkesh avatar would have solved in a day...but then again, this hero is better at lawyering than gumshoeing.

*A store clerk who unabashedly lusts after Uttam. [I love these little nods to Uttam's fanbase.]

*Suchitra taking in Uttam *gasp* into her home, pooh-poohing the blight on her reputation, when he has no place to go. (Actually, I've noticed that Bengali films, perhaps more attuned to housing shortages and transportation problems, often take a pragmatic view of women and men spending the night together.) She also pays his bills and rescues him in a series of tight spots.

*An extended look at an innocent prisoner's release and return home. It's not just the usual happy "hug-it-out and put faces to names" schtick of most courtroom dramas. Much baggage.

Does she get credit?
*Yes. A lot. It's also quite clear from the audience's POV that without her help, Uttam's character would have (a) starved, (b) probably ended up in jail, (c) never solved the mystery (d) never cleared his father's name.

Mem Saheb (1972): 

A poor journalist (Uttam Kumar) falls in love with the daughter of a well-to-do family (Aparna Sen). Over the course of the next several years, the two keep their relationship on the "down low" while they work on establishing their separate careers and financial independence. She becomes a history professor, and he eventually moves to Delhi for work. Over time, his self-esteem and confidence is improved by his girlfriend's confidence in him, and for once, the woman has the satisfaction of conducting the successful "Pygmalion effect" experiment. Things don't end that well, but hey, the Bangladeshi Liberation War happened.

Memorable for:

This is the odd one out of the group...

*It was released in the '70s

*It doesn't have Uttam at his most "physically" dazzling

*It isn't the usual three act--falling in love, falling into trouble, resolving both love and trouble--plot

*It has an age-disparate romance I actually approve of

*Not sure if I love Aparna, but she's certainly a PRESENCE, you know? Aparna's character is VERY independent. If there were a Bengali version of  The Rules, she probably wrote it. She doesn't take stock in traditional social customs, but she follows her own code to the letter. She is completely ok with going on overnight trips with the journalist on the sly, or staying at his apartment unchaperoned when she visits him in Delhi. BUT, she doesn't actually sleep next to him (even if there seems to be significant snogging going on during the daytime, so much that it embarrasses the poor people who happen to be around), thus following her own rules.

*In the first half of the film, there's a controlling uncle that everyone is scared of, in charge of the family finances and marriage contracts. Yeah, Aparna's character wasn't putting up with that nonsense. When she doesn't respect his ego enough to go through with the marriage he plans for her, he leaves in a huff. Nobody misses him. AT ALL.

*I love how the journalist starts off mousy and shy, and kind of socially crippled, and becomes more and more attractive of a person the longer he is with Aparna's character. Not only is this a reversal of the usual gender roles, but it's a lot of fun to see Uttam slowly and surely turn up the movie star charm as the movie wears on.

Does she get credit?
Yep. The whole film is concerned with her progressive influence on the life of Uttam's character.

Surjasikha (1963):

Told mostly in flashback, a brilliant surgeon (Uttam Kumar) explains to a younger surgeon why love and career don't mix. Back in the day, faced with his pick of lofty positions, he decided to take a job at a rural hospital. He soon finds himself faced with nothing but corruption and incompetence, and realizes that he is in desperate need of an equally brilliant O.T. nurse. Local teacher and secret! nurse (Supriya Devi) seems to fit that bill. For a while, the hospital grows almost as fast as the super-partnership of the head doctor and and his favorite assistant. When rumors start flying around about the two being so "close", they decide to get married (!) to stop the wagging tongues. Despite his training in *ahem* human biology, the doctor is resistant to all aspects of domestic life, and the marriage isn't consummated. Of course, when things finally heat up between the two, a secret! pregnancy and pregnancy nausea may derail everything the doctor *thinks* he has built.

Memorable for:

*This is an all around tight film, probably had an even tighter script.

*INTENSE protagonists living in the fast lane of his/their hospital dream. Uttam's surgeon eats and breathes being a doctor, comes home at all hours, and depends on his nurse/wife as a colleague rather than a domestic partner. In fact, he does not respect domestic pursuits at all, often using "household" or "domestic" as a dirty word. [This is pretty fascinating stuff, I think.] She puts up with all his weird until she starts "getting some", or as her character puts it, "until we became close." Then, with her own biology taking over (ahhh, old school pregnancy ideas), she loses her stomach for surgery and starts to prefer knitting socks to knitting sutures. This causes a near-fatal spiral of CRAZY, but it's also hilarious and satisfying to watch this heady, ambitious doctor try to deal (badly) with feelings for his wife that he didn't expect, and to watch him try to get anything done at the hospital without her.

*This is a fascinating twist on the Bengali ideal of a romantic partnership. On the one hand, the film endorses their working partnership. But the woman wants more, and wants the freedom to have a family, too. One can't really blame her. And she doesn't say that she wants to give it up for good. The problem is that she doesn't explain that her abstract dream of a family is quickly about to become a concrete reality (until it's too late).

Does she get credit?

*Amusingly, Uttam's character repeats this whole "I need you" and "You're indispensable to me" line over and over. The moral arc of his character is not to realize that he needs her, but to realize that he needs her as more than a colleague, and that she has the right to have a family, even if that complicates his big, humanitarian dream.

*Slight spoiler* When she faints in an operation and again tells him she wants out, the surgeon has one violent moment. But it's enough for the spunky nurse. She moves out, leaving him an acidic letter telling him he's lost the right to be her husband and the father of her child (Surprise! You WERE going to be a dad, not anymore). I have never, ever, heard this kind of dialogue from a woman to her husband in a Hindi film, FYI.

*I won't spoil the end completely for you, but hint: The ultimate ideal here is not just a romantic working partnership, but a familial working partnership. All the frustrations and melodrama go out of their way get us to this end goal. It's a pretty awesome extension of the usual formula.


There is nearly always a turning point in these Uttam melodramas where the hero must realize his complete and utter helplessness sans his heroine. Not the helplessness of depression or loneliness, but rather, the helplessness you would experience if you were missing half your limbs. Sometimes this is verbalized in a situation of triumph (when the hero looks back and sees the woman's instrumental assistance at every turn) such as Sabar Oparey, or more commonly, when the woman disappears and the man must try to bumble through life without her (Surjasikha, Mem Saheb, Pothey Holo Deri).

Uttam's onscreen lady loves are allowed to voice opinions at every turn, display messy personality traits and decision-making power, and engage in more of a 50/50 life partnership with their romantic interests. More specifically, the women are usually caught up in helping Uttam's character succeed in a career, or to help him build a life they can both share, or to assist in fulfilling a mission of justice. Though the woman may or may not have a career "of her own", she is vital to most plot points and in picking up the hero slack ... essentially functioning as a co-hero. In fact, the strength of their partnership--the depth of loyalty, communication, and patience exchanged between the lovers--is more often than not the stated goal of their struggles, and the story itself.

And, ok, so these women aren't all yearning to remain "independent" in the modern sense of the word. Probably because even this semi-fantastical landscape is harsh and unyielding. People are more likely to "make it" together, we are told. Thus, "independence" is discouraged, even painted as THE fatal choice or a character flaw. This is a film culture that prizes collectivism, not individual ambitions. But the woman aren't exactly invisible appendages, either. Their personalities don't disappear into the men they support. All are portrayed as active in public life in some way; going out to build their own careers, developing skills and thoughts of their own--on top of being the person that the man attributes all his success to! These women are romantic partners, not romantic objects.

This is rather different from the hero's "I can do it all" machismo of many Hindi film romances, and the relative compartmentalization of the Bombay heroine into chronologically more and more "useless" roles (i.e. The beautiful victim, then the nagging wife, and finally the unnecessarily self-sacrificing Maa). At least in most of the '70s films I've seen (which may not represent the women of the '50s or '60s, but it IS the filmi area in which I have the broadest experience to draw from), the gender role blueprint is nearly always:

1. The man against the world
2. The man and his best (male) friend or brother against the world
3. The woman as his secret muse, problem to solve, or elusive object to attain

There are exceptions. Action films sometimes afford a better place for the whip-cracking masala heroine with a tongue to match. But in melodramas [of which I've seen more than I'd like to admit] the woman is more likely to be the question than the answer. Which is exactly why these Uttam socials--where a mutually heroic, male-female partnership is emphasized as the solution to most of life's problems--feel so revolutionary, and so very satisfying.

Recommendation for further research:
Is this mutual-support ethic replaced by a more cynical view of male-female partnerships in many '60s and early '70s films of Soumitra Chatterjee? If they don't end in tragedy, they are still characterized by an emotional distance between spouses and conflicting life goals.


  1. *amusedly* You seem to be on a film-watching spree recently if your posts are any indication. (And *enviously*: Where do you get the time?!) I haven't seen any of these films. And they all sound interesting, so I have book-marked it for future reference. Perhaps I will get lucky and find a sub-titled version on YouTube.

    As for <<< I have never, ever, heard this kind of dialogue from a woman to her husband in a Hindi film, FYI.>>>
    You will find it in a lot of Malayalam films, and in Tamil films of a certain vintage.

    1. I beg, borrow, and steal the time :D No, in all seriousness, I've been lucky to find some new film rabbit trails this summer, considering that I've spent half my time holed up at home recovering after physical therapy appointments...severe TMJ is not to be sneered at, I guess. My jobs over the summer have been mostly work-from-home situations, so luckily that has afforded time for both the recovery and the films!

      *I found all of these films on the Angel YT channel, subbed :)

      *Interesting about the Malayalam/Tamil films (I have a few Tamil films from the 60s in my Netflix queue, maybe I shall run across one of them! Malayalam films with subs are extremely hard to find, tho).

      I am currently in the middle of Baazi, and I have a feeling that maybe Dev Anand films give more space for heroines to be messy and angry and self-righteous, too. Perhaps the amount of space women are given have as much to do with the main hero's image as the regional industry's gender ideals? And perhaps some of these Uttam Kumar films are a result of both his masculinity image and the Bengali masculinity ideal. After all, how much control a hero has/exerts in the narrative does seem to directly correlate with amount of space that the heroine has. But, I have much more comparative research to do :)

    2. Dev's heroines too were no pushovers. Nor were they always the pure, sati-savitri types. I mean, think of Waheeda in Guide. (An adulteress.) Or Kala Bazaar. (In love with two men.) Hema in Johnny Mera Naam is a gangster's moll (even if by blackmail.) There are no moral judgements made about any of them. But then, neither was he the doodh-ka-dhula hua hero. That is one reason I respect Dev as an artiste and a producer. Nav Ketan's films had very strong plots, based as they often were on stories from literature.

    3. "There are no moral judgments made about them."

      That's a good way of describing a different kind of a heroine--and that's part of what I meant when I saw a woman is "allowed space." She can make mistakes or feel her way through difficult situations, or do whatever she needs to do to survive without punishment. Baazi might not be the best example of this (Geeta Bali as the club dancer and gangster's accomplice doesn't fare too well) but it does have Kalpana as a doctor with her own goals and who doesn't seem all that interested in obeying her father. It's Dev's character who stays away because of the father's threats and (probably because he believes somewhere inside that he isn't worth her or that they can't breach the social gap). And yes, I did finish the film... :)


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