ON THE EARLY MORNING of 25 July 1980, Bengali matinée idol Uttam Kumar’s unexpected death at the age of 54 shook West Bengal. By the following morning, it seemed all of Calcutta was on the streets. Howling millions followed the vehicle carrying his remains. Not far from the scene, in a closed room filled with cigar smoke on Alimuddin Street, the headquarters of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Pramode Dasgupta, the party’s powerful general secretary, asked his comrades, “Is our government associating itself with the funeral of a Tollygunge matinée idol?” The resounding answer was ‘no.’ The government of the people was not going to associate itself with the commercially elevated leading figure of bourgeoisie cinema. Later that day, Dasgupta harrumphed, “Tell Buddhadeb [Bhattacharjee, then minister of culture and information] that the decision to stay away is right. But Jyotibabu wants a wreath to be sent. Go ahead. I have no objection.”
Inside this uncorroborated but widely reported story sat another. The CPI(M) may not have known it at the time—in fact, few did—but the party’s link with the general public was irreversibly broken that fateful morning in July. After all, only three years prior, the party had swept to power with a huge majority. It considered itself a progressive curator of not just the people’s political mandate, but also of cultural productions. How wrong it was!
Among the many institutional failures of the CPI(M)’s governing logic was the zealous disregard for Bengali popular cinema. And after several replays of this mistake, on issues even more damaging to its prospects, this disconnect took its revenge last May when it was kicked out of power. The moment Mamata Banerjee had a scent of the impending change of regime, one of the first cultural talismans she revived in public discourse was Uttam Kumar, an unfailing instrument of mass mobilisation. She appealed to the middle class, an unfamiliar constituency for her, through her public speeches and meetings, to support her in paying the screen god his long-delayed due. An archive of his films and a film city in his name were among Banerjee’s many promises. It paid her off handsomely.