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Uttam Kumar is a cultural phenomenon: Srijit Mukherji

When romance-wizard Uttam Kumar speaks, Bengal listens!
Imagine curating a celluloid cruise, cherry-picking from the treasure trove of monochrome marvels straight out of the swinging ’60s silver screen! It might look like finding a needle in a haystack, but, fear not, because Srijit Mukherji is here to show us how it’s done.
Hop into the supernatural sphere of Oti Uttam, where Krishnendu (played by Anindya Sengupta) is more starry-eyed than a kid in a candy store when it comes to his idol, Uttam Kumar. PhD on him? Check. Obsessive fanboy? Double-check. But when love slaps him silly courtesy of Sohini (Roshni Bhattacharya), Krishnendu decides to pull out the big guns. Enter Gourab Chatterjee, Uttam Kumar’s own flesh and blood, playing himself in this reel-life rollercoaster. Krishnendu has got a plan: let’s summon the spirit of the matinee idol himself to crack the code of love. Because, obviously, who better to guide our hero through the maze of romance than the man who made generations swoon?

To take a ride where black-and-white dreams meet technicolor emotions, filmmaker Srijit Mukherji sits in conversation with The Statesman, delving into his journey of making Oti Uttam.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. Why Uttam Kumar? Over the last decade, we’ve noticed your consistent homage and tribute to this actor across numerous films. Now, you’ve taken it to the next level by weaving his shots seamlessly into Oti Uttam. What’s the inspiration behind this unique approach?
In my career, I’ve paid homage to Uttam Kumar solely through Autograph (which was from Nayak). Other films often mentioned like Shah Jahan Regency, Jaatishwar or Ek Je Chhilo Raja are more akin to period dramas. They either serve as literary adaptations, biopics or retell celebrated court cases. These are deeply ingrained in Bengali culture, whether it’s Bhawal Sanyasi, Anthony Firinghee or Shankar’s timeless novel Chowringhee. While Uttam Kumar may have featured in earlier versions of these films, much of the facts either remained undocumented or had been whitewashed or romanticised.
Coming back to Oti Uttam, Uttam Kumar has always stood as a beacon in the Bengali film industry, captivating me with his illustrious body of work and filmography. His reign over the industry for three decades is truly remarkable, and his charisma has percolated our households for generations. Growing up, I was surrounded by Uttam Kumar’s films, and I vividly recall my grandfather engaging in spirited debates between Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee with my father. These discussions provided me with invaluable insights into the worlds of these actors. As I delved deeper, I realised that Uttam Kumar transcends mere acting; he is a cultural phenomenon, he embodies an emblem of bangaliyana. It’s this realisation that drew me towards him, I believe.

Q. Please walk us through your journey of creating Oti Uttam.
Making Oti Uttam was a long and arduous task. The media often prodded me with questions like, “If Uttam Kumar were alive today, how would you cast him?” That sparked an idea in my mind – why not actually give it a try? The temptation of working with Uttam Kumar, even technically, and weaving a story with him as part of the cast was irresistible. Despite scepticism from others, I stuck to my guns. After all, attempting something like this had never been done before in our industry, which operates within a modest framework and limited resources. But I persisted. The plan was simple in theory but incredibly challenging in practice. It began with crafting an unconditional script, assuming that we had access to all the necessary footage. Then came the meticulous task of scouring through countless films to find the closest approximate dialogues to fit into our narrative. Procuring the clips and ensuring continuity in interactions and reactions was another hurdle. We had to acquire the rights to these clippings, digital, satellite and on negative, and composite them during shooting to provide a reference for the other actors. In the end, it all came down to meticulously matching frames, scale and magnitude, and that’s how we shot the scenes for Oti Uttam.

Q. In what ways did artificial intelligence enhance your creative process when integrating early cinematic footage into your film?
For the clips where Uttam Kumar’s voice was unavailable or obscured by noise or spilling of background music, I employed artificial intelligence to generate his voice.

Q. From how many films did you source the footage for your movie?
We sifted through over a hundred films, but ultimately incorporated clips from 51 of them.

Q. Did you encounter any challenges regarding copyright and other legal matters?
Tracing the original holders of negative rights proved to be a challenging and time-consuming ordeal. While acquiring digital and satellite rights was relatively straightforward, obtaining the negative rights involved an extensive process. Many production houses had shuttered after producing just one or two films, complicating the search for their descendants who had often moved on to other endeavours. This required tracking down their offices or residences, explaining the situation, and negotiating agreements with lawyers. The intricacies of this process could easily serve as the subject of a documentary.

Q. Can you discuss any intentional parallels or contrasts between the character portrayed by the bygone actor and the contemporary characters in Oti Uttam?
Certainly, the notion of love and its perspectives, as well as the language surrounding elements like discs, clubs and rock bands, reflect a significant cultural evolution in Bengal. With the advent of mega serials, transformations in cinema, shifts in urban infrastructure such as metro stations and the march of technological progress, Bengal’s cultural and political landscape has undergone a profound sea change. This dynamic shift sets the stage for an interesting interplay between two distinct generations.

Q. Did you notice any particular scenes or moments involving the bygone actor that resonated strongly with viewers?
Oh, absolutely! Several moments come to mind. One standout is the scene where Uttam Kumar gazes at the mural of Suchitra Sen in the technician studio, sending the entire crowd into a frenzy. That’s just one unforgettable moment. Then there’s the sheer excitement when any scene from Nayak is screened, especially the iconic “Aami toh achhi, isn’t that enough?” dialogue. Those scenes never fail to elicit rapturous reactions from the audience. They leave you with goosebumps if you’re fortunate enough to experience them in the theatre.

Q. Is there a specific part of your film that stands out as your personal favourite?
One of my cherished moments in the film is the interaction between Krishnendu’s parents. It’s the sweetest and most endearing part, especially Laboni Sarkar’s portrayal of Krishnendu’s mother and her reaction to Uttam Kumar. Her blushing demeanour and the way she insists on him sitting down to eat make it truly delightful. So, if I had to pick, I’d say that scene, accompanied by the song Bondhu Bhaabi, is possibly my favourite part of the film.

Q. Do you believe this innovative use of juxtaposed clips represents a new direction or trend in contemporary filmmaking?
I certainly hope so. The film’s success is already evident; it’s a box office sensation, having crossed the crore mark within just two weeks. With the holidays just around the corner, we’re anticipating even greater returns. The songs are already gaining popularity, and success tends to fuel further success. I’m confident that this achievement will inspire others to take on similar challenges and realise that harnessing technology for experimentation, despite its risks and the immense effort involved, ultimately pays off.

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