Obituary: Utpal Dutt
Saturday 21 August 1993
FOR OVER four decades Utpal Dutt entertained Indian audiences with compelling stage performances and productions centred around historical and contemporary political trends and events.
In between, he joined the Naxalbari or underground Maoist guerrilla movement in Bengal, eastern India, to try and engineer a political revolution through violence and acted brilliantly in scores of commercial art films. A living legend in Bengal, Dutt responded to political developments in India and abroad through vibrant Bengali theatre; no Marxist election campaign in Bengal was complete without his 30-minute street-corner or 'poster' plays replete with poignant political messages.
Although Dutt was totally committed to Communism, personal debts and a repressive Congress government in the early Seventies forced him to move temporarily to 'Bollywood' - Bombay, India's film capital. Awed by his towering personality, deep resonant boom and staccato delivery, film directors cast him as a villain. But later he cocked a snook at Bollywood by brilliant performances in films by internationally renowned film-makers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen.
In the free-wheeling late Sixties Dutt earned kudos for his film role as the hedonistic sitar player in The Guru (1969), directed by James Ivory. His political past caught up with him as Guru was being filmed in Calcutta when he was arrested on suspicion of being a Naxalite or Maoist guerrilla.
Dutt was born in 1929 and educated at St Xavier College in Calcutta. Theatre was his enduring passion and one he indulged by founding The Shakespeareans in 1947. Its first performance was a powerful production of Richard III, with Dutt playing the king. He so impressed Geoffrey and Laura Kendal (parents of the actress Felicity Kendal) of the itinerant Shakespeareana Theatre Company, that he was immediately hired and did two year-long tours with them across India and Pakistan, enacting Shakespeare's plays.
In 1949 The Shakespeareans were renamed the Little Theatre Group and over the next three years Dutt produced and acted in plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Tagore, Gorky and Konstantin Simonov, earning fame across India. In the early Fifties Dutt decided to move away from such 'elitist' Westernised productions into the theatre of radical politics and anti-establishment. He turned to his native Bengali and his translations of several Shakespearean tragedies and the works of Russian classicists into Bengali are remembered even today.
Dutt's new genre of plays with contemporary political themes were amongst his best, exciting ordinary people but infuriating the government. Angar ('Fire', 1959), about the exploitation of coal-miners, and Kallo (1963), which dramatised the mutiny by Indian naval ratings under British rule and the questionable role played by the Congress party in it, led to doubts about Dutt's patriotism and in 1965 he was detained for several months without a trial.
His release brought a fresh burst of creativity during which he portrayed the Marxist guerrilla movement sweeping across Bengal before actually joining it, going underground and being arrested again. The imposition of an internal emergency and suspension of civil liberties by Indira Gandhi in 1975 led Dutt to produce three powerful plays, Barricade, Dusswapner Nagari ('City of Nightmares'), Ebaar Rajar Pala ('Enter the King'), all performances of which, though banned by Mrs Gandhi's party, were hugely popular.
More recently, the demise of Communism was the subject of Laal Doorgo ('The Red Goddess of Destruction', 1990), set in a fictitious East European country, while Janatar Aphim ('Opiate of the People', also 1990) lamented how Indian political parties were exploiting religion for gain.
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