Thought Box



by Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri April 27 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 9 mins, 30 secs

Srijit Mukherji’s Oti Uttam is a film hard to dislike. And no, it’s not just Uttam Kumar who is responsible for that, writes Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri.

Screenings of Bengali films in theatres of Delhi/NCR are usually a sorry affair. I have watched films that have been declared blockbusters in Kolkata literally all alone in theatres here. Even the one in Nehru Place, which is close to Delhi’s Bengali hub, C.R. Park has few people attending Bengali films. Among the few exceptions have been Suman Ghosh’s Kabuliwala and Avijit Sen’s Projapoti (both probably owe their audiences to the presence of Mithun Chakraborty in the cast, the latter with Dev an added attraction).

So, the presence of approximately 50-odd people at an 8.50 p.m. show in a theatre in Noida, for a film that starred relatively unknown actors, along with a star who has been dead for 44 years, should have come as a surprise. It did not. Because, as it turns out, almost half a century after he passed away, the ghost of the late star is a bigger draw than any other star or actor alive. The star: Uttam Kumar. The film: Oti Uttam.

Srijit’s Mukherji’s Oti Uttam is a film hard to dislike. And no, it’s not just Uttam Kumar who is responsible for that. Despite its simplistic premise, which can be forgiven given the technological and logistical virtuosity the film called for, the film is, for the most part, a hoot. And, impossible to ignore for what it manages to do. Forrest Gump shaking hands with John F. Kennedy is now part of film folklore. Kamal Haasan did it with Subhas Bose. However, these are just passing, seconds-long sequences. Now imagine doing that over two hours of runtime. Creating an entire film out of the footage of a deceased star’s filmography. And weaving it into a live-motion narrative involving contemporary actors.

Srijit is in every possible way just right for a project like this. After all, four of his films, his debut feature, Autograph, Jaatishwar, Ej Je Chhilo Raja and Shahjahan Regency, are all inspired takes on films starring the mahanayak. And as he says, ‘On every death and birth anniversary of Uttam Kumar the media invariably asks me which character I would have cast him as, what kind of role would I visualize for him. So, I thought why not give it a shot…why not experience “working” with him in a manner of speaking.’

It’s the kind of derring-do that has held him in good stead, enabling him to walk a path through his films that angels might fear to tread. He may have stumbled, at times badly so, but that has never dimmed his penchant for going out on a limb, for experimenting with narrative tropes. Imagine a film created out of footage of Gregory Peck or Humphrey Bogart, Dilip Kumar or Dev Anand. It says as much about the stars and their enduring popularity as it does about the fan as filmmaker or the filmmaker as fan.

The story at the core is rather old-fashioned. A young man, Krishnendu, a hat-tip to one of Uttam Kumar’s most memorable characters, in Saptapadi, is in love with Sohini, who dismisses him as too ‘paati’ (Bengali for plain or ordinary) and herself as way out of his league, even positioned as lesbian (an unfortunate and rather unnecessary, even tasteless, digression that). While Krishnendu lives and breathes Uttam Kumar, his house is a shrine to the matinee idol, Sohini has little idea of what the star is to the popular imagination. She swears by Ranbir…or is it Ranveer? Driven to despair, Krishnendu gets his friend (Uttam Kumar’s grandson, Gourab Chatterjee, playing himself in the film) to invoke the spirit of the star to come to the help of the hapless lover. After all, who better to play Cupid than the romantic icon for an entire generation of Bengalis?

Thus begins the adventures of Uttam Kumar in the Kolkata of the 2020s as the star ‘appears’ to engineer the romance between Krishnendu and Sohini. There are quite a few funny asides that drive the narrative here, including the star’s distaste for his statue, which looks nothing like him, or Sohini addressing him as UK. But before long there’s a twist. Sohini might have never seen an Uttam Kumar film, but she has not reckoned with the star’s undying charisma. Earlier in the film there is a passing reference to a study on the ‘sociological impact of the smile of Uttam Kumar’, and Sohini reels from the impact of that smile at first sight. So, a simple Prof. Higgins and Eliza Doolittle (of course a male version of her here) story becomes a tad twisted tale of three-way love. Before everything is resolved to the satisfaction of all the dramatis personae.  

If that appears a bit too simple, there has been some criticism that there’s little to the film other than AI gimmickry, Srijit takes the criticism on the chin. ‘I think it’s absolutely baseless. It makes no sense whatsoever. Only a simple narrative could have been sustained by this technology. In fact, there could have been a simpler narrative…I still introduced a twist when the girl falls in love with Uttam Kumar. But even then, I agree it’s a very simple and slightly contrived story. Something that you have seen before – the trope of an expert coaching a greenhorn in matters of love, like, say, in Chhoti Si Baat, Il Postino and Kal Ho Na Ho. But the fact of the matter is, it took six years to make this film even with this simplistic narrative. So, if I had made the story even more complicated, my chances of getting an approximated match on existing footage would have been close to nil. So obviously, only a simplistic model could have sustained the strict logic. As far as AI gimmickry is concerned, that’s fine. Anything new has these naysayers. This crablike pulling down happens with every innovation. I don’t even take it seriously.’

Srijit however covers the bases about Uttam’s appearance with a few disclaimers right at the outset. These come in the form of the star laying down certain conditions for his appearances, like ‘since I am coming from very far away, my image may at times appear a little unclear’ or that he would keep changing his form and attire, his make-up and get-up as per his desire on a minute-to-minute basis if required. That addresses the basic logic of the star appearing in more than one ‘look’ in the same sequence. It does call for a suspension of disbelief but then the whole film does that. It’s through a willing suspension of disbelief (there’s also a mention of chemical locha in the brain a la Munna Bhai meeting Gandhi) that one can go along with this charming world-building in the way it is intended. 

I ask the filmmaker what it took to execute the narrative. Were the live portions written out, leaving gaps to be filled with the Uttam Kumar bits? Or did he have the Uttam Kumar clippings he wanted to use and then developed his screenplay accordingly?

‘Neither,’ says Srijit. ‘I first wrote an unconditional screenplay assuming that Uttam Kumar was alive. Then I made a list of all the Uttam Kumar dialogues in that screenplay and started a two-year process of finding the closest approximate match of such a dialogue with an existing dialogue in one of his films. I had to consider maintaining action continuity, look for movements, clippings, which would have silent reactions, pauses, so that I could build a total repository of a character in terms of dialogues and movements and reactions and pauses from existing clippings. In situations where we didn’t get the exact match, we approximated the match and then tweaked the dialogues in the scene slightly so as to suit the context of this scene.’

The process entailed watching approximately 85 films of which 51 made the cut and thus clippings were sourced. ‘Getting those clippings was a huge task,’ says Srijit. ‘Tracing the producer who had the negative rights, getting their addresses, contacting them, making them understand. A lot of production houses had closed down after one or two films. They are doing something else right now. It was a very interesting journey. In fact, that could itself be a subject of a documentary, maybe titled “In Search of Uttam Kumar”. The process of getting all the agreements in place took about a year.’

How did he address the issue of visual and aural quality of the clippings? ‘For the clean ones, we used Uttam Kumar’s original voice as in the original film’s soundtrack. For the clippings where the audio was a problem because of the overlap of existing background music and other actors, we used AI to recreate Uttam Kumar’s voice, using a bass voice by noted theatre actor Surojit Banerjee.’

What did the process of weaving the Uttam Kumar bits into the screenplay involve? Did AI play a role? ‘AI played no role in the visuals,’ Srijit is categorical. ‘The visuals were absolutely back calculated and woven into the screenplay in the process I mentioned above. Obviously, the shot-taking of the live portion happened after we obtained all the clippings. So, we could actually sync the clippings with the actors during the shoot, decide on our lensing and magnification given the clippings we had. There was an actor who was wearing a green suit, a chroma suit, and giving the position of the clipping of Uttam Kumar so that the eye-line and the look and the movements of the rest of the real actors could be synchronized. Artificial intelligence was only used in the audio.’

It is by all accounts a painstaking process and an obvious labor of love. As he underlines, ‘It is a first in the history of cinema, and not just Indian cinema, where a principal character has been culled out of existing footage. But as I explained that, this could only have been done by a simple story.’

The final word probably rests with a couple of people’s responses to the film. Monisha Sen, teacher in spoken English, and a hard-core Uttam Kumar fan, not so much Srijit’s, wrote to me: ‘Oti Uttam was very enjoyable and quite funny. Very cleverly handled by Srijit. The ending, when the credits were showing, was superb!’

And I overheard a young man exiting the theatre with me after the show, shaking his head, ‘Guru toh guru, director o kintu kom na.’ The guru (Uttam Kumar) is no doubt the guru, but the director is no less.

Truly what one can call an ‘oti uttam’ (superlative) experience!

(The writer would like to thank Neha Tiwari for her help with transcribing the interview)

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.