Primarily a theatre personality, Utpal Dutta was prominent actor of Bengali and Indian cinema. Dutta was born on 29th March, 1929 in Shillong. His father's name is Girijaranjan Dutta. Initially went to St. Edmont School in Shillong for schooling, and completed Matriculation in 1945 from St. Xaviers Collegiate School. In 1949, he graduated with English Honours from St. Xaviers College.
Though he was active primarily in Bengali theatre, he started his career in English theatre. As a teenager in the 1940s, he developed his passion and craft in English theatre, which resulted in the establishment of 'The Shakespeareans', in 1947. Its first performance was a powerful production of Shakespeare's Richard III, with Dutt playing the king, this so impressed Geoffrey Kendal and Laura Kendal (parents of the actress Jennifer Kendal), who led the itinerant 'Shakespeareana Theatre Company', that they immediately hired him and he did two year-long tours with them across India and Pakistan, enacting Shakespeare's plays, first 1947–49 and later 1953–54; and was acclaimed for his passionate portrayal of Othello. After the Geofferys left India for the first time in 1949, Utpal Dutt renamed his group as 'Little Theatre Group' (LTG), and over the next three years, continued to perform and produce in plays by Ibsen, Shaw, Tagore, Gorky and Konstantin Simonov. The group later decided to exclusively stage Bengali plays, to eventually evolve into a production company as it produced several Bengali movies. He also remained an active member of Gananatya Sangha, which performed through rural areas of West Bengal.
He was also a founding member of Indian People's Theatre Association (IPTA), an organization known for its leftist leaning, but left it after a couple of years, when he started his theatre group. He wrote and directed what he called "Epic Theatre", a term he borrowed from Bertolt Brecht, to bring about discussion and change in Bengal. His Brecht Society formed in 1948, was presided by Satyajit Ray. He became one of the most influential personalities in the Group Theater movement. While he accepting Brecht's belief of audience being "co-authors" of the theatre, he rejected orthodoxies of 'Epic theatre' as being impractical in India. He also remained a teacher of English at the South Point School in Kolkata.
Soon he would turn to his native Bengali producing translations of several Shakespearean tragedies and the works of Russian classicists into Bengali. Starting 1954, he wrote and directed controversial Bengali political plays, and also Maxim Gorky`s Lower Depths in Bengali in 1957. In 1959, the LTG secured the lease of Minerva Theatre, Kolkata, where most notably Angar (Coal) (1959), based on the exploitation of coal-miners was showcased. For the next decade the group staged several plays here, with him as an impresario, and still remembered as one last pioneering actor-managers of Indian theatre. He also formed groups like Arjo Opera and Bibek Yatra Samaj.
Meanwhile, his transition to films happened when while they were performing role of Othello, which famous filmmaker Madhu Bose happened to watch and gave him the lead in his film, Michael Madhusudan (1950), based on the life of the revolutionary Indian poet Michael Madhusudan Dutt. Later, he himself, wrote a play on the fragmented colonial psyche and Michael Madhusudan Dutt, and the ambivalence of swaying between "colonial" admiration and "anti-colonial" revolt. He went on to act in many Bengali films, including many films by Satyajit Ray.
Dutta was also an extremely famous comic actor in Hindi cinema, though he acted only in a handful of Hindi cinemas. He acted in the comedy movies, most notable ones being Guddi, Gol Maal, Naram Garam, Rang Birangi and Shaukeen. He received Filmfare Best Comedian Award for Golmaal, Naram Garam and Rang Birangi. In Bengali cinema, he appeared in Bhuvan Shome for which he was awarded the National Film Award for Best Actor, Ek Adhuri Kahani and Chorus, all by Mrinal Sen; Agantuk, Jana Aranya, Joy Baba Felunath and Hirak Rajar Deshe, by Satyajit Ray; Paar and Padma Nadir Majhi, by Gautam Ghose; Bombay Talkie, The Guru, and Shakespeare Wallah, by James Ivory; Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, by Ritwik Ghatak; Guddi, [(Gol Maal)], [(Kotwal Saab)] by Hrishikesh Mukherjee; Shaukeen, "[( Priyatama)]", "[(Hamari Bahu Alka)] directed by Basu Chatterjee and Amanush & "[(Anand Ashram)], "Barsat Ki Ek Raat" by Shakti Samanta.
Utpal Dutta also played the main villain characters in some of the major successful Amitabh Bachchan starrers such as The Great Gambler and Inquilaab (film). In fact, Utpal Dutt was the Hero (main lead) in Amitabh Bachchan's maiden venture Saat Hindustani.
He balanced successful parallel careers as an extremely serious theatre playwright and director in Bengal alongside doing hilariously comic roles in Hindi cinema. He is the greatest dramatist in progressive Bengali theatre of 20th century.
"Revolutionary theatre is essentially people's theatre, which means it must be played before the masses,.."
Dutta was also a lifelong Marxist and an active supporter of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), and his leftist "Revolutionary Theater" was a phenomenon in the contemporary Bengali theater. He staged many street dramas in favour of the Communist Party. He was jailed by the Congress government in West Bengal in 1965 and detained for several months, as the then state government feared the subversive message of his play Kallol (Sound of the Waves), based on the Royal Indian Navy Mutiny of 1946, which ran packed shows at Calcutta's Minerva Theatre, might provoke anti-government protests in West Bengal, the play turned out to be his longest-running play at the Minerva. Manusher Adhikare (Of People's Rights) in 1968, staged as documentary drama was new genre in Bengali theatre before, though it turned out to be his last production of the group at the Minerva, as they soon left the theatre. Thereafter, the group was given the name, 'People's Little Theatre' as it took on yet another new direction, his work came closer to people, and this phase played an important role in popularizing Indian street theatre, as he started performing at street-corners or `poster` plays, in open spaces without any aid or embellishment before enormous crowds. The year also marked his transition into Jatra or Yatra Pala, a Bengali folk drama form, performed largely across rural West Bengal. He started writing Jatra scripts, produced and acted in them, even formed his own Jatra troupe. His jatra political dramas, were often produced on open-air stages and symbolized his commitment to communist ideology and today form his lasting legacy.
Through the 1970s three of his plays, Barricade, Dusswapner Nagari (City of Nightmares), Ebaar Rajar Pala (Enter the King), drew crowds despite being officially banned.
He wrote Louha Manab (Iron Man), 1964 while still in jail, based on a real trial against a pro-Stalin, ex-Politburo member by supporters of Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow of 1963. First staged at Alipore Jail in 1965, by People’s Little Theatre. His stay in jail unleashed a new period of rebellious, and politically charged plays, including Tiner Toloar (The Tin Sword), partially based on Pygmalion, Dushapner Nagari (Nightmare City), Manusher Odhikare (Rights Of Man), based on the Scottsboro Boys case, protests against the racial discrimination and injustice of the Scottsborough trial of 1931, Surya-Shikar (Hunting the Sun) (1978), Maha-Bidroha (The Great Rebellion) (1989), and Laal Durgo (Red Fort) (1990) (The Red Goddess of Destruction) about the demise of Communism, set in a fictitious East European country, and Janatar Aphim (Opiate of the People), (1990) lamented on Indian political parties exploiting religion for gain.In all, he wrote twenty-two full-length plays, fifteen poster plays, nineteen Jatra scripts, acted in thousands of shows, and directed more than sixty productions., apart from writing serious studies of Shakespeare, Girish Ghosh, Stanislavsky, Brecht, and revolutionary theatre, and translating Shakespeare and Brecht.
He also directed a number of films like, Megh (1961) a psychological thriller, Ghoom Bhangar Gaan (1965), Jhar (Storm) (1979) based on the Young Bengal movement, Baisakhi Megh (1981), Maa (1983) and Inquilab Ke Baad (1984).
Forty years after the staging of classic play Kallol which entails the story as the mutiny of Indian sailors against the British on the Arabian Sea, for which he was even imprisoned, was revived in 2005, as Gangabokshe Kallol, part of the state-funded 'Utpal Dutt Natyotsav' (Utpal Dutt Theatre Festival) on an off-shore stage, by the Hooghly River in Kolkata.
The Last Lear, the 2007 English film based on his play Aajker Shahjahan on an eccentric Shakespearean actor, and directed for the screen by Rituparno Ghosh, later won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in English.
n 1960, Dutta married theatre and film actress Shobha Sen. Their only daughter, Dr. Bishnupriya Dutt, is a professor of theatre history in the School of Arts and Aesthetics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
On 19 August 1993, Dutta felt pain in the chest and suffered a massive heart attack. Immediately after he returned home from the S.S.K.M hospital, Calcutta, West Bengal where he had undergone dialysis.