An Actor's Discomfiture

Mr. Utpal Dutt vs. the Magician

Great teachers have often been likened to magicians and actors, and there are real life examples too of teachers who converted to professional acting. In Bengal’s history, Sisir Bhaduri’s name looms large in the list. Unfortunately though, I was yet to arrive into the breathing world when Bhaduri the actor was at his prime. He did give a number of performances in his old age too, but my parents were quite averse to exposing me to the “undesirable influence” of show business. 

What one loses on the swing though, one often recovers on the roundabout. And this is precisely what happened to me when yet another great actor, Mr. Utpal Dutt, arrived in my life as a teacher of the English language during the early days of the now famous South  Point School. I have written elsewhere about my fascinating experiences under his tutelage, but there is one episode that I have failed to record so far. The story involves a duel of sorts that had once taken place between Mr. Dutt and a professional magician whose name has unfortunately been washed away by the tides of time.

As far as teaching abilities went, Mr. Dutt was himself a magician of sorts, as any student who ever attended his classes will affirm. The point is best illustrated by an event, one that might help prepare the reader for the Dutt-Magician event. Mr. Dutt belonged to the now extict genre of teachers who did not keep their students imprisoned within the boundaries of an education board dictated curriculum. He played the infidel instead by reading out for students passages from classical literature that had little bearing on a so-called “syllabus”.

Jim Corbett’s Man-eaters of Kumaon lay right in the centre of his terrain of infidelity and he introduced us once to the most dramatic part of The Chowgarh Tigers story, the part that depicts his “first – and last – meeting” with the dreaded “tigress.” The students, quite mesmerized, sat staring at Mr. Dutt as he kept reading the details of the encounter. Given his compelling reading skill, each one of us in the class was transported away in his or her imagination to the Chowgarh area where a man-eater’s reign of terror had prevailed for five long years.

The climax in the tale arrived when Mr. Dutt read out the following lines:
“As I stepped clear of the giant slate, I looked behind me over my right shoulder and – looked straight into the tigress’s face.”
While he was reading this, he slowly raised his right hand, pointing the index finger towards the back of the classroom, and the action was so convincing that there was hardly any student who did not, following Mr. Dutt’s gaze, turn around towards the empty wall in wary apprehension! This was sorcery almost and Mr. Dutt’s performance had neatly matched Tennessee Williams’ visualization of a magician as “a person who offered illusions that had the appearance of truth.” 

Yet, even if Mr. Dutt succeeded in casting a magical spell over us, he was after all not a professional actor at the time, though he turned into one in later life. The man who introduced us to Corbett was by all accounts a committed school teacher with a highly talented amateur’s interest in stage acting and, viewed in retrospect, it was no surprise therefore that he received a jolt when confronted by a person who earned his living as a stage artist, a regular magician in fact, whose profession probably required him to possess a modicum of acting skill too. The school had commissioned the latter to amuse the students and this young David of an actor unwittingly ended up luring Mr. Dutt the Goliath, to step into an embarrassing trap.

The magician kept us enthralled, like many other stage magicians, with a series of tricks, but the one reserved for Mr. Dutt undoubtedly enjoyed the pride of place. It started with the magician stepping down from the stage and approaching the audience with a pack of playing cards. Mr. Dutt was present there of course and the magician went straight up to him, requesting him to choose a card from the pack and reveal it to everyone present except the magician himself. Mr. Dutt, who was obviously enjoying the show, did what he was told and finally replaced the card in the pack. The pack was shuffled vigorously after this and given back to the magician, who went back to the stage and placed it inside an empty drinking glass resting on top of a table. And then he turned back towards the audience looking directly into Mr. Dutt’s face and spoke to him in a mixture of Bengali and English.

“Now Sir, why don’t you request your card not to hide inside the pack any longer? After all, I am not acquainted with it. Can’t you ask it to show its face to the crowd?”

Mr. Dutt appeared to be visibly taken aback by the idea of speaking to his chosen card and smiled somewhat sheepishly. But the magician insisted doggedly. “Just ask it to get up, and I guarantee you that your card will follow your wish …” Mr. Dutt could hardly refuse, for a room full of students was staring at him expectantly. He followed the magician’s advice therefore and came out with his version of the “get up” command, in a booming Othello-like bass, spoken with a perfect British accent!

The magician, as noted, was not entirely lacking in acting skills either. He almost collapsed on the stage in feigned fear as he heard Mr. Dutt’s voice, and then, wearing a scandalized look on his face, reprimanded him. “How will the poor card show up if you yell at it this way? Be polite, be nice to it, won’t you?”

The magician, like most of us present, was a middle class Bengali, but unlike us, he had not learnt his English in Mr. Dutt’s school! He went on therefore to demonstrate to Mr. Dutt exactly how the words “get up” should be “politely” pronounced so as not to unnerve the poor card.

Towards this end, he stretched the “get out” into an almost unendingly long and lilting “gay…ate … aaa…aap,” separating the “gay” from the “ate” and the “aaa” from the “aap” by what sounded like the nagging notes often employed  by pampering Bengali mothers  suspecting their overfed children to be suffering from under-nutrition. The students were roaring with laughter now and Mr. Dutt too guffawed in unconcealed embarrassment. But the magician had no intention of giving up either. “Unless you speak sweetly, why would it show up Sir?” he went on. “Say, gay…ate… aaa…aap … its your card right?” 

There is little doubt that Mr. Dutt had directed many a novice in his acting life to speak the magician’s “Bengalified” English. But on this day, Dutt the teacher failed dismally to don the cap of the magician who had transported the Kumaon hills to our classroom and ended up quite disappointingly with a high pitched and swiftly delivered “get up”, refusing to sacrifice his British accent. Much to our merriment of course, the card did climb out of the glass, not probably in response to Mr. Dutt’s invitation, but on account of the fact that the time allotted to the magician was nearly over.

The magician did not possibly admire Mr. Dutt’s acting skills on that evening. He had not known of course, that in the not too distant future, Mr. Dutt would leave his teaching profession to attain pan-India fame as a beloved thespian. The magician’s own future could not have been clearly visible to him either, but one suspects that he in his turn too had undergone a professional change sooner or later, and vanished, unlike Mr. Dutt, inside a dark valley of anonymity.


More by :  Dipankar Dasgupta

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