New Delhi: Comic relief in Hindi cinema of the 1950s and ’60s was dominated by a few names, including Bhagwan Dada, Johnny Walker and Keshto Mukherjee. Uma Devi, or Tun Tun, as she was famously known, was the sole woman in this mix who broke the glass ceiling in the difficult, capricious industry and became a star not only as a comedian, but an accomplished playback singer, too.
The story of her life and career is proof of the double standards a woman has to go through to achieve success and a testament to her unwavering determination to make it big. On her death anniversary, ThePrint examines her legacy.
Silver screen dreams and a voice to match
Born in Uttar Pradesh on 11 July 1923, Uma was orphaned when she was a child and left in the care of her uncle, who did not believe in educating a girl. However, she taught herself to read and write Hindi and dreamed big. She would listen to songs on the radio and sing them, thinking of the day she would hear her voice on the radio. That day did come, in the late 1930s, when as a teenager, she ran away to what was then Bombay to pursue her big Bollywood dream.
Through contacts and friends, she found her way to famous music director Naushad, whom she begged for a chance. The story goes that she had asked him to hear her out, or she’d throw herself in the ocean. Impressed by her determination, Naushad relented and was instantly impressed by her voice. He signed her on and she had her first playback assignment in 1946’s Wamiq Azra. She soon became a Naushad staple, and even went on to sign up with director A.R. Kardar.
Kardar’s 1947 film Dard was Uma Devi’s biggest hit. Tunes like ‘afsana likh rahi hoon’ and ‘aaj machi hai dhum‘ were such huge hits that they elevated the young, new voice into the leagues of Suraiyya, Rajkumari and Khursheed Bano. The former song also, it is said, was the one that found her love. Her husband, whose name is unverified, reportedly fell in love with her after hearing the song and travelled all the way to Bombay to meet her. They married and had four children together.
As the years continued, her voice became a radio regular. In 1948’s Anokhi Ada, she wowed audiences with her soulful voice in songs like ‘kahin jiya dole‘ and ‘dil ko lagake kuch bhi na paya‘. Dillagi, Chandni, Raat, and Naatak (all released between 1947 and ’48) were hits, in part thanks to her melodious voice.
It was toward the end of 1948 that she would get her biggest hit ever, which would make her a musical icon, but also led to her downfall. Chandralekha, made in Tamil and later in Hindi by director S. S. Vassan, was a super-hit. Uma Devi sang seven songs — including the classics ‘saajan re aaja re‘, ‘mairi main to‘ and ‘man bhavan saavan aaya rang jamane‘ — with no prior classical training and hit it out of the park.
But, by working for another director, she breached her contract with Kardar, who was enraged and ended her contract and, effectively, her singing career.
From crooning to comedy
Around the same time, newcomers Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle had started making waves in the industry with their wide vocal range and fresher voices. With the termination of Kardar’s deal, coupled with this competition that everyone seemed to prefer, it seemed like Uma Devi’s Bollywood dream was over.
Unsure of what to do, Tun Tun turned to her original mentor — Naushad. The music director suggested she take up acting, and in particular, comedy. He knew she was naturally funny and had great comic timing. With that, she had a new Bollywood dream. And she was very particular about who she wanted to realise it with.
“Naushad, who is my rakhi brother, knew this defect of mine pretty well and kept on telling me that he saw more of a mischievous comedian in me. I decided to fall in line and on the spur of the moment told him that I would act as a funster only if Dilip Kumar were to act opposite me. Naushad bhai immediately consulted Yusuf bhai and I was baffled and could not believe my own ears when he created a character especially for me in Babul,” she said in an interview.
It was, in fact, Kumar who christened her into Tun Tun and the name stuck.
The rest, as they say, was history. Tun Tun took to comedy like a fish to water. Subsequent films, especially those starring Guru Dutt, made her a household name. Mr & Mrs 55, Pyaasa, Aar Paar and Mom Ki Gudiya were great hits. She also essayed a variety of roles — a tired mother of three, a woman in pursuit of a lover, an irritable wife and more.
But the saddest thing is that all her comedy hinged on the fact that she was overweight. It is a sad practice, seen even today, that much of popular culture mocks those who are overweight, dark-skinned, differently-abled or different in any way.
Most of Tun Tun’s jokes were about being a fat woman trying to achieve something or find love, and failing because of her weight. She, however, seemed to look at it in a different light.
“My bulk is my trump card. I don’t regret that I am fat. I’m lucky I was born this way. However that does not mean that I am not in favour of dieting. I agree dieting is very essential to maintain a slim and healthy body. But where is the need for me to be slim and ravishingly beautiful?” she had said, while also stressing that her only regret was that this led to many health issues.
Between 1950 and 1990, Tun Tun acted in close to 150 films. She was the comic relief who brought joy to people, albeit at the cost of her own health.
She passed away at the age of 80 in 2004. As we remember her for her groundbreaking work that paved the way for female comedians who have come after her, it only feels right to remember her for her immense talent, joie de vivre and never-say-die spirit.