Uma Devi Khatri's life story unfolds like a plot in Hindi cinema, and is a tale woven with threads of inspiration and tragedy. Despite lending her melodious voice to 45 songs and gracing the screens of nearly 180 films, her legacy remains largely unknown to many.
Hailing from Uttar Pradesh, in a village near Amroha, Uma's early years were marred by a devastating event. Her family was murdered due to a land dispute, leaving her orphaned at a tender age. The faces of her parents were already faded from her memory, as she was taken in by relatives who treated her more as a housekeeper than a family member.
Amidst these challenging circumstances, Uma found solace in the radio, which became her closest companion. She would escape from the clutches of her relatives and immerse herself in the tunes that played, singing along to childhood songs. It was during these moments that her dreams of becoming a playback singer for movies took root.
Yearning to turn her desires and aspirations into reality, Uma, at the age of 23, ran away to Bombay in search of her new reality. With her bubbly and cheerful personality, fused with her sense of humour and naive speaking style, she became immensely likeable. These qualities would prove to be invaluable assets in her career, as they epitomized the two most pivotal points of her life in the entertainment industry.
In 1945, driven by her fierce determination and passion for singing, Uma found herself standing at Naushad Ali's doorstep, making a daring proclamation. Threatening to throw herself into the ocean beside his bungalow, she demanded an opportunity to prove her worth. Naushad Ali, astonished, granted her an audition, forever changing her life. Despite lacking formal musical training, Uma possessed a unique sweetness in her voice that captivated the listeners. This marked the beginning of her singing trajectory, with her breakthrough hit 'Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon Dil-e-beqarar ka' from the movie Dard in 1947, composed by Naushad himself.
The success of Dard and her remarkable vocal talents led to numerous song offers for Uma. However, it was her collaboration with director SS Vasan in the movie Chandralekha (1948) that propelled her to the pinnacle of her career as a singer. It is worth noting that Uma never received formal training in music or singing. Nevertheless, her seven songs in Chandralekha, including the popular track 'Sanjh Ki Bela', remain the peak of her singing career. She achieved all of this despite having a limited vocal range and adhering to an older style of singing that had fallen out of fashion.
Following this era, Uma decided to take a hiatus from the industry to focus on her family and domestic responsibilities. When she made her comeback in the 1950s, another pivotal moment awaited her. Returning to Naushad Ali's doorstep, he encouraged her to venture into acting, recognizing her natkat personality and impeccable comic timing. Uma struck a deal with Naushad, agreeing to act in a film only if Dilip Kumar shared the screen with her. The film was Babul (1950).
Her wish was granted, and alongside it, came a new name that would forever be associated with her comic persona — Tun Tun — a moniker coined by Dilip Kumar himself. Embracing this name, Uma swiftly assumed the position of the first female comedian in Hindi cinema.
Although she provided comedic relief in over 200 films, Uma never received the recognition she deserved. Throughout her five-decade-long career, she acted in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, and other language films, starring alongside top comedy actors of her time such as Bhagwan Dada and Sundara. She left an indelible mark in films like Awaara (1951), Mr& Mrs '55 (1955), and Pyaasa (1957), establishing herself as a permanent fixture in Bollywood's comedic landscape. Uma Devi Khatri's final appearance in a Hindi film was in Kasam Dhande Ki (1990). Following this, she made the decision to retire from Hindi cinema.
It is important to note that, during this time, there was a lack of discourse surrounding fat-shaming in comedy. She, however, wholeheartedly embraced the title of Tun Tun and brought her unique comedic style and flair to the screen. No one could rival Tun Tun's popularity, and her name became synonymous with plus-sized characters in India.
It is disheartening to realize that Uma, despite her extensive contributions and being hailed as a permanent comedic fixture, never received any awards in recognition of her career. In an interview with Shashi Ranjan, she lamented that she gave her entire life away to the industry, only to be ultimately abandoned by it. By the end of her life, she resided in a meek dwelling, struggling with poor living conditions and illness, unable to make ends meet or afford proper medical care.
On the occasion of her 100th birth anniversary, Uma Devi Khatri deserves to be recognized and celebrated for her legacy, which, like a hidden gem, remains shrouded in obscurity, awaiting its moment to shine once again.
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