Uma Devi aka Tun Tun – Singing Comedienne
Tun Tun, the name which personifies a huge barrel of humour, one that brings comic relief when the melodrama needs to be toned down or when fight scenes run out. In the 60’s you could see her walking down the roads of Bandra shopping or looking out of a cab but turning heads all the same amidst cries of, “Hey, look; it’s Tun Tun” while they all laughed at her portly presence. Little did they know that the generously proportioned with a put on duck walk on-screen was also a singing star of the 1940’s, running for popularity stakes against Noor Jehan and Suraiya.
“I was not always fat. It was after my first baby that I suddenly put on weight. For good or bad, it was my wish to be a singer of repute. Though not trained, I always loved singing.
An orphan raised by her Uncle (chacha) in a village near Mathura, Uma Devi Khatri (Born 11 July 1923), being a girl, was never sent to school. Instead she would listen to the radio, carefully remembering the names of the singers and music directors and hoping to hear her own one day.
Since singing was proscribed in most orthodox North Indian households, she practiced while alone and also taught herself to read and write enough to get by.
Her luck turned when her friend with Bollywood connections visited the village one day. Promising to help the young aspirant, Uma in 1946 without informing her chacha boarded a Bombay bound train. Arriving in the dream city, she struck a friendship with actor-director Arun Ahuja and his singer-wife Nirmala Devi (Govinda’s parents) who introduced her to music director Allah Rakha and he gave her a break in Wamaq Azra (1946) with one song. Her heart was however set on singing for Naushad.
As she recalled, “I was in a state of desperation, in need of money so I set out to prove myself as a singer. However, I declared that I would sing only for Naushad. I loved his music and much to the wrath and antagonism of others, I insisted that if I sing I would sing only for Naushad.”
“At that time, Naushad worked for Kardar Productions. I explained to him that I had faced a lot of difficulties in my determination to sing his compositions alone. He said that Kardar Sahab would have to approve of me. To cut a long story short. Kardar just heard a line of my singing and made me sign a three-year contract. I was paid Rs 500 as advance and arrangements were also made for my stay at the official guest house where the staff stayed.”
The ‘brand new’ singer was chosen to sing a duet with the star, Suraiya. The recording went off well in the very first take. For Uma Devi, it was an achievement to brighten her future prospects. In fact, when you hear the duet you can hardly tell the difference between the two voices; the song “Betaab hai dil” from the film ‘Dard’ (1947).
In the film, she was the voice of Munawwar Sultana and it also featured the song ensuring her place in history; Afsana likh rahi hoon. The song floored the nation and established her as a front-runner in the era of Noor Jahan, Shamshad Begum and Mallika Pukhraj. She became Naushad’s favourite singer and he would reserve at least two songs for her in each of his films.
A Pakistani gentleman was so enamored by this song that he married Uma Devi and did not return to Pakistan. Uma fondly called him Mohan and they had four children.
For a while, the hit parade was unstoppable : Kaahe jiya dole and Dil ko laga ke humne from Anokhi Ada (1948) Meri Pyari Patang – Dillagi (1949), Chaand Ki Sundar Nagri Mein – Dholak (1951) and Mohabbat ki Duniya – Jungle ke Jawahar (1952) cemented her popularity.
She was offered Chandralekha (1948) by director S.S. Vasan of Madras. With a classical music based score, she had to sing seven songs for music director S. Rajeshwarrao. Uma realised these were beyond her capabilities. However, Rao worked hard on her and helped her sing the compositions like “O Chand Mere”.
But this film that sealed her fame also undid her career. Kardar took this as a breach of contract and terminated their deal. And though she had immaculate rendition, the scale of her voice was limited. Naushad knew this and composed for her accordingly but then strode in Lata Mangeshkar and changed the rules of the game. Uma Devi’s short-lived career as a singer was over.
“With the advent of Late Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle singers like Shamshad Begum and myself had to fall back naturally. We had I different kind of singing voice.” She said without a trace of ill-will for her rivals of the singing days.
Naushad, her favorite composer and others in lighter moments always said she was a, funny sight, “Aap to dekh kar hume hasee aati hai (looking at you makes us laugh), you should act in movies,” suggested Naushad.
It was with uncertainty that she accepted her first role offered to her by Naushad in “Babul” with Dilip Kumar. She became an instant hit, “Oh, but I was terribly nervous to act with a top artiste like Dilip Kumar. The thought itself gave me the creeps. But Naushad Saheb and S. U. Sunny (director) were very co-operative and encouraged me with a great deal of patience. I must say it was a good break. I played a mad girl with hardly any dialogue. Babul was a Golden jubilee hit.”
Who suggested the name “Tun Tun‘? “Dilip Kumar”, she reminisced, “He decided on a name funny enough to suit my personality. Weight has no doubt added to my popularity but no matter how funny one may look, talent is a must. And talent I have.”
Soon, the name “Tuntun’ became synonymous with a ‘fat person’ but interestingly, it never had any derogatory undertones and was used affectionately.
Cinematic stories of that time had large dollops of tragedy and melodrama which begged for some comic relief after every fifteen minutes. This was provided by the specialist comedians who often had a minor story going along next to or within the main story line.
And though the male comedians were never in short supply with a constant stream from Bhagwan Dada, Agha, Sunder, Mukri, Dhumal, Johnny Walker right up to Keshto Mukherji, Tun Tun was the lone funster, female star.
The way she held her own, never letting anyone steal a scene from her says a lot about her comic timing and often ignored talent. Never a grouse bearer, she got along fine with one and all as she jokingly said, “I love every actor I worked with but they all say in unison, “Tumhari dosti bahut bhaari hai.”
“Life is not all fun so it is my duty to make people laugh. Don’t for a moment think that I feel upset about people making fun of me or laughing at me. Not at all,” she put in emphatically, “It reminds me in fact of my popularity. The day they stop gushing, I’ll feel terrible for I shall know that I am no more popular. In our industry when popularity ceases, you are finished.”
She has probably acted in more classics of Hindi cinema than any other heroine and was a Guru Dutt favorite – Aar Paar, Shri 420, Pyaasa, Kohinoor, Kagaz ke Phool, Ganga Jamuna, Kashmir ki Kali, Upkar and over 400 others.
Be it a complete parallel comedy track or just a cameo, you can spot her practically in every second film from the fifties to the eighties, “I can never remember the number of films I have made so far. I suppose the only people who would be able to help you in getting the exact number is the income tax department.”
Even after retiring from active playback singing, her love for music always took precedence as she gave stage performances for charity shows with Sunil Dutt’s Ajanta Arts Troupe.
Retiring in 1990 from acting, she lived in Versova with her family for the rest of her days. Tun Tun died on 24 Nov 2003. She was 80.
Full of home-grown philosophy, like Tagore she believed, “The burden of life is lightened when I laugh at myself.”