A nubile nymphet she certainly was not. She was perhaps the heftiest actress in the film industry, and yet, she lasted much longer than all the leading ladies of her time, through a career spanning half a century.
Other leading actresses would starve themselves to maintain their figures, while she would merrily gorge on sweets and oily food, to maintain hers.
Bubbly, jovial and immensely talented, the cheerfully rotund Uma Devi Khatri, better known as Tun Tun, is one of my favorite yesteryear stars.
Born in a village near Mathura to an orthodox family, Uma Devi was orphaned at a very young age and was brought up by her uncle. Girls in her community weren’t allowed to go to school in those days. With little else to do, young Uma would spend most of her time playing in the fields and listening to songs on the radio. She had dreams of becoming a singer herself, and one day, at the age of eight, Uma Devi Khatri decided she would sing for none else than Naushad himself.
Formal instruction in music was forbidden to her, and so Uma Devi simply taught herself to sing. She also taught herself to read and write. At the age of thirteen, she caught a train to Bombay, where she got herself introduced to actor-producer Arun Ahuja, who in turn introduced her to music directors of the day. Arun Ahuja, by the way, is Govinda’s father.
Eventually, she came to the attention of Abdul Rashid Kardar, a leading movie maker of his time. Kardar was looking for a fresh voice for Suraiya, the female lead in his movie, Dard. The music director of the movie was Naushad, who initially refused to consider her because she was not formally trained. The story goes that Uma Devi threatened to jump into the sea, which was just outside Naushad’s bungalow, if he did not listen to her sing. Ten minutes of listening to Uma Devi, and Naushad was convinced.
The song she sang for Naushad, ‘Afsana likh rahi hoon‘, became an enormous hit across the country and took her to the topmost bracket. At the age of fifteen, the self-taught Uma Devi Khatri, shared top billing with legends like Noorjehan and Zohrabai, and stayed there for a decade.
Here’s a good selection of Uma Devi’s top hits from the 1940’s and ’50’s.
After Noorjehan migrated to Pakistan during the Partition, Lata Mangeshkar took over her mantle, and quickly became a major singing star. Uma Devi’s genteel style of singing fell out of favor with the viewing public and the offers stopped coming her way.
To add to her woes, her mentor AR Kardar stopped working with her, because she sang playback for SS Vasan’s Hindi remake of Chandralekha (1948). The movie was a hit, and Uma Devi’s songs in it were all hits as well, but Kardar considered this a breach of contract, and ended his agreement with her.
Anyone else would have probably faded away, but Uma Devi Khatri was made of stern stuff. She always was a jovial person, with a keen sense of comic timing. Naushad cast her in a comic role in his Babul (1950). The movie’s leading man, Dilip Kumar, felt that Uma Devi Khatri needed a screen-name to suit her rotund personality, and suggested the name Tun Tun. And so was born India’s first comedienne, and a forty year acting career. Tun Tun starred in 200 movies and made audiences across three generations chuckle, as she merrily celebrated her rotundity on-screen and off it.
I remember her TV interview hosted by her friend and co-star, Tabassum. Tubby was literally rolling on the floor, laughing till she cried.
Have you wondered why most Indian comediennes are fat? That’s because Tun Tun is still the benchmark for comediennes in Bollywood. She set the standard for funny femmes in Bollywood.
Tun Tun died in 2003, Bombay at the age of 80, but her songs and her comedy live on.
Here is her most popular song, from Dard (1946). Mind you, Tun Tun sang this timeless masterpiece at the age of fifteen. Sixty years later, it is still a haunting melody. I fondly hope no none makes a remix!
Cheers … Srini.