Tun Tun. The name conjures up the image of a roly-poly, funny woman. She was christened thus by none other than Dilip Kumar. She was working with the thespian in her first film Babul which had Nargis in the romantic lead. And the impact that she made with her debut was so “heavy” that Tun Tun emerged an overnight star. She was indeed Hindi cinema’s first-ever comedienne and roles were specially written for her. She did not make a special pair with any one comedian but she was paired with everyone from Bhagwan Dada, Agha, Sunder, Mukri, Dhumal, Johnny Walker to Keshto Mukherji.
The funny thing was that while all other heroines were on a constant diet, watching what they ate, Tun Tun made it a point to carry a dabba with her all the time, nibbling at junk food and mithai every minute she was on the sets. “I had to maintain myself,” she often joked.
But Tun Tun, whose real name was Uma Devi, did not join the film industry to become an actress. She wanted to be a singer. In fact, even as a child she only dreamt of becoming a singer. And not just that, she, at the age of eight, had some great, almost impossible dreams. If and when she would sing, it had to be for Naushad only! She would not sing for any lesser music-director. Naturally, she had to struggle very hard to make the dream come true.
Orphaned as an infant, Uma was raised by her chacha in an obscure village near Mathura. Girls were not sent to school as a matter of course. Consequently, as a child Uma would climb on imli trees, play on farmyards and listen to film songs on the radio. She would listen to the names of the singers and music directors being announced on the radio and dream of hearing her name on the air waves.
However, a major hurdle stood in the way. Singing was taboo in her orthodox North Indian household. She began practicing singing on the sly. Ramlila and film songs were her source of inspiration. She taught herself to read and write Hindi and later picked up a smattering of Urdu and English to get by in showbiz.
Luckily for Uma, her friend from Delhi came to her village. She was educated and had connections in the Bombay film industry. She wrote to her director friend in the tinsel-town to help Uma. In 1946, all of 13, Uma boarded the train to Bombay without informing her chacha. In Bombay she struck up an instant friendship with actor-director Arun Ahuja and his singer-wife Nirmala Devi (Govinda’s parents). They introduced her to various music directors.
One of them was Allah Rakha who agreed to give her one song in the film Wamaq Azao, the others being sung by Mallika Pukhraj. Thus, Uma Devi sang Hai do dil milte milte reh gaye… and got paid Rs 200, a princely sum those days.
The quest for Naushad continued. Finally, A.R. Kardar, who was looking for fresh female voice, introduced her to Naushad. She told him if he did not give her a chance, she would jump into the sea, which happened to be right across the bungalow where they were . The great music director asked the chubby Uma what was the “sur” she sang in. Uma was blank. She asked him to listen to her and decide. After listening to her for 10 minutes, Naushad gave the nod. A contract was signed and Uma was enrolled at Kardar Productions. She was paid Rs 500 as advance and arrangements were also made for her stay at the official guest house where the staff stayed.
Uma sang Afsana likh rahi hoon, dil-e-baqarar ka, aankhon mein rang bhar ke tere intezar ka… for Munawwar Sultana. The song floored the nation and established her as a front-ranker in the era of Noor Jehan and Shamshad Begum. She became Naushad’s favourite singer and he would reserve at least 1 song for her in each of his films.
Uma Devi’s Kahe jiya dole… and Dil ko lagaya humne… from Anokhi Ada cemented her popularity. She was offered Chandralekha by director S.S. Vasan of Madras. She had to sing seven classical songs for music director S.S. Rajeshwarrao. Uma realized these were beyond her capabilities. However, Rajeshwarrao worked hard on her and helped her sing the compositions.
Uma’s career as a singer was short-lived. New singers entered the industry. It was impossible to keep pace with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. “Rakhi”-brother Naushad used to compose songs to suit her range. But that could not have continued for long.
It was time to change tracks. Naushad advised her to switch to acting. He felt she would make an excellent comedienne for she had a natural flair for the funny stuff.
Once again, Uma wanted the best. She said she wanted a role opposite Dilip Kumar. Naushad couldn’t stop laughing, but he talked to Dilip. A role was created for Uma and she got her first film Babul in 1950. A scene required her to chase Dilip around a charpai (cot), but she ran so fast that she would leave the hero behind. Ultimately, after repeated takes, she pulled him in front of her. But in the process she fell on the charpai and Dilip fell on her. The shot was canned and they retained the shot. The credits announced her name as Uma Devi, but they decided to give her a screen name. It was Dilip Kumar’s idea to call her Tun Tun.
Tun Tun did many films later. She had a fan in Guru Dutt and acted in almost all his films. Her favourite role too was from Guru Dutt’s Mr and Mrs 55 in which she played a Christian lady.
Having more or less left films, Tun Tun, alias Uma Devi, led a retired life in a middle-class residence at Andheri, Mumbai. She spent her time playing with her grandchildren or listening to her favourite songs on All-India Radio. It was, after all, listening to the radio that got her attracted to the film industry in the first place, wasn’t it?