Uma Devi Khatri, popularly known as Tun Tun, is the first female comedian in Hindi cinema. Her name, which was coined by none other than Dilip Kumar, is also a synonym for healthy women in India. A handful of comedians reigned in the 1950s and 1960s, such as Bhagwan Dada, Johnny Walker and Keshto Mukherjee. Being the only female comedian in the mix, she managed to work in roughly 200 movies for over five decades. Uma Devi acted in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and other languages movies. She was paired with top comedy actors like Bhagwan Dada, Agha, Sunder, Mukri, Dhumal, Johnny Walker and Keshto Mukherjee. The actress was also an accomplished playback singer.
Uma Devi was born on July 11, 1923, in a small village near Amroha District, Uttar Pradesh, India. Reportedly, her parents and a brother were murdered over land disputes. Uma Devi’s brother Hari was nine years older than her. She was left in the care of her uncle, who did not believe in educating a girl. The actress recalled in one of her interviews, “I don’t know how my parents looked because they passed away when I was two and a half years old. I had a 9-year-old brother named Hari. I remember we used to live in Alipore. One day my brother was also murdered when I was five-year-old.” However, the actress taught herself to read and write Hindi.
Uma Devi used to sing along to songs on the radio, hoping that her voice would be heard on it one day. During her struggle to get a break in movies, the actress got in touch with famous music director Naushad through her contacts. Reportedly, Uma Devi asked him to hear her out, or she’d throw herself in the ocean. Seeing her determination and stunned by her voice, Naushad signed her on, and she had her first playback assignment in ‘Wamiq Azra’ (1946).
Then Uma Devi signed up for A.R. Kardar’s ‘Dard’ (1947), which became her biggest hit of the year.
Devi’s melodious voice in songs like ‘afsana likh rahi hoon’ and ‘aaj machi hai dhum’ were massive hits in the leagues of Suraiyya Rajkumari and Khursheed Bano. Reportedly, these songs led her to love. Devi’s husband fell in love with her after hearing the song and travelled all the way to Bombay to meet her.
The couple married and had four children together. She was a regular on the radio. Meanwhile, songs like ‘kahin jiya dole’ and ‘dil ko lagake kuch bhi na paya’ from the movie ‘Anokhi Ada’ (1948) wowed audiences with her soulful voice.
Tamil movie ‘Chandralekha’ (1948) produced by Gemini Studios, was later made in Hindi by director S. S. Vassan was a super-hit. Uma Devi sang seven songs in the movie, which are considered classics. The actress had no prior training in classical music. ‘Saajan re aaja re‘, ‘mairi main to‘ and ‘man bhavan saavan aaya rang jamane‘ were huge hits.
(Photo: Poster from the movie ‘Chandralekha’)
However, by working for another director, she breached her contract with A.R. Kardar. The filmmaker was furious and ended the contract that led to the downfall of her singing career. During that time, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle started making waves in the industry with their wide vocal range and fresher voices, which made Uma Devi’s chance to be a successful vocal artist even lesser.
Just when Uma Devi’s Bollywood dream was coming to an end, she approached her mentor Naushad. He suggested to Devi that she should take up acting. Naushad believed she was naturally funny with great comic timing.
The actress recalled in one of her interviews, “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’(1950).”
(Photo: Poster from the movie ‘Babul’)
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