Nutan was undoubtedly one of the greatest and most expressive actresses that Indian cinema has ever seen. She was that rare actress who could convey more with just a look or fleeting glance or gesture than most actors could even with expansive dialogue at their disposal. And leave alone her phenomenal acting, even the great Lata Mangeshkar has many a time singled her out as the one heroine whose expressions came closest to suggest she was genuinely singing the song herself! What helped was that Nutan was actually a fine singer herself and, in fact, even sang her own songs in the film Chhabili (1960).
Born on June 4, 1936, in Bombay, Nutan was the eldest child among four. Her father was the director-poet Kumarsen Samarth, and her mother, the famed and stunningly beautiful actress, Shobhana Samarth, known for playing Sita in various mythologicals. Her aunt and Shabana Samarth’s cousin, Nalini Jaywant, was also a well-known actress, regarded by Dilip Kumar, no less, as the greatest actress he ever worked with. Among her younger siblings, younger sister Tanuja, too, would enter films and have a reasonably successful career of her own.
Nutan was taught Kathak from a very young age and gave her first performance when just two and a half! When she was four, far from the great actress and stunning beauty she would go on to be, Nutan was once cruelly dismissed by a friend of her mother’s as an ugly child. Recalling the incident in an interview, Nutan said, ‘I was very hurt. But Mummy comforted me and said, ‘You should take that as a compliment. An ugly duckling grows into a beautiful swan.’ That satisfied me, and whenever anyone remarked on my looks, I would say to them, ‘Just you wait and see. When I grow up I shall be as pretty as Mummy.’ Though her grandmother’s pet, Nutan said in the same interview that it was her mother to who she felt more attached to in her growing years, and who comforted her whenever she faced life’s little troubles. In fact, her motto in life was laid down by her mother. “Always keep away from three things – Jealousy, dissatisfaction and complexes, and you will be happy all your life,” she wrote in Nutan’s autograph book.
Undeterred by her friend’s caustic remark or by unfeeling relatives who dismissed Nutan as too skinny as she was growing up, Shobhana Samarth launched her as a heroine in Hamari Beti (1950). Nutan was studying at the Hill Grange School in Bombay then. When she was thirteen, she accompanied her mother to a ‘film mahurat’. The great K Asif saw Nutan there and on the spot, offered her a role. That’s when her mother decided, why not launched Nutan herself? Hamari Beti didn’t do well but Nutan made a positive impact on audiences and the film industry. Followed films like Hum Log (1951) and Nagina (1951), which proved to be popular, and set Nutan on her way. Incidentally, Nagina received an ‘Adults Only’ certificate, which meant a not-yet-18 Nutan couldn’t be allowed into the theatre to watch her own film! While Nutan became a star, it was still too early to gauge just how good an actress she was. There were sparks, no doubt, of the keen performer in Zia Sarhady’s realist drama, Hum Log, which saw her co-starring with Sajjan, Balraj Sahni and Shyama. A film that might have brought the performer in Nutan to the forefront at the time was launched in August 1951, Shikwa, directed by Ramesh Saigal. The film pitted her opposite Dilip Kumar, the only time they paired opposite each other in their younger days. Sadly, the film never got completed but the little footage that remains suggests that it could well have been a landmark film for both of them.
Following Hum Log and Nagina, offers poured in for Nutan and she did a slew of films in the 1952-53 period. She was still regarded as far too skinny to really succeed as an actress in the Hindi film world. Nutan herself said that there was a joke in the film industry that if you want to draw Nutan, draw a straight line! Her mother then made her take a sabbatical from the world of films and sent her to study further at the Swiss Finishing School, La Chatelaine, in 1953. Quoting Nutan in an interview, “The one year that I spent in Switzerland was the happiest in my life. I could play, study, be free, and catch up with what I missed in my teenage years. I did a secretarial course which has paid dividends several times over. I do my typing, accounts, tax matters, every clerical job required to keep my money matters straight. I learnt French, which I can still speak and write. When I returned to India, I was 40 pounds heavier, and then began a wonderful phase.” Earlier in 1952, when Nutan was with her mother in Mussoorie, she entered a beauty contest there on the spur of the moment only to win the title of Miss Mussoorie! That gave her mother the idea too end her to Switzerland.
A rejuvenated and now beautiful swan, Nutan, came back to films and finally got her major breakthrough and much respectability as an actress par excellence with Amiya Chakravarty’s Seema (1955), where she played a delinquent in a reform home. Till then, none of her films had really offered her a role of such depth and a character that was so beautifully fleshed out and Nutan gave it all she’s got. In Seema, Nutan gives us glimpses of what a thinking actress she had become. It is a powerhouse performance that deservedly won her the Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her first. Apart from her stunning performance, a highlight of the film is the classical song, Man Mohana. Perfectly rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, the lip sync of Nutan to this difficult song is spot on and this when the song is picturized in really long takes! Every subtle change in pace or tempo is registered subtly by Nutan particularly in the alaap portions and this song was in fact rated by Lata Mangeshkar as the best ever lip synching given to any of her songs.
Post Seema, Nutan was regarded as among the top actresses in Hindi filmdom and certainly one of its greatest performers. A true seasoned actress now, she displayed a great sense of versatility in her films. Whether it was the lighthearted comedies like Paying Guest (1957) or Dilli Ka Thug (1958), where she performed with a frothy uninhibitedness comparable only to Madhubala or Geeta Bali, or Bimal Roy’s sensitive take on the caste system, Sujata (1959), Nutan was simply matchless.
In Sujata, one of Bimal Roy’s finest films, Nutan enacts the title role of an untouchable girl, who is brought up by an upper caste family and is unable to understand why they always refer to her as like their daughter but never their actual daughter. Things get complicated for the family when the man (Sunil Dutt), who is to marry the true daughter of the family (Shashikala), falls in love with Nutan instead… Nutan gives a beautiful nuanced performance in the film with much grace and dignity. Sujata would see Nutan get her second Filmfare Award for Best Actress and deservedly so.
Bimal Roy and Nutan were all set to reunite soon after with Bandini, which Bimalda launched in 1960. However, at this critical time, Nutan found out that she was pregnant. Earlier in 1959, wedding bells peeled as she married Naval Officer, Lieutenant Commander Rajneesh Behl. Bimalda, who just could not visualise making Bandini without Nutan, told her he would gladly wait for her to have her child and spend some time with him or her and then only would he start the film. Nutan then took a small break from the film world when her son Monish was born in 1961.
Nutan did a film with her husband, the critically acknowledged Soorat Aur Seerat (1962), and then made a stinging comeback to mainstream Hindi cinema with Navketan’s Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), a refreshing romantic comedy opposite Dev Anand, and yes, Bandini (1963), proving just how right Bimalda was in waiting for her. The film is unthinkable without her. The two roles were as different as chalk and cheese and Nutan is brilliant in both!
Tere Ghar Ke Samne is one of the most enjoyable romantic comedies of Hindi Cinema. It is unfortunate this delightful film is never counted among the best works of director, Vijay Anand, the accolades going to his more obvious works. That is because the film is unfairly looked upon as a cute love story, nothing more. While admittedly the film is a lightweight, frothy musical (and most enjoyable, one might say), it does propagate the idea of neighbors living in harmony and looks at some of the issues of the generation gap, arguing that everything new needn’t be bad and everything old needn’t be good either. Vijay Anand develops the central romantic track between Dev Anand and Nutan beautifully with some wonderful moments between the two with simple everyday situations (going out for picnics, rides to the country etc), beautifully written scenes, witty spoken dialogue and plenty of charm, both from the script as well as the lead pair.. The two complement each other perfectly and Nutan displays a lightness and comic timing in her performance that’s a delight to behold! With her winsome smile, she lights up the screen!
Bandini sees Nutan give possibly her greatest ever performance and it certainly is one of the all time great performances in Indian cinema history. The film tells the story of a woman prisoner, Kalyani, who is charged with murder. Her story, told in flashback from her point of view sees Nutan give a strong internal performance with her passions raging from within her and she plays her role with great delicacy and dignity. In the film, Bimalda beautifully uses imagery and sound to convey her various moods. As she is seated in the corner of her grey, grim cell facing the prison’s high wall, she can hear the hoofs of the horse pulling the carriage taking away the man who loved her and promised her a better life. Or of course, that masterful scene in which Kalyani murders her lover’s wife with the hammering of a welder in the background with sparks flying around. This not only heightens the drama but tells us about the mental turmoil Kalyani is going through. One just has to see the gamut of emotions fleeting across Nutan face in this sequence. It is a masterful performance by an artist supreme and got her yet another Filmfare Award for Best Actress, her third.
Nutan’s career shone bright right through the 1960s and 1970s with strong performances in films like Milan (1967) – another Filmfare Award for Best Actress though it has to be said her dual roles in this reincarnation drama were not as challenging as some of the ones she had done earlier – Saraswatichandra (1968), one of her most memorable films, Saudagar (1973) with rising star Amitabh Bachchan, Sajan Bina Suhagan (1978), Kasturi (1978) and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978). She carries the last film, directed most ably by Raj Khosla, entirely on her shoulders even though the sympathy was with the mistress (Asha Parekh) rather than the wife, (Nutan). It was yet another Award winning performance by Nutan.
Gradually however, Nutan began being saddled with mundane mother roles and barring Meri Jung (1985), none of her later films even remotely offered her any histrionic challenges. Still, she gave much strength and dignity even to her maternal roles and you could never find fault with her performances even if most of the films were nothing to write home about. Even as she continued to act, her dairy farm and her bhajan singing (she was actually blessed with a fine singing voice and did her own playback in Chhabili (1960)) and her search for spirituality began to take up most of her time.
Nutan did court some controversy when she took her mother to court over alleged mismanagement of her funds and property. It would be years before the mother-daughter would let bygones be bygones and finally reconcile with each other. Talking about this, Shabana Samarth recalled in an interview, “In 1983, Nutan and I made up. We became close like old times and never once mentioned the feud and the twenty year silence that followed. We spent a lot of time together and went for satsangs. In her later years, she had become a satsangi. She was always a spiritual person, but not ritualistic. It’s a family trait. We believe in God, in truth.” She also publicly slapped Sanjeev Kumar on the sets of the film they were working together, Devi (1970). It is said she did this to refute rumors of their ‘affair’.
Nutan died of cancer on February 21, 1991. With her passing away, Indian Cinema had lost one of its greatest performers, sadly, much, much too early.