18 August 2011

The Greats: Nutan

Nutan Samarth
4-6-1936 - 21-02-1991
Nutan. One of the greatest actresses that the Indian screen has seen. How do I describe an actress who was so effervescent on screen? Who seemed to slip into the skin of her characters so easily that one forgot one was watching Nutan, the actress? Adjectives fall short when expressing the extent of her craft. She was the character she was essaying on screen; her silences often spoke more than the well-crafted dialogues of her colleagues. Myriad expressions chased over her face like quicksilver, and she was perhaps the only heroine of her times who looked like she was singing the songs she lip-synced to on screen.

A heroine of whom photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha said that Nutan was so beautiful she could be shot from any angle, was ironically dismissed in her early teens as 'that skinny ugly duckling'. Nutan made her debut in Hamari Beti when she was barely 15, and followed it up with Hum Log and Nagina. Interestingly enough, she wasn't allowed to enter the theatre to see Nagina because that had an adult certificate. And never mind that she was the heroine!

Her mother pulled her out of films and sent her to La Chatelaine, a finishing school  in Switzerland. A year made a difference - the gawky ugly duckling had turned into a poised beautiful swan. And film-makers looked at the westernised, French-speaking young girl with new eyes. A few indifferent movies followed until she signed Amiya Chakraborty's Seema (it released in 1955). It marked the beginning of a scintillating career of one of the finest performers of the craft.

When I was attempting to cobble together a list of what I consider her finest performances, the difficulty I had was not in choosing ten roles, but in considering what to leave out. And so, this list is terrifically subjective in that these are the films I liked her most in - it does not mean that her other performances were any less.

1. Seema (1955)
Seema was Nutan's launching pad as a talent to be reckoned with. And she delivered, and how! As Gauri, the young girl who is sent to a reform home as a juvenile delinquent, Nutan was alternatively feisty, angry, rude, submissive, patient and rebellious. Gauri is an orphan, brought up by her uncle and aunt, who treat her as an unpaid servant. Yet nothing can quench her cheerful nature. Until, she is accused of stealing a necklace at the house where she works, and thrown out of her home by her aunt. Unable to find a job because of the stigma of being a thief, Gauri's nature changes. By the time she is sent to a remand home, she is like a wounded animal, trusting no one. Her anger at the unfairness of her circumstances does not allow her to open her mind and heart to people who genuinely want to help her. 

But the manager of the remand home is not one to give up. He patiently chips away at the hard shell Gauri has surrounded herself with, until one day, she realises that uncomplicated friendships and a selfless love are hers for the taking - if she will only allow herself to accept them.  

2. Paying Guest (1957)
If Seema showed just how Nutan could chew up a serious role, Paying Guest displayed her versatility as she swung from comedy to dancing in a nightclub, and matched Dev Anand step for step in a romantic comedy turned murder mystery turned courtroom drama.

The film is nothing much to write home about because somewhere in the journey from romance to the courtroom, it managed to lose its way. Not so its stars, who imbued this froth with the right amount of intensity, and dare I say it? honesty, that made it worth the watch. 

When Ramesh (Dev Anand), a young advocate cannot find anyone to rent a room to him, he disguises himself as an old Muslim man and cons Shanti (Nutan) and her father into doing so. Shanti soon sees through Ramesh's disguise, and after the initial anger, falls for his charm. They are happy, but that happiness is not to last very long. Ramesh has begun to work as an assistant to a renowned city advocate whose young wife has come to realise that in marrying money, she has joined the ranks of neglected wives. Add some blackmail, a murder, police investigation, some angst...

3. Sone Ki Chidiya (1958)
After Seema, Nutan plays beleaguered orphan once more in a film that purports to take a look at the seedy underbelly of the film industry. I truly like the 'insider' aspects of movies such as these, which show the exploitation behind the glamour; however, unlike the definitive Kagaz ke Phool, this is a more commercial take with its exploited heroine, the usual dollop of melodrama, and a doomed romance followed by a more 'mature' one as the heroine finds someone who loves her for herself.

As an orphan, she is a burden to her relatives, one of whom is even willing to sell her to keep himself in liquor, the others who are eager to castigate her for being a whore. This lasts only until, through a fortuitous set of circumstances, she is offered the chance to be a heroine. Soon, she is famous, popular and wealthy. And her relatives, who once spurned her, all turn up in droves to share her wealth. When she meets Amar, she hopes she has found true love, only to be disappointed once again. When it seems like life has no meaning, she chances to meet a man who shows her what life can be like. 

It is to Nutan's credit that she imbued Lakshmi with such expression, that despite my irritation at her lack of a spine, I still felt for her.

4. Sujata (1960)
This must surely rank as one of Bimal Roy's triumphs. Like most of his films, Sujata is also peopled by characters that could be you or me; neither saint nor sinner, neither hero nor villain; just ordinary people with their own prejudices and biases, unkind not because they are unkind, but because they are thoughtless, and are unkind without consciously meaning to be.

Sujata (ironically, the name means 'of a good caste') is an 'untouchable', a baby who is brought to the house of an engineer Upendra (Tarun Bose), because her parents have died and the villagers (all of whom belong to a 'higher' caste) do not know what to do with her. Reluctantly, because he is a good man at heart, he agrees to foster her; his wife gives her to the ayah to raise. And despite many tries at getting rid of her (finding another foster father, sending her to an orphanage) it looks like Sujata is here to stay. And stay she does, and is loved unquestioningly by Rama (Shashikala), the daughter of the house, who considers Sujata her sister.

So does Upendra, who is so used to the little things that Sujata does for him; not so Charu, who, though she has a lot of affection for Sujata, is still prejudiced by the brainwashing of an addlepated relative years ago, to fully accept her - she repeatedly refers to Sujata as beti jaisi (like a daughter) much to Sujata's sorrow.

But there is hope on the horizon - Adhir, who is slated to marry Rama, finds Sujata much more appealing. And Rama is more than happy to further their romance. Only, Sujata finds out that she is NOT her mother's daughter (now she understands the beti jaisi) and that she is untouchable.

Bimal Roy, as was always the case, directed with a sensitivity toward a burning issue and a tolerance toward the natural prejudices of ordinary people. No one is "bad" here - just mixed-up. And Nutan... this was one of the films where I sat awestruck watching an actress spin her magic. 

5. Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963)
Okay, this one is totally unexpected, so unlike Nutan who had come to be associated with the heavy dramatic roles (Paying Guest, notwithstanding). This was also her second 'comeback' - she had taken a sabbatical to get married and have a child. And now she was returning as romantic heroine! Yaa-aay!

And what a film to return in - a funny, frothy, romantic comedy with warring fathers, beautiful songs excellently picturised (one inside the Qutub Minar, another where Dev Anand's character 'sees' Sulekha (Nutan) inside his whiskey glass - watch the scene where she shivers when an ice cube is added) and the effervescence of the Dev Anand - Nutan pairing. Sulu and Ramesh are the offspring of the aforementioned warring fathers. And both of them are so used to upstaging the other that they both end up buying adjoining plots and hiring Ramesh to design their dream homes for them.

When Sulu finds out about the deception, she is angry but cannot remain so for a long time; she is forced to play along. And the movie meanders to a rather melodramatic ending, but the ride is worth it. Especially to see Nutan light up the screen with a million-watt smile - who can blame Dev Anand for searching the streets for his love?

6. Bandini (1963)
From froth to heavy drama in the same year, Nutan went from one end of the spectrum to the other. This, again, was Bimal Roy's film (his swansong) with its flawed characters, and ordinary people undergoing extraordinary circumstances.

The film starts off in pre-independence India, when Kalyani, a strong-willed and educated young girl runs into the much-older Bikash, a reactionary freedom fighter. She is at first intrigued and then drawn to his ideals, and soon they are in love. Only, Bikash is on the run from the law; he leaves their village too, and promises to return to marry Kalyani. However, he doesn't, and soon she learns that he is married. Devastated, but unwilling to let her father be shamed by the villagers if they learn the truth, Kalyani leaves the village. Not for her the sitting around and weeping or committing suicide - she is too strong-willed for that.

Circumstances (and her own emotions) force her into committing an unspeakable act, and she is sentenced and jailed. Here, she meets Dr Devendra, who, despite knowing what she did, falls in love with her. His mother too accepts Kalyani. When the stage is set for a happy ending, Kalyani runs into Bikash again, and learns that he is terminally ill. She also hears about the circumstances under which Bikash married, and is faced with a difficult choice - Bikash or Deven?

Nutan is brilliant as the innocent girl who is compelled to commit a heinous act, and her lack of repentance for the same. Her inner conflict, her guilt at the temptation to start life anew, her feeling that she is not worthy of a second chance, her final choice - if you have never seen Nutan before, then this film will awe you. If you have seen Nutan before, Bandini will still surprise you with the range of this superb actress. 

7. Khandaan (1965)
As a movie, this did not work for me. Like Meena Kumari before her, Nutan was being pegged into the weepy, martyred roles, which were a criminal waste of talent. And again, it was by producers from the South, who cast her in melodramas (Milan, Meherban) that were nothing more than three-handkerchief tear-jerkers. I must confess that having seen these first, I used to steer clear of any film with Nutan in the lead, until I saw Tere Ghar Ke Saamne and realised that Nutan could laugh!

Khandaan was the remake of Bhagapirivinai (1959) starring Sivaji Ganesan and Savitri. Radha is married to Govind, whose right side is paralysed due to an accident. They live in a joint family, and due to a series of disagreements, end up with a divided household. There is more drama, more tears, more angst than should ideally be there in any one movie.

If at all the movie is worth watching, it is for Om Prakash and for Nutan who manages to act 'naturally' in a movie that exaggerates every scene, every emotion. And while I find the lyrics totally unacceptable, I guess the song fit both character and context, and it is beautiful. Just don't pay close attention to the words. 

ps: I hated Sunil Dutt in this movie!

8. Chhota Bhai (1966)
Now this was a film that could have been made melodramatic, but thankfully, wasn't (well, not too much anyway). Rehman has been brought up lovingly by his stepmother. When she is on her deathbed, he and his wife, Annapoorna, promise to do by her and hers what she has done for him. Annapoorna has always been fond of her little brother-in-law and now that his mother is dead, she takes over the role of his mother and sister-in-law and friend (she indulges him in all his mischief, much to his brother's chagrin). Even when she has a son of her own, Ramu is never made to feel like he is an interloper. His little nephew adores him, and life is going on well for this small family.

Until Annapoorna's widowed mother comes to live with them. She cannot bear to see the 'step' brother enjoy so much freedom and rights in the household and works tirelessly to separate the boy (for he is only that) from his sister-in-law. Tensions mount and finally the little house is (literally) divided. And even her husband doesn't seem to mind. Can Annapoorna salvage their relationships? Will her love for, and responsibility toward her husband's little brother triumph over her duty toward her mother?

This is a heartwarming tale, and Nutan brought her warmth and sensitivity to an author-backed role. Rehman and Lalita Pawar provided more than adequate support, while the young child star (IMDB identifies him as Master Mahesh Kumar) was a joy to watch - he is cheeky and rude and strong-willed by turns, but his absolute adoration of his Bhabhi is a shining undercurrent.

9. Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1967)
Again, not one of my favourite movies (and Tess of the D'Urbervilles (on which the movie is based) has never been one of my favourite books either), but watchable for the fine performances of its cast. Ashok (Dharmendra) and Nirmala (Nutan) meet, fall in love, and are well on their way to get married. Nirmala is working for a wealthy old woman in order to help pay off the mortgage on her house, and the woman's son, Ranjit (Rehman) is attracted to Nirmala. However, she always manages to brush him off until a fateful night when, after a party, she accepts a ride home. He rapes her, and leaves her devastated. Worse is in store - she has become pregnant. Her mother takes her away but her child is stillborn.

Ashok has been looking for her meanwhile, but she has moved away. When the fates (and a couple of good friends) conspire to unite them, Nirmala has changed, though it is obvious that she still loves Ashok. He, of course, wants to marry her, and has, in fact, fought with his father who had arranged his marriage elsewhere. Nirmala does not want to start her new life with a lie and so, she writes him a letter explaining everything that had happened to her in the interim. Her mother does not approve, but Ashok still wants to marry her and Nirmala is ecstatic.

Until their wedding night, when it transpires that her letter to Ashok had gone astray; and now, Ashok cannot view her the same way. He leaves, and Ranjit makes an appearance again. He is changed, or so he says. And Nirmala continues to wait...

10. Saudagar (1973)
A powerhouse performance from the actress who I thought had ceased to surprise me. This movie also had an exemplary performance from Amitabh Bachchan, and it is intriguing that it came after his success as the Angry Young Man. Only goes to show that he was more open to different roles in the early part of his career than he was in his prime.

Moti (Amitabh Bachchan) is a young villager who makes his living selling gur (Jaggery); he collects the sap from the palm trees and gives it to Mahju-bi (Nutan) who boils it down to make the gur. They have an excellent partnership, and a warm friendship. On his way to the city to sell the gur, he runs into Phoolbano, the charming, seductive daughter of the village trader. They fall in love, and Moti is soon besotted. When he proposes marriage, her father lays down the amount of Meher; it is a lot more than poor Moti can afford. He begs Phoolbano's father to give him some time to earn the Meher amount.

And so, he rather cold-heartedly wooes Mahju-bi. After all, everything is fair in love and war. She is at first, shocked (she is older than him, and a widow) but despite herself, soon begins to respond to his advances. They get married, and Mahjubi works hard, even harder to assure her new husband's success. Moti cold-bloodedly collects the fruit of her earnings, all the while continuing to meet Phoolbano to reassure her of his love for her. When his savings reach the Meher amount that Phoolbano's father has stipulated, Moti divorces Mahju-bi. Talaq, talaq, talaq. Mahju-bi is shattered, not just by the divorce, but by the knowledge that she had been used. 

Moti marries Phoolbano, but if it is true that one has to pay for one's sins in this life, then retribution is just waiting around the corner. Will Mahju-bi forgive him and come to his rescue once again? 

It is a sweet gem of a movie, and the ending is not only plausible, but is an indication of Mahju-bi's inherent graciousness. Nutan traverses the range between sad-eyed widowhood, domestic happiness, and helpless fury with natural ease. Saudagar is a an exceptional film in the filmography of both its lead actors.

Nutan was one of the earliest of beauty queens - she was Miss India 1951. Thus being the exception (probably the single exception) to the rule that beauty queens cannot act. She is also one of the few child actresses who made a successful transition to heroine roles, and then moved gracefully into character ones. And one who disproved the edict that marriage was a death knell to a heroine's career. 

It is a sad commentary on the film scene at the time that she did not get as many roles worthy of her great talent as she should have. While she never acted with Dilip Kumar until Karma, Dev Anand had great fondness for her - she was one of the few heroines, he was wont to say, with whom one could have an intelligent conversation.


  1. Of the films you've listed, the only ones I haven't seen are Chhota Bhai and Saudagar (the latter has been on my to-watch list for over 12 years now! A friend told me the story years back and I've been meaning to watch it ever since). I guess my favourite Nutan roles are Sujata, Seema, Bandini and Tere Ghar ke Saamne - all showcase her versatility so well. And Paying Guest, while not a fantastic film, has awesome music, great chemistry between the leads (and two fabulous-looking leads too!) ;-) Somehow, Nutan's later films with Sunil Dutt - Milan, Khaandaan, Bhai-Bahen, etc - tend to be too weepy and melodramatic, with Nutan constantly in self-sacrificing bahu mode.

    P.S. Love her look - that orange-and-brown dress/riding habit, especially - in Laat Saheb, though (despite being a Shammi Kapoor film), it isn't a favourite of mine.

  2. Hi Anu,
    Thanks for directing me to this eulogy of my Sirius of actresses (perhaps I should say Venus?). I was quite interested as you can imagine, and one thing struck me as I read through your descriptions of her movies: why is it she was so often characterized as an orphan? Do you have any clue?
    The one movie which I would have included in the list is Dilli ka thug: there she plays a delightful clown and mingles with the collection of the movie's other (good or bad) clowns, and the story is just a lugh from beginning to end. AND the film contains "ye raate ye mausam"!!! BTW, I too, like you, could not get around Khandaan. I simply thought it was awfully directed. I haven't seen Chhota Bhai: I'll have to look after that some day.
    Anyway thanks for this very enjoyable little pause in my day's work!

  3. Yves, I thought you would like it :) and I am quite glad you did. I wouldn't call her 'Venus' though - she was too gawky for that. Besides, Madhubala was already referred to as the Venus of the Indian Screen.

    I do not know why she was portrayed as orphan - it is interesting that you should say that. Because, if she was already orphaned in Seema, Sujata and Sone ki Chidiya, she orphans herself (sort of) in Bandini.

    I couldn't quite like Dilli ka Thug, despite Nutan's fine performance and the excellent songs. I thought KK was over the top, and so were the sidekicks. But oh yes, the songs. And Nutan. She just lit up the screen!

  4. Madhu, Saudagar is really one of the movies you MUST see - even though it does not fall into your favourite period. It is a quiet film, and a no-holds barred look at how far a man is willing to go to achieve his desires. What I also liked about the movie is that while there is a reason for the way Moti behaves the way he does, there is no justification. And so, his repentance is all the more genuine, though it comes out of his own suffering.

    I actually enjoyed quite a bit of Paying Guest. As you say, the Dev-Nutan pairing had a chemistry that really raised the tone of the movie (it is interesting, actually: I think Waheeda's best pairing was also with Dev Saab!). And yes, the songs -oh, the songs. My favourite is Oh Nigahen Mastana - Nutan has only to look pretty and hum along in the song, but her smile illuminated the screen. And Dev Saab - yummmm!

    Nutan, as was Meena Kumari, was destroyed by the "Curse of the South Melodramas". And Sunil Dutt acted in too many of the self-righteous roles that he was in danger of becoming a self-satisfied prig! And (what is surprising?) Laat Saheb wars with Pagla Kahin Ka for the tag of being my least favourite Shammi Kapoor film - though I remember the scene where they had Nutan speak French!

  5. I never quite warmed to Nutan despite liking her in Tere Mere Sapne and Paying Guest. I think I saw too many of her weepy roles first :( My favourite heroine of those times was Waheeda Rehman.

  6. I will forgive you because you like Waheeda Rehman :) But you should really give Nutan a shot in Seema, Bandini, Paying Guest, Anari, Chhota Bhai....

    Avoid Meherban, Khandan, Bhai-Behan, Khandan, Milan, and all later movies like Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki, Sajan ki Saheli...

  7. I never quite warmed to Nutan despite liking her in Tere Mere Sapne and Paying Guest. I think I saw too many of her weepy roles first :( My favourite heroine of those times was Waheeda Rehman.

  8. I will forgive you because you like Waheeda Rehman :) But you should really give Nutan a shot in Seema, Bandini, Paying Guest, Anari, Chhota Bhai....

    Avoid Meherban, Khandan, Bhai-Behan, Khandan, Milan, and all later movies like Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki, Sajan ki Saheli...

  9. Agree with you that she was an actress of substance, Anu. I do wish she hadn't been inflicted with the 'Curse of the South Melodramas' as you so eloquently put it! (I am going to steal that phrase, anyway.) My favourite actresses of the period were Meena Kumari, Nutan and Waheeda Rehman. Somehow I never warmed to either Nargis or Madhubala, though I did like the latter in Mughal-e-Azam.

  10. Nargis was so-so, but she had charisma, and screen presence. And she was not a bad actress, only I have never understood the hype surrounding her. But heh, that is only my opinion.

  11. A great list, with lots of new facts for me.
    I was fascianted by Seema, Sujata and Bandini. For me this remains her main body of her art.
    I hadn't even heard of Chotte Bhai. it sounds very much like Majhli Didi and at times Bhabhi ki Chudiyan.
    I wonder why you didn't add Saraswati Chandra. She acted very well in that as well, although one can discuss the sanity of the story.
    Well-written piece, Anu!


  12. Thanks, Harvey. As I said, it was a bigger chore to choose what to leave out, than in. She was such a fantastic actress. So I promptly nixed all the films I hated - Milan, Khandaan, Saraswati Chandra... :)


Back to TOP