Understated Yet Meteoric: Nutan’s Believable Women on Screen

We pick five of Nutan’s most memorable performances.

4 min read
Understated Yet Meteoric: Nutan’s Believable Women on Screen

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The camera can make monsters out of us. Like Norma Desmond of Sunset Boulevard (1950), it’s quite easy to give in to the temptations, and assume that the camera worships your stature, and you cease to be the real you. And thus we have received so many of our larger-than-life heroes, heroines and characters.

But watching Nutan seems like an exercise in disbelief, an act of disregarding vanity. Her carefully etched out characters, infused with subtlety and grace, make a body of work populated by believable women, at a vast distance from our prima donna divas. From Bimal Roy to Vijay Anand, every director she worked with became an ardent admirer of her understated but meteoric talent. And today’s directors like Sanjay Leela Bhansali carry a bit Nutan in their heroines.

Here are five outstanding performances from a beaming bouquet.

Seema (1955)

Nutan’s first breakthrough role, she plays a juvenile delinquent in a reform home who slowly blooms into a woman of startling composure. It’s difficult to believe the assortment of expressions she displays – the anger, the hurt, the irony, the self-assurance, and the slow-burning ardour of womanhood. It was her return to screen post her stint at a school in Switzerland, and the hunger of a young actor after being away is unmistakable in the portrayal of a youthful girl misunderstood by the world.

Special mention for the perfect lip-sync she has rendered in long takes for ‘Man Mohana Bade Jhoothe’ which left even Lata Mangeshkar impressed.

Saudagar (1973)

Playing a ‘gur’ maker who becomes the victim of deceit because her man Moti (played by Amitabh Bachchan before he became the angry young man) is in love with another woman, this film has Nutan in one of her marvellous turns in her later career.

Mahjubhi is no match for Moti’s curvaceous catch, she is aware of that, and this awareness locates the virtues of her solemn beauty on a high pedestal. An exemplary reworking of the modern Indian working woman, she plays the resoluteness, the vehemence, and finally coming to terms with her fate with terrific emotional lucidity, like life itself.

Sujata (1959)

Director Bimal Roy was an introvert genius who wasn’t outwardly expressive. If he liked any shot, he would just say ‘OK’, and proceed to the next scene unlike directors who made it a point to let the actors know that they have done well. One day while shooting an emotional scene in Sujata, she witnessed something rare when the shot got over. Roy’s eyes were moist; a huge appreciation of her craft. And Roy was not the only one thus affected.

Nutan playing the titular character skillfully churns out the dilemma of a Harijan girl torn between her devotion for her mother, and the sincere love of Adhir (Sunil Dutt). In a film that works as a blazing condemnation of upper-class hypocrisy, Nutan carries the dramatic weight of the film with perfect poise, and builds the character as a woman immune to the caricature of emotional overtures and wins our hearts.

Tere Ghar KeSamne (1963)

Not only plunge into dramatic depths, she could also soar in the breeze of romantic comedy. And that’s most aptly evident in Vijay Anand’s Tere Ghar Ke Saamne where she made a comeback post-pregnancy. Two neighbouring lovers caught between two warring fathers, love and tradition must find a balance in this modernist romantic comedy. She makes a sunny pair with Dev Anand, filling the screen with real stimulating, playful conversations. Matching steps with debonair Dev with equal elan, Nutan is joyously radiant in it.

Bandini (1963)

When Roy went to Nutan again for Bandini, she was newly married to Rajneesh Behl and was contemplating retirement. When she told this to Roy, he was deeply disappointed and told her that then he had to shelve the film, and look for another story. It was Behl who persuaded Nutan to take the role. During shooting, Nutan was expecting but she knew that it was the role of a lifetime. And she gave it her all.

Playing a young prisoner and a jilted lover, her character could easily have become the victim of melodramatic histrionics. But she exercises a rare control and lets us see her face as the canvas for a rainbow of emotions, from rage to compassion.

The scene where she is driven by insane fury and is about to commit murder is a masterclass of her craft. A prisoner of fate, a captive of love, and a hostage of her own beauty, Kalyani is not only her career-best work, but a performance that can rival any iconic work of Indian cinema.

(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise)

(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 21 February 2016 and is being republished to mark Nutan's death anniversary.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Nutan   Bandini   Sujata 

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