OF INNOCENCE AND FORTITUDE
Had the stoical Kalyani from Bimal Roy’s Bandini (1963) become the prototype for the Hindi film heroine instead of the ever-suffering Radha of Mother India (1957), the depiction of women in our cinema perhaps wouldn’t have been as drab as it is. Kalyani, as portrayed by Nutan, is the embodiment of Indian womanhood. She has the resilience to adapt to every situation, but not with the bearing of a sacrificial lamb. Instead, she takes responsibility for her actions––which include murdering her lover’s wife in a fit of passionate rage––repents her crime and is gracefully reconciled to a life in prison.
Every step of the way, Kalyani is conscious of her responsibilities and carries them out without fuss. Even though she's self-effacing, there's no doubt in the viewer's mind that all her choices are her own. Finally, when she has to decide between a life of comfort with a caring doctor who wishes to marry her and attending to her ailing lover, she has but a moment’s hesitation before she goes with the man she loves. Above all, Kalyani symbolises a woman who keeps her values and dignity intact through every situation, while never seeming like a victim.
Bimal Roy wasn't willing to make Bandini with anyone but Nutan and coaxed her out of her self-imposed retirement following her marriage and pregnancy. Rightly so. It's impossible to imagine another actor in this part which exemplifies the spirituality and serenity Nutan herself embraced in later years. In more ways than one, Bandini turned out to be the definitive film of her career.
Born on the 4th of June 1936, Nutan was the eldest daughter of actress Shobhana Samarth, herself a star of the mythological era of the '30s and '40s. Nutan was interested in dance and music from an early age and took both arts very seriously. Stalwarts like Chandulal Shah and K Asif had offered to launch her as a heroine opposite Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar when she was just 13, but she eventually made her debut in her mother's film Hamari Beti (1950). Soon after though, she was sent to a finishing school in Switzerland.
She returned to the screen with Amiya Chakravarty's Seema (1955) where she plays Gauri, an inmate in a delinquent home, angry with the world but possessing a soft heart underneath her tough exterior. Nutan's naturalised style of acting which relied more on subtle shifts in expressions and body language than blaring histrionics, was firmly established with this film. Like Balraj Sahni, another effortless actor and her co-star in Seema, Nutan's personality exuded a quality of sophistication and honesty that pervaded many of the roles she played on screen.
While she firmly underplayed her sensuality (thereby unwittingly making her sexual aura all the more enigmatic), Nutan's vivaciousness in light-hearted romantic comedies like Paying Guest (1957) and Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963) was rivalled only by Madhubala's intuitive charm.
However, her forte clearly lay in essaying complex female protagonists demonstrating an intrinsic strength of character while being outwardly impassive. In Bimal Roy's Sujata (1959) she excelled as a Harijan girl struggling to come to terms with her lowly birth. She even managed to elevate a regressive period melodrama like Saraswatichandra (1968).
Amongst her later work, Sudhendu Roy's Saudagar (1973) stands out. She plays Majubi, a widow, who makes the best jaggery in the village. Moti (Amitabh Bachchan) marries her to profit from her skill, but later abandons her for a younger, sexier girl. Once again, Nutan seemed comfortable portraying the heroine as an asexual being, a figure of fiery resolve and rectitude.
Tragically, in an industry where older women inevitably get reduced to playing insignificant maternal roles, Nutan too had to reconcile to being the weepy mom in films like Meri Jung (1985), Karma (1986) and Naam (1986).
A reclusive figure, she never discussed her personal life and spent many of her later years at a farmhouse near Mumbai, till she died of liver cancer in 1991. There were stories in her press about estrangement from her mother and sister Tanuja and of her famously slapping a young Sanjeev Kumar on the sets of a film. But there's only so much you can cull of her life from press clippings and anecdotes.
All that truly matters is the guileless face and delicate voice that reaches out from across the screen and time, granting Nutan her rightful place amongst the foremost artists of the Golden Age of Hindi cinema.