She left her budding film career mid-way to join a Swiss finishing school — La Chatelainie. On her return she unabashedly agreed to wear a swimsuit (Delhi Ka Thug), transmitting shock waves that reverberated for long. She battled her mother in court over misappropriation of funds. She slapped Sanjeev Kumar in a fit of temper.
Yet somehow the image we carry of Nutan is that of an archetypal, serene Indian `devi’ (she even did a film by that name). The best roles seemed to gravitate towards her and she sublimated each with a certain moral superiority and spiritual grace. Even when a child, her film star mother, Shobhana Samarth, called her “my saint” and always spoke of how Nutan’s hands used to inexplicably emanate the smell of sandalwood.
Nutan grew up a complexed child. Her face, its angles and planes as stark as an abstractionist painting, was much admired in later years but when young, she was dismissed by unfeeling relatives as ‘skinny’ and ‘ugly’. Thus it was a surprise when in 1949, Chandulal Shah and K Asif offered her the heroine’s role opposite Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar in their new film. This film, however, fell through. Undeterred, Nutan’s mother launched Hamari Beti (’50) for her daughter. In 1951, the teenager reached her first peak when along with the Miss India title, she had her first hits, Hum Log and Nagina.
Nutan gained a major breakthrough with her powerhouse performance as a juvenile delinquent in Seema (’55). Subsequently, whether in the perky Paying Guest and Anadi or in the dark-shaded Sone Ki Chidiya and Sujata, Nutan proved that the best location in the world is an actress’ own face.
What set Nutan apart from her contemporaries was that she was a thinking actress who tried to fathom the inchoate motivations of her characters. Consequently, a fleeting expression on her face conveyed more than expansive dialogue. For instance, one could watch the tempests raging and dying in her eyes in Seema as the bhajan `Manmohana bade jhoothe’ salves her stricken soul. Lata Mangeshkar has singled Nutan out as the heroine whose expressions conveyed the impression that she was genuinely singing a song.
In 1959, at the high noon of her career, Nutan married Rajneesh Bahl, naval Lieutenant Commander and eased out of films when son Mohnish was born. But the spotlight shone bright once again after Bandini (’63), a portrayal that remains etched on our minds as one of the finest in Indian cinema. As Kalyani, Nutan had no screaming matches or drunken hysterics or other conventional indicators of high-voltage histrionics. Instead, Nutan appears as a quiet woman with passions raging within her. In the scene where she murders her ex-lover Ashok Kumar’s neurotic wife, Nutan’s face smoothly transmutes the hypervisible workings of her mind even as her demeanor takes on an eerie dead-soul intensity. Bandini captured an artiste performing at her awesome peak.
Through the 60s and the 70s, this much-honored actress regularly picked up awards for multifarious roles in films like Milan (‘ 67), Saraswatichandra (’69), Saudagar(’73) and Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (’78). Renowned directors as diverse as Bimal Roy, Manmohan Desai, Raj Khosla and Basu Bhattacharya have named her as their favorite actress.
Till the ’80s she maintained her pre-eminence, acting for the first time opposite Dilip Kumar in Subhash Ghai’s Karma (’86). Increasingly, however, she was asked to do mundane maternal roles — which was rather like asking Picasso to paint a wall. Her dairy farm, her antique -laden home, her piloting of beloved son Mohnish’s career, her bhajan singing and her search for spirituality, took up her time. Nevertheless, she continued to act. After 40 years in the profession, Nutan died as she would have wished — with one more film about to be released.