If portraying strong, varied and memorable screen characters is the litmus test for great acting, then Nutan was second to none. In her career spanning almost four decades, Nutan came to be acclaimed as one of India’s finest actresses.
As elder daughter of the forties-actress Shobhana Samarth, she imbibed film culture right from childhood and played a child- role in Nal Damayanti. Her mother first refused producer Chandulal Shah’s offer to make Nutan a heroine but then herself produced the first film- Hamari Beti (1950) for her daughter. Even though this film flopped, Nutan soon made her mark the very next year by winning Miss India pageant and starring in the hit film Nagina (1951). Since this was an adult film, this teenager was then refused entry for her own movie!
After doing good roles in Humlog and Shabab in early fifties, Nutan took a break and spent her next few years at a private school in Switzerland. On her return, she had transformed into an apple-cheeked ravishing beauty- a far cry from her earlier tall, thin, gangly looks. From then onwards, it was a series of memorable roles. If she was brilliant in serious meaningful movies like Seema, Sujata and Bandini, then she was effervescent in lighthearted romantic films like Tere Ghar Ke Saamne and Paying Guest. She could convey a million words through a single subtle facial gesture or a fleeting glance. Whether it was marrying and becoming mother early on in her career, wearing a swim-suit in Delhi Ka Thug or taking her mother to court over financial matters, she never shirked away from controversies.
Even after her heydays were over and she had again gone back to her almost anorexic looks, she carried enough punch in her acting to bag pivotal, middle aged roles in Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki, Saajan Bina Suhagan, Saajan Ki Saheli, Meri Jung, Karma and Naam. She was also a good singer and her Chhabili-song Lehron Pe Leher is still remembered. She finally lost her battle with cancer in 1991 but by then, she had had the satisfaction of seeing her son Mohnish Behl settling down as a talented character actor.
Here’s a look at some of her most memorable films.
Seema is director Ameya Chakravorthy’s moving story about how a social reformist’s (Balraj Sahni) calm sensitivity finally wins over a juvenile delinquent girl’s (Nutan) angst against the society. Apart from excellent roles of protagonists, Shankar-Jaikishan’s melodious music (Manmohana Bade Jhoothe) was another highlight.
Sujata is director Bimal Roy’s tale about a girl (Nutan) whose life shatters on discovering the long-hidden truth about her adoption and low social status. An emotional film with sweet songs (Kaali Ghata Chaaye), it had a humane yet stinging social commentary.
Bandini once again shows the Bimal Roy- Nutan combine in its full bloom. It’s an all-time classic about a woman (Nutan) caught up in the dilemma to choose between two men, one a relic from her tragic past (Ashok Kumar) and the other a hope for a promising future (Dharmendra). Sachinda’s music (Mora Gora Ang Lai Le) was another feather in the crown.
Saraswatichandra is a socially outdated sob story about platonic love between two pure souls (Nutan and Manish), who somehow never come together in spite of crossing paths at every stage of life. This sentimental, musical (Chandan Sa Badan) roller-coaster won Nutan a Filmfare award- just like Seema did earlier.