Nutan Samarth Bahl, popularly known as Nutan, is one of the finest actresses in the history of Indian Cinema. A five times winner of the Filmfare award for best actress, and a recipient of the Padma Shri award by the Government of India, Nutan is highly acclaimed for the versatility in her performances. She did unconventional roles that put her at par with her male counterparts at a time when feminine roles were hugely characterised by submissiveness as an emblem of female morality.
Nutan who is now remembered as the beautiful actress who cast her charm on the audience, did not reach this pedestal without struggle. Despite being born in a family of actors and directors, she was often critiqued (especially as a teenager) for not fitting in the conventional ideas of beauty. She was too thin, tall and inelegant when the film industry pitched plump and petite as the trait of a beautiful woman. In an interview with Movie International (November 1983), she recalls the uncomfortable experience of performing a skit for the army troops in Kashmir, which was followed by criticism of her acting and looks. She reacted to this by saying, “I was determined to show them the stuff I was made of.” It was this strong persona that led her to become one of the most popular faces of Indian cinema.
On her birth anniversary let us look at a few of her most cherished films.
Sone Ki Chidiya (1958)
The film, through the character of Lakshmi (played by Nutan), showcases the exploitation prevalent in the film industry as against the romanticised, utopian vision that it overtly displayed. Here Nutan gives life to the strong-willed Lakshmi, as she fights setbacks, makes her way to becoming a successful actress from a poor economical background, and despite facing various emotional traumas, comes back with an even stronger will.
Nutan plays the role of a Dalit woman brought up in a Brahmin family. She is constantly reminded of her lower caste status and is never fully accepted in the family. At the end of the movie, it is Sujata’s selfless character that saves the life of the mistress of the house. The movie, through the portrayal of Sujata, is a strong critique of the caste system and incorporates Dr. B. R. Ambedkar’s fight against the same. It also draws from the Chandalika myth in Hinduism as one of its subtexts.
The movie revolves around the character of Shanti (played by Nutan), who gets married on the eve of the partition and is left estranged while her family moves to India. On being reunited with her family, Shanti undergoes physical and emotional trauma as she is accused of being disloyal to her husband. The movie ends at a happy note with resolution of all problems.
An unconventionally woman-centric film, with Nutan playing the lead character of Kalyani (or Bandini), a woman serving life imprisonment for murder. The movie explores the psyche of its protagonist as it wavers between love and hate, and creates a second narrative from the point of view of the criminal. The movie touched the benchmark of success and won various accolades.
The movie is one of the first portrayal in Indian cinema of the theme of reincarnation. Nutan here, does the difficult job of playing the role of two women in different timelines, Radha and Radha Devi. The movie deals with a couple successfully reunited in a new lifetime after dying in the previous one.
Introduced to films at the young age of 14 in Hamari Beti (1950), Nutan’s career spread over 30 years with her last two films released posthumously in the years 1992 and 1994. She was one of the few actresses of the time, who continued working even after getting married. Her career was a path breaker from the conventions and she continues to be admired for her sophisticated choice of works. She suffered from breast cancer and died in the year 1991, marking the end of an exemplary lifespan.
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