Nutan was playing characters that smashed the patriarchy before this term even came into fashion. Her career began in 1950 at the young age of 14, and she grew widely to be one of India’s finest actors of her time, and a legend whom everybody looks up to even today. Apart from her skilled performances and wide range of emotions, Nutan was adored for her simplicity and beauty, and her ability to touch an entire country’s heart.
Nutan expressed her versatility by playing women of all kinds, even feminist ones who were strong and independent in an era when that was looked down upon. (Let’s be honest, strong and independent women are still a threat, even today).
Here are 5 female-empowering characters that Nutan played in black-n-white films that are still powerful, still relevant, even today:
Bimal Roy’s Sujata was a film that explored caste boundaries and female agency back in 1959. When Sujata, played by Nutan, a lower-caste child is adopted by an upper caste family, she grows up being treated as an ‘other’, made to clean and do housework while her ‘sister’ lives a luxurious life. Nutan plays Sujata with delicacy and complexity, as a woman who struggles between being independent and surrendering to her social position out of respect to her family.
Another Bimal Roy film and inspired by the book Tamasi by Charu Chandra Chakrabarti, Bandini tells the story of Kalyani, a young woman who has been sentenced to life in prison after she murders the wife of her lover, Bikash (Ashok Kumar). Kalyani accepts her punishment in order to appease her own guilt, and meets the on-call doctor Deven (Dharmendra) in jail, who falls in love with her. Bandini is the tale of a woman’s quiet suffering, and Nutan played Kalyani’s role with grace and strength.
In Seema, Nutan plays the pivotal role of a young woman whose life as a juvenile delinquent is explored in a home, and her journey into becoming a woman of extreme elgance and composure. Seema, like Nutan’s other female characters, is an understated character, but through this understatement, her subtle agency and solidarity is expressed and established.
Lakshmi, Sone ki Chidiya
In Sone ki Chidiya, Nutan explores the patriarchy and exploitation of female actresses long before anyone else ever did. She plays the role of Lakshmi, a girl from humble backgrounds who makes it big in Bollywood and ears good money to live a good life. She falls in love with her costar, who actually is only chasing after her wealth. Lakshmi is strong-willed and independent. She don’t need no man to support her; she earns her own money to do so!
Kumud, played by Nutan, is an educated girl to be married to Saraswatichandra, a young aristocrat who has commitment issues. He writes to her saying he wishes to cancel the engagement, but the two keep exchanging letters and soon, begin a love affair. Kumud is then put through a lot (as a lot of women are, by commitment-phobic men). She falls in love with Kumud, who promises to marry her, then doesn’t marry her because of a family feud, then she’s married to a rich but illiterate man, meets Saraswatichandra years later, resumes her relationship with him, is almost caught, bears the emotional trauma of her husband finding out and then dying, and then finally, just after Kumud and Saraswatichandra realise their love for each other, Kumud accepts her widowed status and gets her sister married to Saraswati — the so-called love of her life. It was the 60s, okay. Movies had to be super complicated. Anyway, regardless of all the twists and turns, Kumud is an important female character because she is in charge of her own body, sexual desires, and isn’t afraid to go for what she wants. Noble, courageous and ethical, she makes sure to make the right decision every time. And that’s why she’s relevant even today.
Nutan wowed us all on the big screen for years and decades. Her characters were never melodramatic damsels in distress; rather, they were silent, graceful, strong and charismatic. Empowering women all over the country, Nutan’s talented performance as an actress in the early, black and white days of Bollywood cinema, will go down in history as one of the country’s finest artistic contributions.