After the trinity of Bollywood’s unique divas of the 1950s, Nargis, Madhubala and Meena Kumari, the actress who enacted the most memorable roles of different genres with unmistakable conviction was Nutan. She did several women-centric films which revolved entirely around her character. She raised them to the status of all-time classics on the strength of her sublime acting. Nutan immersed herself in the character so well that each movement, gesture, glance and word uttered by her remains etched in the mind, long after the audience leave the cinemas. Her eyes conveyed more than a thousand words.

Just three of her films—Seema (1955), Sujata (1959) and Bandini (1963)—will ensure her a place among the best actresses of India. Besides compelling melodrama, depths of emotions dripping with pathos, melancholy and overwhelming sense of loss, these films narrated believable stories, which offer an insight into the multilayered characters that touch our hearts, as well as flag serious social issues of their time.

She portrayed the character of an adolescent delinquent in a reform home in Amiya Chakraborty’s Seema (1955) against the veteran Balraj Sahani. Her touching performance fetched her a Filmfare award for “Best Actress”, her first ever. Featured in this film, the bhajan “Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai”, by the soulful Manna De, remains an all-time favourite of millions of Indians.

In Sujata (1959), based on a Bengali short story by Subodh Ghosh, directed by Bimal Roy, she brought to fore the anguish and emotional turmoil of an untouchable girl who falls in love with a Brahmin boy (Sunil Dutt), a relationship disapproved by the society. For this, she deservedly won her second Filmfare award. It was also nominated for the Cannes Film Festival. Its songs, “Jalate Hein Jiske Liye” (Talat Mahmood); “Sun Mere Bandhu ReSuno Mere Mitwa” (S.D. Burman); “Tum Jiyo Hazaron Saal” (Asha Bhosle); and “Nanhi Kali Sone Chali, Hawa Dheere Aana” (Geeta Dutt), were immensely popular.

In Bandini (1963), based on the Bengali novel Tamasi by Jarasandha (Charu Chandra Chakrabarti), and directed by Bimal Roy, she portrayed the character of Kalyani. As Kalyani, who poisons the wife of her lover (Ashok Kumar) and is incarcerated in prison where a good-hearted doctor (Dharmendra) falls for her, she gave the best performance of her film career and got another Filmfare “Best Actress” award. In the song “Ab Ke Baras Bhejo” sung in deep, evocative voice by Asha Bhosle, Nutan’s face looks like a kaleidoscope expressing so many tumultuous emotions. At times, her eerie silence is more expressive than words. In one of the last scenes, while on the boat with the doctor, when she spots her old lover, visibly sick, she is emotionally torn between him and the doctor; a state of mind so beautifully conveyed in the song sung by inimitable S.D. Burman—“O Mere Majhi Mere Sajan Hai”. The film had some other musical gems as well: “O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana” and Gulzar’s first song of his film career “Mora Gora Ang Laile”, which sounded refreshingly virginal.

Nutan was blessed with a photogenic face, which was a photographer’s delight. Interestingly, her first hit film Nagina (1951) was given an “A” certificate; she couldn’t see her own film as she wasn’t an adult!

Unlike her sombre and realistic films like SeemaSujata and Bandini, Nutan did quite a few breezy, light-hearted romantic comediesopposite the suave and debonair Dev Anandwith élan and exuberance. In 1963, while she did Bimal Da’s Bandini, a film noir, she also acted in Tere Ghar Ke Samne with Dev Anand. The film had some of the most hummable songs: “Tere Ghar Ke Samne”, “Tu Kahan Ye Bata” and “Sun Le Tu Dil Ki Sadaa”.

Her Paying Guest (1957) was equally breezy and comic. Dev and Nutan were perfect foil for each other. Songs like “Chhod Do Aanchal Zamana Kya Kahega” and “Mana Janab Ne Pukara Nahin” were picturised in a naughty, jesty and endearing manner. In Dilli Ka Thug (1958), she had no qualms about wearing a swimsuit and displaying a frothy uninhibitedness.

Nutan was paired with all the top heroes of their time: Balraj Sahni, Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra and even Kishore Kumar. In Chhalia (1960), Anari (1959) and Dil Hi To Hai (1963), though the films belonged to Raj Kapoor, Nutan held her own in spite of the author-backed roles for the male protagonist.

She was paired with Dilip Kumar only once in Subhash Ghai’s multi- starrer Karma (1986) and gave a dignified performance. Handsome Dharmendra got to act with her in Bandini (1963), Dulhan Ek Raat Ki (1967) which was loosely based on the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and Dil Ne Phir Yaad Kiya (1966).

Amitabh Bachchan did a totally deglamourised role with Nutan in 1973 in Saudagar, based on the Bengali story, Ras, by Narendranath Mitra, directed by Sudhendu Roy. Both Nutan and Amitabh gave restrained and understated performances in this realistic and thought-provoking film.

Milan (1967), a reincarnation drama, in which Nutan enacted a double role with Sunil Dutt, fetched her fourth Filmfare award for “Best Actress”.

Nutan was also paired with Manish in film Saraswatichandra (1968) based on Saraswatichandra, a Gujarati novel, by Govardhanram Madhavram Tripathi, which offered her one of the most complex characters with numerous emotional twists and turns. Its romantic song “Chandan Sa Badan Chanchal Chitwan” in Mukesh’s voice and “Chhod De Saari Duniya Kisi Ke Liye”, underlining the truism of life, in Lata Mangeskar’s voice used to be the most requested songs among cine-goers.

In Raj Khosla’s film Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1986), Nutan’s sterling performance enacting a complex character of an aristocratic woman torn between her son and stepson got her another Filmfare award and made her the only heroine to have received five Filmfare awards for “Best Actress”. In her innings as a character actor, she got another Filmfare award for the Best Supporting Actress for the film Meri Jung(1985).

In the blockbuster crime thriller Naam (1986), as a caring, loving, pained and traumatised mother of her son (Sunjay Dutt) who gets involved in smuggling racket in Dubai, Nutan’s moving performance brought tears in the eyes of many mothers. Its song “Chitthi Aayi Hai”, by Pankaj Udhas, became one of the most popular songs of that era.

The author is a former diplomat