February sees the death anniversary of Nutan – one of our most talented actresses, and the birth anniversary of Madhubala, a screen icon like no other. We take a look at their lives and their legacy.
Nutan Bahl (nee Samarth) was an actress of whom the late photographer Gautam Rajadhyaksha once said that she was a dream to photograph. “She had no bad angles,” he stated. Miss India 1951, Nutan was one of the first beauty queens to carve out a successful film career for herself. Adjectives fall short while describing her performances on screen. She slipped into the skin of the character so easily that one forgot one was watching ‘Nutan’. Her silences often spoke more than her co-stars’ dialogues. Myriad expressions flitted across her face like quicksilver and she was one of the few actresses of whom Lata Mangeshkar said, “She looked like she was singing on screen.”
Nutan made her film debut at a tender age of 15 in her mother, Shobhana Samarth’s production, Hamari Beti. She followed that up with Hum Log and Nagina. Ironically, she wasn’t allowed to watch Nagina because the film had an adult certificate. Panned as a ‘skinny ugly duckling’, Shobhana Samarth pulled her out of films and sent her to an elite finishing school in Switzerland. When Nutan returned, the ‘ugly duckling’ was a poised, beautiful swan. Now the cynosure of filmmakers’ eyes, she signed a few indifferent films until Amiya Chakraborty offered her Seema. As a young delinquent, Nutan showed she was a talent to reckon with. She won her first Filmfare Award for Best Actress for the role.
A slew of films followed – Paying Guest, Sone ki Chidiya, Sujata, etc. In 1959, Nutan married Captain Rajnish Bahl and decided to leave films but it was her husband who encouraged her to continue her career. When she returned after giving birth to her son, Mohnish, in 1961, she immediately started work on Tere Ghar Ke Saamne, starring as the romantic lead opposite Dev Anand. Neither marriage nor motherhood made a difference to her career. Then followed Bandini, Dil Hi Toh Hai, Khandaan, Chhota Bhai, etc., until she bid adieu to ‘lead’ roles after a heart-breaking performance as Phool Bano in Saudagar opposite rising star Amitabh Bachchan. Thereafter, she made an easy transition to ‘character’ roles, and then gracefully retired to lead a spiritual life. As Sanjay Leela Bhansali said, “They don’t make actresses like her anymore.”
Madhubala, on the other hand, came into films as Baby Mumtaz (her birth name was Mumtaz Jehan Begum Dehlavi) in the 1942 film Basant. However, her real debut as a lead came five years later – she starred opposite another debutant, Raj Kapoor, in Kidar Sharma’s Neel Kamal. It is said that it was Devika Rani who named her for the screen.
It was her performance in Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal that catapulted her into the big league. In her short career, she acted opposite the ‘Big Three’ of the time – Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar, as well as with Ashok Kumar, Pradeep Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Guru Dutt, et al. In 1951, when renowned photographer James Burke came to India, he photographed her extensively for Life magazine – calling her ‘the biggest star in the international film industry’.
While Madhubala was known for her effervescent roles in romantic comedies, there was an artist inside her that was dying to be acknowledged. Roles in films such as Amar, Sangdil, Ek Saal, etc., were a bid to express her versatility. Then came Mughal-e-Azam, in which she played Anarkali with grace and dignity. Despite having Prithviraj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar as her co-stars, Madhubala held her own. She expressed defiance, love, grief, and helplessness in a finely etched performance that set to rest any doubts about her acting prowess. Even though she did act in a couple of films afterward, Mughal-e-Azam would be a fitting swansong for her acting career. Her health started giving way, and she died soon afterward – a tragic, short-lived life – but one that cemented her place among the greats.