Did personal problems destroy Nutan's will to live?

Farhana Farook
·9-min read

Beyond the door there’s peace I’m sure

And I know there’ll be no more tears in heaven...

(Eric Clapton & Will Jennings)

Nutan in Chhalia
Nutan in Chhalia

As a new-born, Nutan would cry ceaselessly from 5 in the evening till 5 in the morning. While doctors found nothing wrong with the baby, an astrologer apparently told her mother and actor Shobhna Samarth, “She’s a mahaan atma (pure soul), who didn’t want to be reborn. But something was left incomplete...” This was revealed by the renowned Shobhna to late author Lalita Tamhane, who wrote the book on Nutan titled Asen Mi... Nasen Mi (whether I exist or not).

Nutan, perhaps, took off from where she had left. That in a surreal way, explains the ease with which Nutan could impersonate complex characters and pull-out anger and anguish, regret and resolve from her emotional backpack. The delinquent Gauri in Seema, the downtrodden Sujata, the dejected Kalyani in Bandini, the short-changed Majbin of Saudagar… her characters, though browbeaten… went through the cycle of churning and learning.

That perhaps also explains her early slant towards spirituality. The prodigious girl, who wrote bhajans, her palms inexplicably smelling of chandan (sandalwood)… eventually weaned away from showbiz to seek peace in the scriptures and satsang.

Some attribute it to her familial conflicts, some to her terminal disease and some perhaps to her overall weariness with life. “There was a streak of sadness in Nutan. The last part of her life was so sad,” once remarked the late Dev Anand albeit cryptically.

In retrospect, Nutan’s character of an estranged wife in Chhalia (1960), says in the film, “Kayi baar marna asaan maalum hota hai aur jeena mushkil (sometimes it’s easier to die than to live).” The dialogue resonated years later when on being diagnosed with cancer she told mother Shobhna, “Aaj mi sutli (today I’ve been set free)!”

Nutan was born in a Marathi Chandraseniya Kayastha Prabhu family on 4 June 1936. Born to director-poet Kumarsen Samarth and famed actress Shobhna, she was the eldest of the siblings She was the eldest of her siblings (the other three include sisters Tanuja and Chatura and brother Jaideep). Her parents separated when they were young.

Shobhna launched her in Hamari Beti (1950). Films like Hum Log (1951) and Nagina (1951) followed. However, the beauty pageant winner, was considered ‘skinny’ by the industry’s voluptuous standards. So Shobhna sent her to the Swiss Finishing School, La Chatelaine, in 1953. Nutan returned well-groomed and curvaceous with an extra 40 pounds.

Dilli Ka Thug
Dilli Ka Thug

She excelled in Amiya Chakravarty’s Seema (1955), where she played an erring foundling and won her first Filmfare Award for Best Actress. She shone in light-hearted comedies like Paying Guest (1957) and Dilli Ka Thug (1958), sashaying in a swimsuit in the latter and silencing her detractors.

Bimal Roy’s, Sujata (1959), based on a Bengali story by Subodh Ghosh, had her depict the alienation of an outcast in love with an upper caste boy (Sunil Dutt). It won her a second Filmfare Award.

Nutan took a pause when she married Naval Officer, Lieutenant Commander Rajnish Bahl in 1959. Son Mohnish (Bahl) was born in 1961.


It was Bimal Roy’s Bandini (1963), which proved to be the watershed of her talent. Based on the Bengali novel Tamasi by Jarasandha (Charu Chandra Chakrabarti), as Kalyani, she was a metaphor of captivity. First held captive by love, then by anger and later by remorse… she’s only set free when she surrenders to her conscience. Torn between her past (Ashok Kumar) and future (Dharmendra), Nutan’s nuanced performance won her the Filmfare Award.

Other significant roles include a double role in Milan (1967), which won her the Filmfare Award and those in Saraswatichandra (1968) and Saudagar (1973) opposite Amitabh Bachchan.

Raj Khosla’s Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1986), where she played a woman dithering between her son and stepson, won her the Filmfare Award yet again. Just as Meri Jung (1985) earned her the Filmfare Best Supporting Actress.


Nutan always gave credit to her husband for the glorious career she enjoyed even after marriage. “Rajnish said, ‘If you were a painter or a writer, I wouldn’t have asked you to stop your work’,” she mentioned in an interview.

Rajnish too was quoted saying, “Nutan had just two passions — films and us. She involved herself wholeheartedly in anything we, our son Timmy (Mohnish) and I, the only two loves ever in her life, did.”

In a recent interview, son and actor Mohnish also reiterated her devotion. “A hands-on mother, she enjoyed doing everything for me. She had no qualms about walking down the laundry and giving the clothes for a wash, she was that down-to-earth,” said he.

Yet there were rumours alleging that Nutan went through immense personal turmoil and acrimony. One reason being her taking mother Shobhna to court for allegedly mismanaging her funds. “It was a very hard decision for me to take. Yes, I had expected the reaction, ‘How can a daughter take her mother to the court?’ But that didn’t make the conflict any easier to bear. Yet, I had to do it to protect the future of everyone concerned,” Nutan reportedly said in an interview to late photographer and friend Gautam Rajadhyaksha.

Shobhna was quoted saying, “I could read Nutan like a book. All this changed once she got married. We grew distant and then came the incident which severed our relationship for 20 long years.”

Writer and friend, the late Lalita Tamhane, who was privy to Nutan’s conflicts, shared, “Once Nutanji was to fly to Chennai. She found Tanujaji in the same plane. She got off that flight and boarded another. It was that bad. But there was no harsh feelings in the Samarth family towards Nutanji. They understood why she did what she did.”

The reunion, after the case resolved in 1983, came as a huge relief. “Both parties had undergone immense emotional trauma. But there was only love and affection for each other,” said Lalita.

The other incident that apparently caused much harm to Nutan were rumours linking her with Devi (1970) co-star Sanjeev Kumar and the ‘slap-gate’ that followed.

Nutan and Sanjeev Kumar in Devi
Nutan and Sanjeev Kumar in Devi

“My slapping Sanjeev Kumar became a much-talked about incident. He made a very careless, irresponsible statement about having an affair. That made me furious… I had to put him in his place. After I said what I had to, I cooled down and said, ‘let’s finish the love scene’, and we did,” Nutan reportedly said.

Sceptics insinuated that the ‘slap’ was to placate her irate husband but that’s best left to conjecture. “Nutanji believed in the institution of marriage. ‘No matter what, you have to save the marriage,’ she’d say. She never spoke about whatever troubles she may have allegedly undergone,” said Lalita.

Close friend and co-star Shubha Khote revealed in a recent interview why she stopped visiting Nutan. “Once I called Nutan to wish her on her birthday. Her husband picked up and said, ‘She’s sleeping. She has asked to be allowed to sleep at least on her birthday.’ After that I stopped calling her. I’d meet her on the sets,” said she.

Son Mohnish however disagreed about the general perception of his mother. “I don’t know why people felt that Mom was a sad person… I never saw her unhappy. A person like her could never be unhappy. I saw a person, who was full of life... Of course, she used to be sad at times. Everyone is.”

He spoke strongly for his father saying, “Dad has been maligned and misunderstood… He wasn’t a person to take crap. He lived by his principles. He was not the kind, who’d have drinks and womanise and fall all over. He was a straight-talking person. My mother respected that. He was the one, who insisted that Mom do Bandini, even though she was expecting me then.”


The grave illness began with ‘a biting sensation’ in the armpit. Nutan was detected with cancer in 1990. She returned the signing amount of some films and asked producers to complete her portions soon. “I don’t have much time,” she said.

She had grown extremely spiritual. “When we bought this farm at Mumbra near Thane, she asked me to build a temple for her in it. She said she was told to do so, in her dream,” shared husband Rajnish. Around June-July 1990, the cancer spread to the liver. Then the deterioration was quick.

“Somewhere along the way, she lost her will to live… she knew it was the beginning of her end. She encouraged her sickness. If she’d taken more care, she would have lived a few years more... She’d say, ‘I want to wake up, I am sleeping now’,” shared Shobhna about Nutan who passed away on February 21, 1991. “Meri Meerabai chali gayee,” lamented the mother.

“During her last few months, she had become withdrawn from all who loved and cared for her… She was, in her own way, preparing us for her exit. Particularly, she wanted me to be independent of her. I was totally dependent on her,” shared Mohnish.

After she passed away, the family hung her photo-frame on the wall. Below it, on a pillar, husband Rajnish kept a lit diya. From behind the pillar, grew a tulsi plant on its own. “It remained there… till the house caught fire,” said Mohnish.

Tragically, Rajnish Bahl died of burns after his penthouse apartment in the 32-storeyed Sagar Sangeet in Colaba caught fire on August 3, 2004. While everything got destroyed in the fire… including precious mementos, memories of a beautiful woman remain forever…

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