Happy Thursday! And Happy “Day I Finally Reach Famous People” in my Samarth-Mukherjee family tree. We are through all those b-level stars and pre-Independence film figures, now we are finally into the golden age stars, the ones who matter! (part 1 here, and part 2 here)
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know any of these people, I have no special inside knowledge, this is just commonly accepted “truth” of what happened. And if you are new to the films, or somehow missed this story, it might be helpful.
Shobhna Samarth was the first “real” star of the Samarth-Mukherjee family. Her mother, Rattan Bai, had been in a few films to help pay the rent, but Shobhna was serious about acting and serious about the film industry. She went from being a popular actress, to starting her own production house and directing her own movies. And she also got tired of her less-successful director husband being jealous of her success, and separated from him, starting a long term relationship instead of a debonair fellow actor, Motilal, who had his own complicated romantic past.
And through it all, she was also a mother. Not the “typical” Indian mother, who cooks and sings lullabies and all that, but still a mother. She had 4 children, her oldest Nutan was only 20 years younger than her. And because of financial considerations, she and her husband did not have another child for 7 years. Nutan was just as serious about acting as her mother and, unlike Shobhna’s relatives who were reluctant to let her act and insisted that she get married first, Shobhna was encouraging. Maybe even too encouraging, giving her a launch movie at 14, cutting her childhood short. And also cutting Shobhna’s career short, she was only 34 and suddenly she was playing mother roles. The kind of boring typical Indian mother roles she had never lived in real life.
(Love in Simla! Starring Shobhna’s future son-in-law’s brother. And Shobhna, at 44, as the mother of the heroine)
Nutan wasn’t an instant hit. Although, no one really was in those days. I keep beating this drum, but it’s really important to remember the lack of wide releases! Nutan had her “launch” film, which gave her that important first entry on her resume, but it wasn’t released through out India, she didn’t get a million TV interviews right after, it was just a nice enough film that played in a few theaters, and she was a nice little girl whose photo was in a few magazines and on the posters.
She also wasn’t really considered “pretty” at this time. Too thin, too tall, to strange looking. In the middle of her career, in 1953, her mother sent her off to Switzerland to a boarding school to fatten her up and give her some graces. It worked, she came back in 1955 to have her first big hit.
(Nutan, now pretty)
It was in Seema in 1955 that she really hit it big. This was also her first FilmFare Award winning performance, and her first role that really seemed to “get” all that Nutan could be. Nutan wasn’t just another film mad teenage girl, she was the greatest actress of her generation, possibly the greatest actress Indian film would ever see.
I say “actress”, not star. Nargis Dutt, for instance, gave amazing performances and also kind of grabbed the camera and wouldn’t let go. Waheeda Rahman could break your heart, still can, with just the slightest gesture. But Nutan had a unique ability to fully throw herself into a role, so that you couldn’t tell where the character ended and the actress began. And yes, this is something her niece Kajol has inherited.
Nutan was different from Kajol, though, because she wanted it more. Shobhna said that in one of her later interviews, that Nutan was the only actress in the family who really worked at acting, studied it, wanted to be better. She developed a special bond with the director Bimal Roy, following his guidance and training until she satisfied his perfectionist requirements. But it wasn’t just Bimal Roy, because Seema came before then, Nutan playing a wild juvenile delinquent who had fits of anger and devotion and misery.
And she could play happy too! Her next big hit was in Paying Guest, opposite Dev Anand, a romantic comedy. She did some Kishore Kumar films as well, true comedies with the comic hero as the star and the heroine relegated to just “love interest”. I wish actresses today would be as varied in their film choices. The only one I can really think of who does this is Kareena Kapoor. Everyone else seems to just pick a lane and stay in it, if you are a Great Actress who does serious roles, you would never stoop to just being support in a comedy. And if you are support in a comedy, you will never be offered Great Actress roles.
(Paying Guest! Can you imagine a Serious Actress of today doing a movie like this? Sure, Kangana did Rascals, but she’s pretty ashamed of it)
Her greatest role was Bandini, everyone agrees on that. Bandini was so good, it brought her back after marriage. Nutan, unlike her mother, couldn’t just keep working after marriage without anyone noticing.
I mentioned in Shobhna’s section how she kept working after marriage and children, and it was no big deal. Because there was no established film press, and no established expectations for actresses. It was all kind of wild west back then.
But Nutan, starting just 14 years later, had to fit in with what actresses were “supposed” to be like. They weren’t supposed to be ambitious, they were supposed to act for “fun”, and then stop acting as soon as they got married, turning into their “true” destiny of being devoted wives and mothers.
I am sure this actually was the case for several of these actresses, that they were happy to retire and move on to a new phase of life. And there were several other actresses who managed to fly under the radar a bit, not making a big deal of their marriage and continuing to work. But Nutan was a bit unusual because she DID make a big deal of it! She married her Naval Officer in 1959, when she was 25, and at the peak of her career.
Nutan still had a fair number of films that came out post marriage, ones that she had worked on before. But by 1961, when her son was born, there were no new Nutan films out there. And this was by choice, not her husband’s demand.
I found a really sweet interview from her husband from shortly after her death. He talked about their courtship, how he was a 32 year old Navy officer when they met and never thought he would get married. But she was so sweet and beautiful and they hit it off right away. She used to love going out in his broken down cars and having movie dates, like any other girl. And he was happy to wait until she was ready to be married, even if it took years. He didn’t even really know or care how famous and successful she was, he just liked being with her. He said that before marriage, he hadn’t even seen one of her films. But after marriage, he used to go with her to watch each of her movies in the theater, to see how they played. Here’s the thing I found really interesting, he said they used to go to just regular city theaters, and she never bothered with a burka or anything. She would just change the way she walked, her expressions, her mannerisms would be different. And no one would be able to recognize her. See, this is what I was saying, Great Actress!
After their son Mohnish was born, Nutan really retired. And then came back two years later because the Bandini script was just too good to pass up. Or else because it was two years later. Kajol, Nutan’s niece, she took a two year break with each of her kids. It’s a nice reasonable maternity leave, a two years old they aren’t nursing any more, and they are (hopefully) over their separation anxiety. You can take them on set, or leave them with a sitter, or come up with some other solution that lets everyone in the family be happy. I could believe either way, that the Bandini script was really that good, or that she was just ready to come back to work and the Bandini script was a good reason to say in interviews.
Anyway, she did come back! And kept working off and on for the rest of her life. Again, same as Kajol. Post-marriage and babies, there was a slowing down, but not a retirement exactly. And just like Kajol, Nutan won 5 FilmFare awards, a record for 30 years until Kajol matched it in 2011 with her win for My Name is Khan.
(Nutan, Amitabh, and one of her many many FilmFare awards)
Those later years of her career, the 70s and 80s, they had their share of scandals and excitement. Most widely reported, Nutan slapped Sanjeev Kumar! Poor Sanjeev Kumar, some day he will get his own post. The big thing to know about Sanjeev is that he is that guy who is really sweet and nice and always falling in love with women who just aren’t interested. He lost Hema to Dharmendra, and back in the late 60s/early 70s, he lost Nutan to her husband. Well, “lost”. Nutan was already married and was firm that all the stories and gossip going around about her and her costar Sanjeev were just that, gossip. And supposedly at the request/suggestion of her husband, in order to stop the stories, she walked on to set one morning and went up to Sanjeev and slapped him on the face in front of everybody. Which pretty much ended those rumors! The story became “Sanjeev is trying to mess with Nutan’s marriage and she is defending herself.” It’s kind of brilliant that she hit him, just cutting straight to the chase and showing in the most blatant manner possible that she does not like this guy, no matter what the rumors say.
(Kind of want to watch the movie they were making together during the slap)
More shocking to me than the slap, is the metaphorical “slap” that Nutan gave to her mother! In the 1970s (I think, it is hard to track down), she sued her for miss-management of her funds. But the separation between them went back further than that, probably all the way to childhood.
It isn’t really a “starry” kind of problem that they had between them, it was just a mothers and daughters thing. Nutan was the oldest, by far the oldest. She had 7 years of being pampered and spoiled. And when the younger children came along, she was less a big sister and more a second mother to them. It sounds like it started out with her and her mother being closer than anyone else in the family, almost co-parents, Nutan providing the gentle love and support to the children, while Shobhna worked and provided the general direction for the family. But as Nutan got older, the relationship became more strained. Their personalities were completely different, Shobhna was a happy extrovert, always confident in herself. But Nutan was sensitive, shy. And, I mean, her mother sent her to Switzerland for a year because she was too “ugly” to be on film! That’s got to burn. And, okay, that’s a little starry. But in another family it would have been her mother putting her on a diet, or making her get a make-up consultation. The point is, Shobhna was trying to change Nutan into what she thought would make her happy and Nutan was resisting it.
(See the way Shobhna is futzing with the way Nutan is wearing her sari? Yeah, that’s the kind of thing that drives teenage daughters away from their mothers.)
At her marriage, Nutan moved out of the shared home. And soon after, changed her working habits and lifestyle so Shobhna wouldn’t even really see her on sets or at parties. For 20 years, there was an “estrangement”. And then it went away. Just like it had begun. And, again I suspect, it was less a “starry” thing than a mothers and daughters thing. When Nutan’s own son started leaving the nest and trying to make his own way, that’s when she suddenly found herself able to forgive her mother. And, at the same time, that was when Shobhna’s youngest child (a son, 14 years younger than Nutan) was getting married and she was all alone. That’s when she would have started really needing her daughter. They had another 8 years of extreme closeness, seeing each other almost every day, and then Nutan died in 1991 of cancer. Her mother lived for another 9 years, long enough to see her grandchildren succeed as the 4th generation of Samarths in film.
Shoot, I was hoping to get Tanuja, Nutan’s younger sister with whom she did not get along AT ALL, into this post as well. But no luck, instead I will just finish with Nutan’s branch of the family real quick. Starting with her son, Hot Hot Mohnish Bahl! (as I think of him)
(Don’t know why he’s in uniform. Maybe for a movie? Or he was in one of those student cadet things?)
Mohnish wanted to be an actor. He started at 22, in the early 80s when you could still do a soft start. He had a fair number of leading man roles, but none of them made a mark or clicked at all. He was really struggling. And finally, he gave up. Started just kind of hanging around Bombay, looking for a chance at any kind of a role. At which point he became friends with Salman Khan, who was in a similar but better position, also hanging around waiting for a break, but with no history of flops behind him. Salman got the golden ticket of the big break lead role in Maine Pyar Kiya. And, because he is such a nice guy, he suggested his friend Mohnish as a possible second lead in the villains part. And because Mohnish had already had some sense knocked into him, he was grateful for even a second lead “negative” role, and he did a fantastic job.
Mohnish got married around this time, to an actress of an equivalent career level, Ekta. She had done some movies, and kept acting after marriage, but was never really super famous or successful. Again, you have to understand how different the industry was before the era of wide releases, and obsessive media coverage, when you could be a working actor without being massive famous or successful, because there were so many small barely noticed releases that would roll out.
Mohnish and Ekta had two children, first a daughter and then a son several years later. Kind of an interesting consistent theme for the Samarth’s, family planning to the extreme, very few children widely spaced. Oh, and always daughters first and then sons.
(Mohnish and his daughter)
A final exciting footnote for the Bahl family, Rajnish Bahl, Nutan’s husband, was murdered in 2004!!!! Maybe. There was a fire in the apartment building where the Behl’s lived, and he died. Only, later it was found that he didn’t die of smoke inhalation, but rather electrocution! His body was found wrapped in power cords. The fire started in his unit, and he was not among the residents evacuated later. So, possibly he fell and got trapped in power cords, which electrocuted him and started the fire. Or possibly he killed himself, and started the fire. Or maybe murder? This was all over 10 years ago, and there’s no additional information available that I can find. But it’s exciting!