indian cinema heritage foundation

Nutan : A Flashback - The Wife

12 Dec, 2020 | Archival Reproductions by Cinemaazi
Nutan with her husband Rajnish Bahl. Image courtesy: Bollywooddirect-medium

How Nutan and I met has been a secret between ourselves. Nobody has ever been told. Nutan wanted it that way. After all, there are a few things that are so personal and private, so dear, that they lose their charm if discussed or disclosed. But, from the moment we met, we knew we were made for each other Before that, I had decided not to marry, never hoping to find an ideal. Oh yes, I was 32 when we met. I had decided, that if I did marry it would be with an ideal woman, the best or not at all. There is no satisfaction and happiness really, in dragging along with another person in your life, if you are not well—matched. But then I met Nutan and everything changed.

Our fondness for each other grew very fast. Nevertheless, our courtship lasted a long time before we finally got married. All the time we were together, I was unaware of her status. All I knew was that I was with a very beautiful girl but I never felt that I was with a girl of such high repute. Because she never behaved extravagantly. On the contrary, she was very victorian and demure. She was like the girl next door in her simplicity. I just thought she was a very ideal person. And, she reciprocated the same about me. She never told me much about her standing as an actress, because she presumed I knew, having won thrice the Filmfare best actress award. Her age then was 23.

Till then, I had only seen two Hindi films in my life Yahudi Ki Ladki, way back in 1936-37, which my father took me to see and Mother India (1957), which I had gone to watch along with some officer friends, just to pass an evening. Besides, most of my life has been spent at sea. From 1943 to 1952, I was in the British Navy and after that, till I retired in 1965, I served the Indian Navy. So, my knowledge of films and fan craze was almost nil.

She was a very witty girl and yet, very much to the point. You can see when a person has tremendous, inherent intelligence. It was a lot of fun to be with her. We shared many laughs and happy ecstatic times together And her being an actress and a star didn't bother my family at all.

When I asked her how she could act so well, she said, "well, for me it's easy, because I become the person I am playing. I know exactly how she feels in that particular scene or shot. I observe people and nurture the actress within me!"
On the contrary, my folks believed that her talent shouldn't be stifled. She should continue with her career Our family is somewhat reputed in Punjab. My father was Sir Pratap Chand Bahl, and my mother's lineage can be traced directly to Maharaja Ranjit Singh. So, in a way they were a traditional, conservative sort. But not where Nutan was concerned. It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that my parents loved her so much that while I could do no right, Nutan, where they were concerned, could do no wrong. My mother cared for her deeply, which was surprising, her being a mother-in-law. She has difficulty putting up with her other daughters-in-law, but Nutan was the exception. In fact my mother, she is 87, just called me two days ago. She said, "mujhe Nutan bahut yaad as rahi hai, tabhi mein tujhe phone kar rahi hoon." We never lived together after marriage, I mean my parents, Nutan and I. They live in Delhi and we stayed with them only whenever we went there.

After we got married, I was taken to see all her films. We'd go for trials and sometimes for premiers. And she would tell me the story, situations and details of her roles in them. Initially, I was quite surprised to see that she could act so well because I always thought acting was for the extroverts and she was quite the opposite. When I asked her how she could act so well, she said, "well, for me it's easy, because I become the person I am playing. I know exactly how she feels in that particular scene or shot. I observe people and nurture the actress within me!" Nutan was a very keen observer of human nature. She could read people's faces with uncanny accuracy and she was surprised that I could do the same too. I think, fine actors and actresses reach a stage when things they see are unconsciously registered in their minds and they can recall expressions whenever required. Oh yes, I remember, we have a terrace where a lot of pigeons would alight and play about. Nutan could actually act out the love-life of these pigeons, with all the actions. How this mustanda (macho) pigeon came and there was this poor little darling and all sorts of things. She would keep us in splits. She was a hilarious entertainer off-screen too.

Sometimes, she went to see her movies at the theatre. But she never wore a burkha or anything. Hers was a kind of open disguise. She'd change her walk, her manner of talking and her way of looking at people. One day she'd look like a schoolmarm and on the next, like any family woman. And believe it or not, people coming out after seeing her film, would pass her by, but fail to recognise her. She found this whole charade very amusing. Once I couldn't accompany her, so she went to see Main Tulsi Tere Angan Ki (1978) with my friend Anil Kumar and to his surprise, no one looked at her twice. She could do such things to amuse herself, with effortless ease.

Nutan adjusted effortlessly with my naval lifestyle. I wouldn't say I had money as such. I was a naval officer and comfortable in my pay because the rupee had some value then. It was enough for me to have, say, two cars, one was a jeep for my shikar (hunting) purposes. Nutan had 3 to 4 cars at home, all top quality and imported. One day, during the courtship period, when we returned home, her mother asked her, "Nutan, how did you enjoy your drive in Sonny's (me) car?" She said, "Oh mummy, it was fantastic. Everything made noise except the horn." "But how did you go about without the horn?" her mother enquired. "That's another fantastic thing," she said, "he had his daughter along with him. She sat between us. Everytime someone came in front of the jeep, she'd go 'woof, woof " That was Nutan's sense of humour. She was obviously referring to my dog! Nutan loved dogs immensely like me. There were around 16 dogs in Nutan's house at one time. Afterwards, the 'sone log' (beautiful people) as she would call them, were kept on our farm at Thane.

Shikar was a passion with me. Being in the navy, I had been confined into small spaces on war ships for many years, and was most of the time at sea. I longed for land and wide open spaces. Shikar was ideal in that sense. Besides, I was quite a sporstman. We'd get 60 days leave every year and I 'd spend 30 in the jungle. Only, the first time, I went hunting with friends. After that, I'd always go alone with just a servant to do my cooking. Finally, I acquired enough proficiency to shoot tigers on foot. After marriage, Nutan accompanied me on shikar and later toddler Mohnish too. We'd go to Madhya Pradesh or Saurashtra. I was obsessed with tigers and Nutan could see that. She once wrote a poem called 'Smiley and Me' `Smiley' was a tigress and 'me' was Nutan. In it, she said how jealous she was of the tigress, because her loved one (that's me) would leave her to go to his other love. How he cares more for Smiley because of her lovely swinging walk and her voracious kisses. This poem, I think, was published in a magazine way back in 1969. She wrote in English, Hindi (she's written some wonderful bhajans) and also in Sanskrit. My father and she would often banter in Sanskrit, leaving the rest of us out in the cold.

Hunting tigers on foot is perhaps the most dangerous undertaking the world offers. But Nutan insisted on coming along. In fact, once when we were hot on a trail, a friend of mine who was hunting in the same jungle spotted us. When he saw Nutan beside me, he was shocked and angry. He gave me a hell of a lecture. But Nutan just laughed and said, "don't worry about me, I am enjoying myself." She had tremendous faith and confidence in me. All the tigers she has seen shot, were on foot and none further than say eight yards i.e. 20 feet.

I remember one particular incident. It was very late in the night, around one o'clock and we were returning from a day in the jungle. Suddenly, in the headlights of the jeep, we saw an animal walking leisurely, swinging its tail. The driver said, "saab bachhada hai." Bachhda means the young of a cow. By then I got out of the jeep to get a steadier shot. Just then he took a little turn and there it was, a full grown tiger. Nutan got very excited. She frantically whispered in my ear, "darling, shoot shoot." I gave the tiger a shot. It went up several feet in the air and then turned around all set to charge at us. This time I put in the second shot. He got hit in the side and dived into the bushes. I decided not to go after him. It was dark and if he was not dead, it could have proved dangerous. So I said we return to the rest house. Nutan was dissappointed, but eventually saw wisdom in it, said, "we'll come after it in the morning." I said, " what do you mean 'we'? You are not coming. I am going alone." "Alright, alright," she muttered and we returned. No sooner had we reached the forest cottage, she made up a song and started singing,"hai baalam ye raat kaise guzregi, my love is out there but I can't go to her..." She was teasing me. She knew I was itching to go after the tiger Later, I quietly slipped out and by morning returned with the animal. I found it dead in the jungle, not far from where we had shot it.

Over the years, Nutan too had become a fine hunter. She has hunted a few panthers herself. She was very good at skinning the animals too. I was quite happy to give the charge of that to her, it being a very tedious process. When Mohnish grew up and could handle weapons, he always blamed his mother for shooting the animals he had meant to shoot and had taken split second longer. But he didn't realise that it may have escaped, had Nutan not shot it.
The couple in one of their hunting trips.

During the years of our marriage,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.
When we bought this farm at Mumbra near Thane, she asked me to build a temple for her in it. She was a spiritual girl from the beginning. When I asked her why she wanted a temple built, she replied that she was told to do so, in her dream. The exact location and the size of the mandir, she got from a pundit who consulted the Bhrigushastra. She spent a lot of time there.

We often entertained in our farm which was our retreat. But our parties were not like the ones given by the film personalities, usually large and extravagant. Ours were more homely and informal. We liked to call over good friends from all walks of life. Nutan was excellent at mixing people. She'd seat together two rival politicians at the table. And I've never seen any of her arrangements go wrong. People with diverse interests enjoyed themselves. I've never known an invitation sent and the person not turning up.

Her rapport with her colleagues was excellent and because she was a very private person, she was very selective. One close friend was Dolly Vyas, another Indira Thaddani and my sister-in-law, Pearl. It was very easy for Nutan to make friends with people young at heart. But she could not tolerate people who were superficial or hypocritical. She often encounterd society women who went to parties all the time and talked of their trips abroad and how they spent a hundred pounds on a pair of shoes. She never got along with them. She liked genuine persons, be they from any strata of the society Because she herself was a very sincere and genuine person. Her other sisters are not quite like that. She had a tremendous sense of duty and love towards our family too.

In her later years, she became more and more spiritually inclined. She read a lot and like all deep thinkers, tried to get to the ultimate truth. She had a very fascinating theory, which is rather deep. She believed that we are images of our dreams which seem so real when we dream, the whole universe is the manifested dream of the supreme power, call him God, Parmatma, whatever you will. His original dream beget more dreams and they gave rise to yet more sub-dreams, so to say. We are just one link in this whole chain. When our link snaps(we die) we are back to the original or the first dreamer — God. I used to rejoin with her from the scientific point of view. But I must admit, I feel there is perhaps a correlation between what she believed and what science has proved. Wasn't there only one large mass of coagulated matter until there was an explosion splitting it into thousands of fragments? Aren't these fragments our different worlds, dreams of the original, one body? And on these bodies were created life forms, with dreams and conciousness, until we humans realised.

One day when we were having our meal and discussing, I mentioned to her, "you know darling, the aim of the scientist and the philosopher is the same. They both want to reach the ultimate truth.The scientist delves into the heart of the matter and the philosopher goes deep into the matters of the heart. You and I are moving towards the same goal but along different paths." She was stunned. "My God," she said, "let me jot this down," and as she had done so many times before, she ran to fetch some writing material. She was a seeker, definitely.

We used to have many metaphysical discussions. And during these I gathered that she believed that we carry forward in our subconcious, certain actions from previous births. I decided to investigate this theory through scientific means. I am on the board of governors at the Einstein Research Institute in America. One of the privileges as the governor is that I can ask for a certain research and it's done. On my request, the institute found that qualified MDs and psychiatrists had regressed through trance state, patients as far back as their previous lives and came up with some startling discoveries which completely fascinated Nutan.
A family photograph. Image credit:

She knew she had cancer The first time she told me, "darling, I have a lump here (in the chest region). The doctor says it's cancer and it has to be taken out. But don't worry, I'll be alright." That was in 1989. Anyway, they operated on her and took out a very small lump. She was being treated here, yet I called across a team of six French specialists to come with their equipment and clear her out of any possibility of a recurrence. They did that. So, we sat back, a little easy. She was looking more beautiful and radiant than ever. Then our new year present came when on 31st December,1991, she complained of pain in the abdomen. It was three in the morning. I called Dr Kothari. He examined her and said he suspected cancer of the liver The next day was the first, a holiday, but we requested the Tata Hospital to conduct the tests and they found it was positive. I didn't tell her it was fatal, because till the very end, I didn't believe it myself. I would tell her and myself, "we'll see you through this." She made me promise that I wouldn't take her abroad for treatment. "All the doctors here know us so well and our country too can provide the best treatment possible. Besides, I want to be in my country," she said. Perhaps, by now she knew her condition was terminal. But I extracted a counter promise. "Look," I reasoned, "if you are in a coma and the doctors say that there is a chance of you getting better abroad, in such a situation, allow me to decide for you." She agreed. Another wish she made of me was to take care that she was not in pain. So we kept her to that level of medication where the pain was minimum. Once when I asked her if she was in pain, she said, "a little. It feels as if a rod is poking in my side. But it's bearable." She never knew when the end came. Her side had swollen up with water. The doctor decided to puncture the swelling and tap out the water They put her under anaesthesia. And she slipped into a coma. Not because of the anaesthesia but because the liver stopped functioning. This gave rise to toxins which entered the bloodstream and reached the brain, causing coma. She never came out of it and mercifully, unknown to her, the end came.

At the last stage, the doctor asked me if I wanted to prolong her life and keep her on the support system. We knew there were no chances of survival. Yet it was a very difficult question for me to answer. I asked him if the subconscious felt pain. "We don't know," he said. Just then a senior doctor, Dr Ud Wadia, came out of her room. He was literally crying. He said, "Commander, please let her go peacefully. Don't prolong it." Timmy hadn't come yet. But, I thought, why let him see his mother like this? She was unconscious, it made no difference to her "Alright," I said to the doctor, "let nature take its course." And Timmy arrived a few minutes later from Ooty where he was on assignment shooting and was spared the last moments of our agony and devastation.  

This article written by Nutan's husband Rajnish Bahl was originally published in the Junior G supplementary of March 1992 issue called Nutan: A flashback. The images used are taken from the original article aand the internet

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