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How Nutan went beyond limits in Seema (1955)

On her 26th death anniversary (21 February), a look back in time at Amiya Chakrabarty's film that gave Nutan the breakthrough role her career needed.

Sonal Pandya

Filmmaker Amiya Chakrabarty, in a career cut short by his untimely death, made some memorable features with prominent roles for female characters. Part of a growing team of artistes and filmmakers at Himanshu Rai and Devika Rani's Bombay Talkies, Chakrabarty was an essential part of the studio's success. With hits like Anjaan (1941) and Basant (1942) behind him, he was at hand to introduce its new talent, Dilip Kumar, in Jwar Bhata (1944).

Chakrabarty extracted award-winning performances from Dilip Kumar and Usha Kiron in Daag (1952) and Patita (1953). He passed away at the age of 44 on 6 March 1957, leaving behind an unfinished film, Kath Putli (1957). A couple of years earlier, Chakrabarty had won accolades for his sensitive social drama Seema (1955), directed from his own story focusing on a young girl who is abandoned by society and finds a second chance at life and love in an orphanage.

For the lead role of the respectful yet fiery Gauri, Chakrabarty cast Nutan, newly returned from her sojourn in a Swiss finishing school, La Chatelaine. The part showed off her versatility, her expressive eyes, and an inner fierceness that audiences had not yet experienced. It was quite evident, early on, that Nutan could embody any character.

However, Nutan was still a teenager when she shot for Seema (1955). Her co-star, Balraj Sahni, was 42 at the time. But here, the age difference served to emphasize how much of an impact both characters had on their respective lives. Sahni played Ashok, the respectable warden at an orphanage for young women and illegitimate children where they could heal and improve their previously wayward ways. Despite her protestations, Gauri is sent there after a false accusation of theft at an employer's house and after her unscrupulous relatives discard her.

Balraj Sahni

From the sweet, obedient girl we meet at the start of the film, Nutan's Gauri goes angry as everyone turns against her. Gauri hardens her heart against the world, vowing never to get hurt by anyone anymore. She fights with everyone she meets at the orphanage, and goes on a hunger strike. But Anand Babu has a plan and slowly but surely wins her over with his goodness.

Shubha Khote as Putli

Seema (1955) also marked the film debut of Shubha Khote, niece of Durga Khote, a leading actress of the 1930s and 1940s. Shubha Khote played a fellow resident of the orphanage, Putli, who is first Gauri's adversary but quickly becomes her friend and confidante. Towards the finale, there is a sub-plot involving Putli and a robbery at the orphanage that ends with a spectacular chase sequence on bicycles. It was woven into the story simply because Shubha Khote was a former cycling champion.

Featuring the music of Shankar-Jaikishan, Seema had some indelible songs composed by the duo. Lata Mangeshkar lent her voice to three songs picturised on Nutan and one on newcomer Shubha Khote. Of those, the sad version of 'Suno Chhoti Si Gudiya Ki Lambi Kahani' still has the power to tug on heartstrings.

Meanwhile, two different voices were used for the numbers with Sahni. Manna Dey sang the devotional 'Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai' while Mohammed Rafi sang 'Kahan Ja Raha Hai'.

Chakrabarty won the Filmfare award for Best Story and 19-year-old Nutan picked up the first of her five Filmfare awards as Best Actress.

Also read: Remembering Nutan, Hindi cinema's 'oldest' Best Actress

In his screenplay, Chakrabarty made special mention of the travails women face in society when they have no one or nowhere to turn to. Seema was aided by Nutan's acting tour de force that brought home the plight young women go through on a daily basis. Her spirited turn as Gauri was only the beginning for the young actress. She quickly rose to become a star, one who could draw audiences in women-orientated films like Sone Ki Chidiya (1958) and Bandini (1962).