Remembering Nutan, Hindi cinema's 'oldest' Best Actress

Nutan, who died on 21 February 1991, won a Best Actress award aged 42. No Hindi film actress has been able to break that record in almost 40 years.

Mayur Lookhar

Nutan, who won her last Filmfare Best Actress trophy at the age of 42 in 1979, is regarded among the best actresses Hindi cinema has seen. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali once remarked that the industry no longer makes actresses like Nutan. Given her glittering career, it may be well nigh impossible to match her today. But, more importantly, does Hindi cinema really want to find another Nutan?

Along with her niece Kajol, Nutan holds the record for most Filmfare Best Actress awards – five. Her last, for Main Tulsi Tere Aangan Ki (1978), should have made it clear to the largely sexist Hindi film industry that age is just a number for talented artistes. But 39 years on, not one actress aged 40 or more has won the trophy. Indeed, not too many actresses over 40 get cast in leading roles even as 50-plus 'uncle' stars continue to romance women young enough to be their daughters, whether it was Rajesh Khanna in the last century or the three Khans today.

Also read: How Nutan went beyond limits in Seema

Sure, a few 40-plus actresses like Madhuri Dixit, Aishwarya Rai and Karisma Kapoor have returned to the big screen after marriage and kids, but barring Sridevi, none made a commercially successful comeback. And, surprisingly, despite the success of English Vinglish (2012), Sridevi, too, hasn’t been seen since.

At 60, Sharmila Tagore was nominated for the Filmfare Best Actress award in 2006. But Viruddh (2005), in which she played a matriarchal character, was a clichéd family saga. So does this mean that once our leading ladies are past their prime, they can only return as mothers and grandmothers?

Clearly, not many scripts are being written for seasoned female artistes. Perhaps not too many producers are willing to take the punt. So where does that leave the veterans?

Meanwhile, in the West, actresses keep getting recognition with experience. Like fine wine, they only seem to get better with age. Emmanuelle Riva earned an Oscar nomination (at the 85th Academy Awards) at the age of 85 for Michael Haneke's Amour (2012). Remarkably, she was competing with 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (nominated for Beasts Of The Southern Wild). A year earlier, Meryl Streep won her third Oscar for The Iron Lady. At 62, however, she didn’t set a record. That belongs to Jessica Tandy, who bagged it at – would you believe it? – 80 for Driving Miss Daisy (1989).

In 2014, Julianne Moore, aged 53, won the honour for Still Alice while in 2013 Cate Blanchett, 43, won it for Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. None of these actresses were playing mummies and grannies, by the way. All were essaying important titular characters in their respective films.

Of course, our filmwallahs will tell you it is unfair to compare us with the West as audience tastes differ. But then how did fans receive English Vinglish so well? Sridevi’s film proved once again that what matters is a good script. But that is where the rub is. If not, what is to prevent, say, Waheeda Rehman, delivering another tour de force at 79?