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Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Cinema: Nutan And The Performance Of Isolation

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As we near the thirtieth death anniversary of the legendary screen actor Nutan Bahl (nee Samarth), and as we continue to navigate these times of pandemic and forced isolations, there is much to learn from the many qualities of isolation that was played most piercingly by Nutan (1936–1991). While we were at work on a book about the visual aesthetics of black and white Hindi cinema, and debated on the contribution of actors, their distinct synergies with the agential camera eye that we studied, we found ourselves repeatedly returning to Nutan. The rectangle or square (depending on film format) of the cinematic frame is already an isolation of the senses – the edges of the frame direct our gaze to a limited spatial plane. How then in this defined space, does the actor position herself to play the loneliness of one who does not belong? We closely studied three films that stand out in Nutan’s career as a screen star and the marginal characters that she plays in all three films: an impoverished orphan in a rehabilitation home in Seema (1955), an adopted child who is repeatedly derided for being “an untouchable” in Sujata (1959), and a prisoner convicted of murder in Bandini (1963). While Amiya Chakrabarty directed Seema, the other two films were directed by the inimical auteur Bimal Roy.

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Bimal Roy’s Bandini is his most celebrated with its clutch of awards, such as the National Film Award for best Hindi film as well as Best Actress (for Nutan) and Best Director. It was Roy’s seventh win as Director (a record still unbroken) and Nutan’s fifth (a record that lasted many decades).  The achievement is particularly haunting with Nutan—here was an actor who could represent sheer joy, lips dancing either lightly over the words of a song or alternatively, show the ripple of the muscle-line on her throat as she sings. Few actors have used bodies or stances or facial expressions better—especially with regard to both joy as well as a sense of hurt and injustice within the cinematic medium.

It is Bandini that perhaps will speak to us most today. Nutan plays Kalyani who is in prison—no place can quite match the isolations of prison. Yet, as one discovers with this performance, even isolation can be unbundled into a whole spectrum of emotions—longing, of inwardness and introspection, a sense of the great mystery of life and human motivation.  Beyond the figure of the actor, other visibilities emerge—including the silences, visual abstraction and blankness (walls, bars, screens, and shadows) distinctive to Bimal Roy.

The movie begins with encounters—with subtle, finely controlled romantic undertones—between a self-effacing woman prisoner (Nutan as Kalyani) and an idealistic prison doctor (Dharmendra in one of his early roles). Kalyani stands out among the other prisoners in her quiet dignity, and willingness to help a fellow-prisoner through her illness. The doctor notices this and is drawn to her singular, enigmatic character. There is a quiet empathy between them but there are also seemingly unbridgeable spaces. The minimalist and stylised visual approach that Bimal Roy takes (long stretches of walls, bleached light, unmoving subjects)  repeatedly draws attention to the woman’s profound isolation, and Nutan embraces this in her performance. One of the finest examples in the film is in a song that follows the departure of the doctor from the prison—this is after he proposes marriage to Kalyani and she turns him down.

Composed by S. D. Burman and sung by Asha Bhonsle, this is one of the most poignant song visualisations of Hindi cinema. The slow melodious song in a female voice (with barely any percussion) is composed (both lyric and music) in the idiom of a traditional bidai song, the song that laments the separation of a girl from her natal home, her longing to be reunited with her parents—Ab ke baras bhej bhaiya ko babul (This year, my father sends my brother to fetch me). The confines of the prison come to stand for the captivity of marriage, and the parental health is a distant memory on the other side of the bars. The image of a miniaturised solitary woman in white sitting in a pool of sunlight, her bent back to us, against the aged towering walls of the prison sets the mood of the song.

And yet isolation also creates new communities—though each seems imprisoned in her isolation, the women in prison nevertheless form a new community, a new sisterhood in song, humour, gossip, camaraderie, in the rhythms of labour. As the song unfurls, Kalyani turns sharply to a singing voice and we see the singer, now sharing the frame with Kalyani but equally wrapped up in an isolation of her own, and in the rhythm of repetitive labour of the chakki (the stone that grinds grain). The patch of sunlight expands, the white palette spreads to include the floor and the singer—there is no room for a sky in this captive space.

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It is a slow song, dripping eternity into the lyric motion of a generous, flowing hand. And Nutan’s expressions, her controlled stillness in each frame, completes the poignancy. Her sensitive reserve is equally captured by her proximity to fellow prisoners caught in the portraitures of sorrow and memory.  These include particularly fine images of waiting, lonely, sorrowful women against walls, windows and iron bars. The relentlessly moving chakki is the only motion that spills from frame to frame. When the sky does make an appearance in the song, Kalyani’s head is turned to it and the line of her neck speaks of her ache. The viewer wonders: What is Kalyani’s crime, how did she end up here?

Nutan

Picture Credit: Source: NFAI

Although it is nearly six decades since Bandini was imagined and crafted, such unspeakable and unbreachable isolation and striving of the human spirit that Nutan brought to life on the screen remains more relatable than ever to us. One only has to revisit this actor, this film and this song to experience it all over again.

(This essay has been adapted from the authors’ book Shadow Craft: Visual Aesthetics of Black and White Cinema, Bloomsbury Academic, 2021) The views expressed are authors own.

Gayathri Prabhu and Nikhil Govind are Associate Professors of literary studies at Manipal Centre for Humanities, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). 

Picture Credit: NFAI