This post is about a not so common cinematographic quality, intelligence. If people in general would agree that actors need a good understanding of their roles in order to act well, perhaps they’d also say they can just rely on what the directors tell them to do, and not take too much initiative. “We don't normally associate acting with high intelligence” says the writer of this post. He adds: “Actors are often not thought of as thinkers”. And he goes on to say that perhaps it’s because in their interviews they don’t usually shine all that much. True, we mostly have in mind actors from the cinema, and not so much from the stage. But there’s another reason. If you’re an actor, isn’t it true that you’re going to have to rely not so much on your brains as on your feelings? Nobody particularly wants a brainy actor: too much reflexion might even spoil the spontaneity needed to emote and share the character’s personality with the audience. There used to be an emphasis, some time ago, perhaps indeed coming from the theatre, that an actor needed to exert himself a great deal in order to “catch” his or her character, and this presumably needed a good mind: concentration, analysis, penetration, adaptation. But more and more recently another school has imposed its message, almost the opposite one: a good actor mustn’t think, he or she must feel, live, his or her role. It isn’t the work that counts, it’s the vibe, the experience life has given you outside. True enough, one has in mind the movie star, and if one compares even superficially a theatre actor with a film actor, we’d say the latter doesn’t need all the finesse which the former should possess.
Now naturally there are exceptions, and we are going to speak about one. But I’d like to add that what we call intelligence isn’t only about reasoning and mental potential. We all know there are many forms of intelligence; on top of the usual notion of intellectual or logical ability, you have social, spatial, musical, kinetic intelligence, among others. Certain people are good at grasping social interactions, others have a verbal dexterity which gives them an amazing headstart in political or managerial field. There’s also what I call emotional intelligence, which is a capacity for understanding one’s own and others’ emotional states and acting on them to either improve them or (it happens of course) manipulate them. Everybody feels this universal “language” of emotions, but some of us can better understand it and react to it. Practice helps, of course, but it’s a gift which some have and use, and others don’t know much about, or can’t use. The ability to understand this language, and the ability to work on it, form this specific type of intelligence. It can be used with a bad intention, and then it is devilish, because emotions are vulnerable in their “truth” and “innocence”. But when it is used for the benefit of everyone, it is divine, because it protects and boosts the power of our deeper selves. Some emotions are too strong: it anticipates and softens them by its far-sightedness and its patience. Some are fragile or hesitant: it gives them the importance and the value they deserve, and accompanies them to make people see why we should respect them.
Needless to say Nutan for me demonstrates all this. But first let me say that she wasn’t just emotionally brilliant; I also feel she possessed other forms of intelligence, of which I’m less certain about perhaps, but it is clear for example she was verbally and logically superior. And I have said this elsewhere, but she also had this specific form of social intelligence which enabled her to remain the strong, self-respecting public figure she was, and at the same time show herself to everyone, perhaps not intimately, but certainly very personally. In order to act, you have to give way to your inner resources and in this process become vulnerable and accessible. Especially if you are a woman! The male-dominated Indian society of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s meant that actresses, I think, had to fight against an assumed “cheapification” of their persons which meant that men could come closer to them (or buy them off more easily) simply because they had accepted to be actresses. This situation probably hasn’t changed much; perhaps some actresses comply with the situation more while others have managed to get hold of their persona in a wiser way.
Choosing the films she was going to play in, choosing her roles also demonstrates some of the intelligence I am speaking about. And allowing herself to choose negative roles, or at least, not immediately recognized as positive ones, like in Sujata and Bandini, this too testifies to a form of understanding of what an artist should do. It’s clear Nutan saw herself as an artist, no only as an actress, and there’s a form of feminism here which comes from her clarity of mind: she isn’t reduced to being a woman, with all the conventions attached to it, but she sees herself first as a human being. In the book written about her by Lalitha Tamhane, she tells about how she had to accept what producers wanted her, when aged fifty, to look like. They asked her to whiten her hair because she was supposed to play a mother’s role. But she was fifty and her hair was naturally undyed: why artificially whiten it? Why couldn’t she remain natural? Everybody knows that some women keep natural coloured hair late, and others do not. The trouble was that producers thought she looked too young, and they wanted a clear-cut distinction between the mother-roles and the heroine roles. Forced to conform to stereotypes, but reflecting on their absurdity reveals what sort of person she was. She also explains that for one of her roles, she had to get up at night and so, to play this moment realistically, let loose her hair. But they wanted her to tie it in a bun, to look older, whereas no women with long hair, she explains, keep a bun at night! So to comply with what they asked, she decides to tie her hair in a loose bun, and as she walks to act, it becomes undone…This sets her wondering about how one can work with such conventional people, and demonstrates her unconventionality, her freedom of spirit and her independence of mind.
 The book is entitled Asen mi… Nasen mi. See here : https://www.akshardhara.com/en/kalakar-charitra/21769-Nutan-Asen-Mi-Nasen-Mi-Lalita-Tamhane-Dimpal-Publications-buy-marathi-books-online-at-akshardhara.html
There’s also an important passage where she mentions that if in a troubled spot, “one should trust one’s intuition rather than one’s intellect”. She says she did this often, and that it saved her. She then goes on to reflect about other people, whose intelligence she has recognized to be greater than hers, and that she had much to learn compared to them. I won’t insist, but such humility and modesty characterizes the intelligence I am speaking about. Then there are her thoughts about God and the solitude she feels when caught in these thoughts. What if this world didn’t exist? she asks; and, surprised at her own questioning, she then mentions how close she comes to God while thinking in this way, and how so much above nature such a power of thinking puts all of us. Thus Nutan was indeed a sort of philosopher in her own way. Her sister Tanuja testifies to this ability.
Nutan insists one should prefer intuition to intellect: yet she does appear to be a “brainy” artist: is there a contradiction there? Intuition means a kind of direct understanding, a vision or a feeling of the truth which doesn’t need reasoning or analysis: it enables you to act immediately and properly, as if by a sixth sense. Some people say intuition is a woman’s sense, but I think men can have and use it just as well as women. It’s an ability that certainly must have been useful in her job, in order to feel quickly what to do, or to say, how to adapt the text she had learnt to the situation on the sets. When you act, you have to do this all the time: a slight modification of the position, of the situation, and the role needs a shift, an adjustment or a simplification, if you want to make the spectator understand the truth of the emotion played. The opposite, sticking steadfastly to a text in spite of everything, means you know nothing of the reality of the stage or the sets. And we have referred to the particular position in which an actress finds herself in the cinema industry, confronting other actors and actresses, directors, producers, etc. Certainly a good intuition of the stakes behind playing in India with the particular context of the period would have been important, but the cinema anywhere means physical closeness and a certain degree of intimacy which you have to accept, and which make relationships harder to control… For all this, a woman needs a sense of determination and courage if she doesn’t want to be crushed by the forces pressing all around. I don’t know much about the details of the famous slap which Nutan gave Sanjeev Kumar during the shooting of Devi (in 1970), but it’s probably an example of her keen appreciation of what happens only too often, and of her reactivity.
So Nutan’s insistence on intuition might well be the same thing as what we mentioned at first, this spontaneity, this command of the language of emotions and reactions without which you seem to recite a role rather than living it. I’d say her acting shows a remarkable capacity for response, a form of naturalness which we love because it’s immediately recognizable as genuine. As we said before, certain actors are more gifted than others in this field, and I think this is precisely what being intuitive means. One last thing: we know that Nutan was religious, from her childhood, and especially at the end of her life; she got interested in Satsang (check here too), which I understand is a certain type of gathering of people looking for spiritual truth. In the West, intelligence often runs the risk of being equated with rationality and logic (viz IQ tests), which has a tradition of being developed apart from religious interrogations. But I’m sure this isn’t the case in India, and to me Nutan’s growing quest to reach for understanding of the ultimate truth is coherent with her poetic and artistic qualities (she wrote bhajans, which I’ve never been able to read), her insistence of the importance of love in human relations (she says somewhere: “Love is the only truth”), as well as her overall brainpower as a person. When she died at 55, some people had started calling her their guru, a sign, I think, that she had started being ripe for teaching what during all her life she had been learning.
Happy Birthday Mrs Behl!