Paying guest by Subodh Mukherji (1957) is not completely worth its two and a half hours of watching: it’s just another 2nd class romantic comedy with elements of drama and thriller. It incorporates all the elements of a standard family show: good-looking actors, suspense, slapstick, disguises, family interest and whodunit courtroom mystery in the end (1). Dev Anand and Nutan lead the dance, and the charm of their acting succeeds sometimes to offset the repetitiveness of the timeworn recipes, which one might have thought were more reserved for Punch & Judy children audiences than for cinema-goers. But, after all! Comedy is eternal, is it not?
The reason I’m bothering to write is a thought about Nutan. It again struck me while watching this movie (it must now be the 8th or 9th film with her that I watch) that she plays with what I would call her “soul”, which is something actors of today would forbid themselves from doing, I think. Because the art they are involved in is a technique, and they are judged on their ability to impersonate a character more than anything else. Some do it, but nobody asks them to use that spiritually oriented aspect of their person. Perhaps because this soul is what others would call intimacy, or privacy, and everybody knows you have a right to keep your privacy to yourself. With Nutan, the soul is just there, on the surface. With her, I feel there is nothing to hide. It isn’t that she doesn’t have a private inner world, but her public self mirrors the inner one perfectly. She is innocent, as it were, of any social compromise, by which I mean a kind of self-consciousness and a defence of intimacy, because when you are involved socially, you wear a mask, you tend to hide to the public certain aspects of who you are down deep. And naturally this defence of intimacy is of paramount importance in the dramatic arts.
The strength of Purity
Nutan strikes me as Purity. Watching her I thought: now here’s purity, here’s an actress (because she certainly isn’t the only one, but her persona carries it particularly well) who’s managed somehow to join innocence and experience, to remain innocent and wise at the same time. Her face cannot be hiding anything than what we see and what it shows the world: radiant goodness and intelligence. I never see any self-indulgence. She is benevolence, righteousness, generosity. And as a result, happiness (and its sign: a certain restraint) reigns on that face and in her gestures. This restraint can be felt in the way she lowers her eyes, the way she’s totally present in the emotions she displays, and will never give way to violence. She never imposes her simplicity and clarity to others, because her nature is one of respect of otherness, and love of creation and life.
Horror of evil
There is a moment in the film (above) when she has to express the confrontation of innocence and violence: it's the moment when she is made to believe she has killed her brother-in law. The expression she manages to make at that moment, which lasts such a long time, and strikes one as so full of stupor and horror, for me is a classic: it shows her range of acting of course, but at the same time testifies to the potential within her to feel the distance between purity and evil. I believe it is because she herself possesses a sort of saintliness that she feels and can convey so well the atrocious fall of sin and evil which is inherent in murder.
A fundamental honesty
I hope I’m not just blinded by her beauty, and naively building up a discourse based on my appreciation of her good looks.) In Nutan (and I’ve said this before elsewhere), we have a miracle: a fusion of beauty and goodliness, a blending of charm and purity which I have very seldom seen on the screen. You see it in life, of course; many young women are favoured enough by nature and nurture to benefit from this double gift. But on the screen? Audrey Hepburn, perhaps? The cinema is such a temptation for vanity and mimetic attractiveness to wreak their havoc. So many actors are busy with themselves. There might have been a golden age of innocence, when the cinema was free of the futility and the materialism which fills it today, but even is that is the case, she would be an exception. Nutan owns the first two ingredients: beauty and honesty; and a third: wisdom, and even a fourth: happiness, as the crowning gift coming from the first three.
Just compare her with Dev Anand, her partner in Paying Guest: well, precisely, he’s only the guest. She’s the hostess, the permanent value, the dependable worth. Dev is really fine, in terms of acting. Yet you notice the ham in him sometimes, he doesn’t let you quite forget that he’s good and appreciated as good. He plays the There’s a Dev Anand that we want him to be, the lovable, eminently marriageable sophisticated young man (or something like that). Perhaps I’m blinded (you tell me) but I feel nothing of the kind with Nutan. On the contrary, there’s a subtle mix of strong presence and bashfulness in her that shows she’s aware of the risk of using her attractiveness for her own personal promotion, but she’s as far as can be from using it to manipulate the spectator, for example. This is something I’ve discussed about Aishwarya Rai already. Nutan knows she’s beautiful, and must know that beauty is both a powerful element of self-promotion and a potential enemy of a clear distinction between good and bad (it’s easier to be a little mean or superior if you’re a stunner, and you can get away with it by manipulating your critics). Yet I have never yet seen her follow that very ordinary path, on which one goes along indulging in trivial foibles and at the same time supposing them acceptable on the basis that everybody does the same.
To finish, there is one song which I found particularly moving: Chand phir Nikala:
(1) The psychological unlikelihood weighs most heavily when Shanti’s (Nutan) old school pal (Shubha Khote), who believes in money in marriage (whereas Shanti defends love), tries to woo Ramesh (Anand), Shanti’s hubbie… and the film pretends she succeeds!
30 Dec 2011: I want to add Sharmi's review because it so convincingly describes Dev Anand's mocking flirtatiousness. She also reminded me about O nigahe mastana, where Nutan beams that absolute youthful femininity which I have tried so partially to describe above: