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26 March 2020

The Greats: Nimmi

18.02.1933 - 25.03.2020
To be honest, Nimmi is not one of my favourite heroines. That had less to do with her emoting capabilities than with the fact that she always seemed to play lachrymose characters on screen. However, despite never being talked of in the same breath as say Nargis, Meena Kumari or Madhubala (her contemporaries), Nimmi was an integral part of the movies of her day, acting opposite all the top heroes of the time.

Born ‘Nawab Banoo’ in Fatehbad, Uttar Pradesh (‘Nimmi’ was the screen name bestowed upon her by Raj Kapoor), the young girl had come to Bombay in 1948 to meet her ‘munh bola’ uncle, Mehboob Khan. There, on the sets of Andaz, which Mehboob Khan was then shooting, she met Raj Kapoor who, struck by her fresh, innocent beauty, offered her a parallel role to Nargis in Barsaat.

With equal screen time, two iconic songs (Jiya beqaraar hai and Barsaat mein tak dina dhim) and a climax picturised on her, Nimmi’s career took off with a bang, and the young heroine was flooded with offers. (FilmIndia called her rise to stardom a ‘fairy tale’.) She went on to act opposite Raj Kapoor (Banwra), Dev Anand (Sazaa) and Dilip Kumar (Deedar). It was her misfortune that she often played second fiddle to her contemporaries, and more often than not played the victim as well. Strangely so, since the actor was reportedly a very vivacious person in real life.

Mehboob Khan first cast her in Aan, an Indianised version of The Taming of the Shrew where she reprised her Barsaat role as a rustic village belle in love with Dilip Kumar who, in turn, is besotted with an arrogant princess (Nadira). 

She continued to be part of successful films, with films opposite actors like Premnath (Burzdil), Bharat Bhushan (Basant Bahar), Kishore Kumar (Bhai Bhai), Ashok Kumar (Mere Mehboob), Ajit (Char Dil Char Raahein) and Sunil Dutt (Kundan). Despite her success, Nimmi decided – in the late 50s – to be more selective, and this proved to be her undoing. She refused films like BR Chopra’s Sadhna, because she didn’t want to play the role of a mercenary prostitute, and chose the sister’s role in Mere Mehboob.   

Nimmi ended her career with K Asif’s Love and God – a film she hoped would immortalise her the same way in which the maker’s Mughal-e-Azam had immortalised Madhubala. Unfortunately, the film was many years in the making: K Asif took a long time to finalise the hero, finally zeroing in on Guru Dutt. With the actor-director’s demise, the film stayed half-done until Sanjeev Kumar stepped into the role of Qaif. K Asif’s death in 1971 led to the film being abandoned, until the project was revived in the 80s by Asif’s widow, but Sanjeev Kumar passed away – the incomplete film was released in 1986. According to veteran film journalist, Subhash Jha, Nimmi is said to have laughed, saying ‘Majnu kept dying but Laila lives on.” 

Today, in her memory – the veteran actress passed away yesterday evening – here’s a look at some of her notable roles. 

Barsaat (1949) 
The despoiling of innocence is a theme that Raj Kapoor would return to, time and again. Here, Neela (Nimmi) personifies the purity of love, and the trials and tribulations that sanctify it. The fresh-faced ingénue held her own against power-packed performances from her co-stars, especially Nargis who played Reshma, another village girl who falls in love with a man from the city. Barsaat was one film where all four leads – and their narratives – had equal time. And Nimmi gave a fine performance in her debut role.
One of the tales associated with Barsaat is that, for a scene where she rests her head on Premnath’s feet, the young actress just couldn’t get her emotions or her lines right. After several takes, Raj Kapoor took Premnath aside and asked him to go wash his feet. 

Deedar (1951)
Poor Nimmi! Deedar was a film that was extremely well-crafted, with performances that were top-notch. Unfortunately, it’s such a depressing film that I can’t bring myself to re-watch it – contrived tragedies just aren’t my thing. Nimmi plays Champa, a young girl who’s in love with Shamu, the boy whom her father adopts when the former is orphaned. Unfortunately for her, Shamu is already in love with Mala (Nargis), his ex-employer’s daughter.
Deedar was Nimmi’s first film opposite Dilip Kumar, and her first chance of acting with her idol, Ashok Kumar. She went on to make a successful romantic pair with Dilip Kumar, acting in several films together. 

Daag (1952) 
Daag was Nimmi’s second film with Dilip Kumar. As Parvati/Paro, Nimmi ably shouldered a role that should have been second nature to her by now – that of a tragic heroine, whose love is sanctified by a trial through fire. 
Fortunately for the audience, the film had a (contrived?) ‘happy’ ending and one was spared the tragedy that both leads were famous for. Unfortunately, many tears were shed before said happy ending. 

Aan (1952) 
Mehboob Khan had set his retelling of The Taming of the Shrew in a princely setting, allowing him to work in class struggles along with the gender war. Introducing Nadira as the savage princess who needs to be tamed (Savage Princess was also the name under which Aan was released worldwide), Khan cast Nimmi as Mangala, the village girl who loves Jai (Dilip Kumar), and who falls prey to the lascivious Shamsher Singh (Premnath).  
By now, Nimmi was a very successful actress, and distributors were aghast at her early death in the film. Accordingly, Khan worked in an extended dream sequence picturised on the actress. The London premiere of Savage Princess was a lavish affair, and Nimmi was courted by many luminaries including Cecille B Mille who, fascinated by her beauty, offered her a film. Her shocked response to Errol Flynn also made her famous in the West as the 'Unkissed Indian Girl'. 

Apart from being sub-titled in 17 languages and released all over the world, Aan was dubbed and released in French as Mangala, Fille des Indes. 

Amar (1952) 
Nimmi reunited with Dilip Kumar and Mehboob Khan to reprise her role as suffering village belle. This film, however, had much more meat than just play regulation second lead-who-falls-in-love-with-the-hero-who-loves-another. In this rather-problematic take on rape, Nimmi plays Sonia, a young village girl (what else?) who is raped one night by Amar (Dilip Kumar), and then keeps quiet about her ‘disgrace’.

Amar is probably the most notable role in Nimmi’s filmography, but I found her unnecessarily theatrical in a role that offered a lot of nuance. (The contrast between her performance and that of her co-stars is remarkable. And unfortunately for me, this is the film that set the seal on my dislike of Nimmi.) The film, despite its problematic premise (Amar never faces any legal or social consequence for his despicable act), was rescued by fine performances from Dilip Kumar and Madhubala (who shone in her role as the fiancée of a man accused of rape) and their incredible chemistry.  

Udan Khatola (1955) 
A quasi-fantasy film based on an obscure Hollywood film named Bird of Paradise (1932), Udan Khatola saw Nimmi as Soni, a young maiden who falls in love with Kashi (Dilip Kumar), a stranger from the mainland who’s stranded on her island. Nimmi spends half the film dressed up as spry youth, Shibu. But the ill-fated lovers (did Nimmi ever play any other kind?) are separated – by a queen (Surya Kumari) who falls in love with Kashi; Shanu (Jeevan), who’s in love with Soni; and Sangha, a blood-thirsty deity who demands human sacrifice.
Udan Khatola’s strength lies in its music – Naushad worked hard on a stellar score that includes my favourite, O door jaanewale. 

Kundan (1955) 
In Sohrab Modi’s retelling of Victor Hugo’s Le Miserables, Nimmi got a part that gave her the chance to show her range as a heroine. As Radha and Uma (mother and daughter), Nimmi won a lot of critical acclaim. 
As Radha, Nimmi played the quintessential suffering woman, a character that she seemed to have made her own. As Uma, however, she did have a more happy outlook on life.  

Bhai-Bhai (1956) 
1955-56 was a good year for Nimmi. She found critical acclaim in films like Kundan and Basant Bahar, and commercial success in films like Udan Khatola and Bhai-Bhai. Her Rani in Bhai Bhai is a spirited, independent young woman – well, she is, until she falls in love.
Then, of course, she changed into a weepy, martyred, self-sacrificing person, who even puts up with being slapped (by her lover) and nearly assaulted (by his brother). Bhai-Bhai was also, as I mentioned in my review of it, a film that seemed to have many, many lessons for the ‘good Indian woman’. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn any of them. 

Char Dil Char Raahein (1959) 
Based on a novel of the same name, and directed by Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, Char Dil Char Raahein was an anthology of four shorts, with characters that criss-crossed each other’s lives. Nimmi’s character, Pyaari, is a remarkable one – the daughter of a prostitute, she is brought to an erstwhile Nawab (Anwar Hussain) to soothe him with her art so he can forget he’s going to be dispossessed of his kingdom. 
She’s an object of scorn to Dilawar (Ajit), the Raja’s personal driver, until he discovers that she’s not as mercenary as he thinks her. Falling in love with her, he offers marriage – a fact that astonishes Pyaari, until she realises that she has to choose between her mother and him.

Nimmi played her Pyaari without too much melodrama, or her trademark histrionics and it was a character that stayed with me long after I watched the film. 

Mere Mehboob (1963) 
Mere Mehboob cemented Sadhana’s legacy as Husna. However, if Nimmi hadn’t chosen to play the role of Najma, Anwar’s (Rajendra Kumar) sister, perhaps the course of the two heroines' careers may have been different. For it was Nimmi who was to play Husna originally (with Bina Rai playing Najma). However, Nimmi felt that it was the sister’s role that had more scope for acting. With that, the casting changed. They needed a younger actress to play the heroine, and HS Rawail picked Sadhana. Much later, Nimmi was to rue her choice – Raj Khosla replaced her with Sadhana in Woh Kaun Thi? 

The brother-sister relationships were drawn with such grace and dignity in the film and Nimmi lent a gravitas to the role of a loving sister who sacrifices much to bring up her younger brother. It is, to be perfectly truthful, my favourite Nimmi performance.
Perhaps that’s the way to remember her. To remember her grace and dignity, and regret that her films couldn’t capture her vivacious persona, trapping her instead in the stereotype of suffering womanhood. 

And perhaps, she's at peace now. As Rishi Kapoor so succinctly put it, ‘Allah aapko Jannat naseeb kare. Aameen.’

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