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Kala Pani, Nalini Jaywant's atonement

On the petite beauty’s sixth death anniversary today (20 December), a look at Nalini Jaywant's landmark performance opposite Dev Anand.

Sonal Pandya

Navketan's 1958 hit Kala Pani was one of Raj Khosla's early films. A former assistant to Guru Dutt, Khosla broke out on his own with Milap (1955), C.I.D. (1956) and Solva Saal (1958). His next, with Dev Anand in the lead yet again, was based on AJ Cronin's novel Beyond This Place.

The compelling tale of a son discovering a long-lost father serving a sentence of kalapani (originally, transportation to the Andaman Islands; later, a term used for life imprisonment in a mainland prison) for a crime he did not commit brought Dev Anand his first Filmfare award for Best Actor.

While Dev Anand played the crusading journalist son Karan Mehra, Kala Pani reunited him with Madhubala, who had acted opposite him at the beginning of the decade in films like Nirala (1950) and Nadaan (1951).

Screenwriter GR Kamat honed Cronin's book into a strong screenplay with dialogues from Bhappi Sonie to turn Kala Pani into a son's laborious quest to free his innocent father. Mehra travels to Hyderabad to talk to people who were part of the murder case 15 years ago and find new evidence to help his father, Shankarlal Mehra, who stands accused of killing Mala, a prostitute, at a brothel. Everyone from the other uncertain eyewitnesses to the police officer on the case to the corrupt prosecutor had stood by and watched as an innocent was imprisoned. Karan turns to all of them for assistance.

Nalini Jaywant with Dev Anand

Nalini Jaywant was a crucial part of the cast as Kishori, an outcast in genteel society. She is one of the eyewitnesses whose testimony is used to convict Shankarlal. Jaywant begins the film as the new courtesan in the brothel and moves on to become one of the top courtesans of Hyderabad. She attains this position by blackmailing the real accused in the case. Karan has to woo her to get his hands on the crucial letters that can exonerate his father.

Meanwhile, Karan falls for Asha, a reporter at the Deccan Times played by Madhubala. He stays at a boarding house run by Asha and her aunt. Asha aids Karan in his fight to get the truth exposed, but it is only Jaywant's 'fallen' woman who can make the real difference in the case.

Eventually, Kishori gets her chance at redemption after being part of a miscarriage of justice for so long. As the film progresses and Kishori becomes repentant, her appearance also undergoes a change. Nalini Jaywant delivers the crucial piece of evidence, a handwritten letter, in a conservative sari before her rival for Karan's love, Asha. It is a far cry from the elaborate costumes she had worn as she serenaded customers in the brothel, as seen in a number of SD Burman compositions sung by Asha Bhosle and written by Majrooh Sultanpuri.

With her delicate, doll-like features, Nalini Jaywant began her career as a child artiste even before her famous cousin Shobhana Samarth joined films. Her first film was Mehboob Khan's Bahen (1941), with Sheikh Mukhtar, and she became a leading lady with films like Samadhi (1950) and Sangram (1950) opposite Ashok Kumar, the biggest star of those days. After Rahi (1953) and Munimji (1955), Nalini Jaywant got a final opportunity to act opposite Dev Anand.

In Kala Pani, she won her only Filmfare award, beating out Lalita Pawar in Parvarish and Leela Chitnis in Sadhana. Her grand confrontation scene with Karan and the song ' Jab Naam-E-Mohabbat Leke' are prime examples of the hurt and betrayal she endures as Kishori, which leads her to reconsider her past actions.

After Kala Pani, Nalini Jaywant's film roles became scarce. She acted in a handful of roles in the 1960s, returning only for Nastik (1983) and Waapsi (1986). For the last two decades of her life, she remained a recluse at her Chembur bungalow in Mumbai, living only with her two dogs after her second husband Prabhu Dayal passed away. She died of a heart attack at age 84 and was cremated by a distant relative. For someone with such starry beginnings filled with such promise, it was a forlorn end indeed.