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Bina Rai: The Anarkali we all forgot

A look at Bina Rai and her short, yet memorable film career on her seventh death anniversary today (6 December).

Sonal Pandya

Anarkali is a long-standing and classical character in Indian literature and cinema. Madhubala immortalised the character in K Asif's epic saga Mughal-E-Azam (1960), but not many are aware that she wasn't the first Anarkali to grace the silver screen. The silent era actress Sulochana played her twice in 1928 and 1935 and later Bina Rai enacted the tragic heroine onscreen in Nandlal Jaswantlal's Anarkali (1953).

A leading actor of the 1950s and 1960s, Rai made a winning pair with Pradeep Kumar who played Salim to her Anarkali. The film made her a household name as it became one of the biggest hits of the 1950s.

Written by Nasir Husain, the film is an adaptation of Imtiaz Ali Taj’s 1922 play Anarkali. In Akshay Manwani’s recent book on the filmmaker, he writes, “It was a doomed love story where Anarkali is entombed for having dared to romance the heir to the Mughal throne. Where Asif’s film gave a far more significant role to Emperor Akbar (the film is titled Mughal-E-Azam, meaning ‘The Great Mughal’, which refers to Akbar), in Husain’s film, Akbar is a far more effete figure. The focus is on Anarkali.”

Rai in Anarkali

Furthermore, Manwani pointed out the ways in which the character is portrayed onscreen in both films. “Thematically, the difference between the films is also underscored in the manner Anarkali is asked to dance in the ‘Sheesh Mahal’ in front of the emperor. In the 1953 film, when Bina Rai dances to ‘Mohabbat mein aise kadam dagmagaaye’, she is not in her senses. She has been drugged. She is apologetic as she sings, ‘Mujhe ilzaam na dena meri behoshi ka, meri majboor mohabbat ki yeh rusvaayee hai’ (Do not blame me for not being in my senses, this is the shaming of my helpless love). Contrastingly, in Mughal-E-Azam, Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics for Anarkali, as she is placed before Akbar, are defiant. ‘Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya’ (When in love, why be afraid), Anarkali tells an enraged Akbar."

Born on 4 June 1936, Rai became an actor through a chance application to an advertisement in the newspaper. She won the grand prize of Rs25,000 and an opportunity to play the lead in Kishore Sahu's Kali Ghata (1951).

With roles in Insaniyat (1955), Pyaas (1956) and Taj Mahal (1963), Rai was noticed for her onscreen presence and elegance. She won the Filmfare Award for Best Actress for her performance in Ghunghat (1960) beating out Nutan in Chhalia and ironically, Madhubala in Mughal-E-Azam.

Prem Nath and Bina Rai

Rai married her co-star from Aurat (1953), Prem Nath, and even set up their own production company, P.N. Films. Unfortunately, their film partnership never flourished. Rai stopped acting in the 1960s. Her son Prem Kishen became a producer after acting in a few films while her grandson, Siddharth Malhotra, directed the 2010 film, We Are Family, starring Kajol, Kareena Kapoor and Arjun Rampal. Rai passed away on 6 December 2009, but will remembered forever for her appealing, spirited portrayal of the doomed courtesan Anarkali.