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Birthday special: How Nawab Banu became Nimmi

As the Barsaat (1949) and Aan (1952) actress turns 85, a closer look at how a fortuitous visit to a film set one day, led to an offer to join the movie industry.

Sonal Pandya

Filmindia magazine called Nimmi’s rise to stardom “a fairy tale”. It’s easy to see why. The actress had a spectacular launch in Hindi cinema under RK Films with Barsaat (1949) with Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Prem Nath. She played the second lead in her first film.

Nimmi was born as Nawab Banu in Agra on 18 February 1933. In a 1993 interview, the actress explained her origins. “My maternal grandfather was a small zamindar in pre-independent India. Those days few people acquired the title of Nawab. My grandfather always craved for one, without success. So, when I was born he gave me the title and insisted on calling me Nawabsaab, till he died. But my nani called me Banu,” she said.

The young Nawab Banu came to visit Mumbai (then Bombay) from Lahore with her aunt Jyothi, the wife of singer GM Durrani. She took the young girl to the sets of Andaz (1949), directed by Mehboob Khan, where a scene was being filmed between Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. Banu’s mother, Wahidan, had acted in Khan’s films in small roles during the 1930s.

When Nimmi turned down Errol Flynn's kiss

On set, she sat next to Jaddanbai, mother of Nargis, who was the leading lady of the film. When Kapoor came over to them during takes, he noticed the newcomer.

“He saw me sitting next to her and asked, ‘Aye ladki naam kya hai tumhara?’ It took me five minutes to utter my name. Few days later he sent across a posh car and asked me to come for an audition. I was so nervous that I started crying during the test. Rajji thought that I was such an emotional artiste,” the actress told Filmfare magazine about her first encounter with the Showman.

The actor-director was looking for a new face to play the simple, naive village belle for his second film and after conducting a few other screen tests, he selected Nawab Banu as his heroine and changed her name to Nimmi for her debut.

With hit songs composed by Shankar-Jaikishan for Barsaat (1949), the film was a success and Nimmi followed up with more memorable film roles in Deedar (1951), Aan (1952) and Kundan (1955).

In 1965, as her acting career was winding down, Nimmi married S Ali Raza, known for his writing on Andaz (1949), Mother India (1957), Saraswatichandra (1968) and Reshma Aur Shera (1971). The actor-comedian Mukhri played matchmaker for two. However, in a television interview show, Guftagoo, she remembered that her makeup artiste, seeing his photo in Filmindia magazine, had remarked to her that she should marry him.

The couple did not have children, though Nimmi adopted her younger sister’s son after her death. Raza died on 1 November 2007.