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Performer par excellence: The bold and beautiful Nalini Jaywant

As part of our series on women in cinema featuring actresses forgotten by time, we look at the career of Nalini Jaywant who gave many a leading lady a run for her money.

Nalini Jaywant in a still from Bombay Race Course (1965)

Sukhpreet Kahlon

Nalini Jaywant was the first cousin of actress Shobhana Samarth, mother of actresses Nutan and Tanuja and grandmother of Kajol and Mohnish Bahl.

Shobhana Samarth had entered the film industry in 1935 and, at the age of 14, Nalini Jaywant was offered a role by producer Chimanbhai Desai in the film Radhika (1941), directed by his son Virendra.

The film was not successful, but in the same year, Nalini Jaywant also starred in Mehboob Khan’s Bahen, playing the sister of Shaikh Mukhtar. The film was a big hit.

Nalini Jaywant was good-looking, with a beautiful face and expressive eyes. She had travelled quite a bit, as a result of which her language and diction did not bear any trace of a Marathi accent. As described by film historian and memorabilia collector Zafar Aabid Balani, she spoke ‘saaf [unaccented]' Hindi, a quality that both Nutan and Tanuja also possessed.

Nalini Jaywant started to get noticed by filmmakers and came to be known for her performances. When she was barely 19, she married Virendra Desai, who was much older to her and already married and a father to boot, according to film historian and blogger Shishir Krishna Sharma, but the marriage was not successful and they separated within a few years.

Describing the fallout of the unsuccessful marriage, Balani said, “Nalini Jaywant became very serious about her career after this. Marriage made her very strong and the industry was full of men who would give her work.” 

Like her cousin Shobhana Samarth, Nalini Jaywant was bold and dated men openly. This boldness translated on screen as well, as she wore a swimsuit in the film Sangram (1950) opposite Ashok Kumar. A dozen years earlier, Meenakshi Shirodkar, grandmother of actresses Shilpa and Namrata Shirodkar, had become the first Indian actress to wear a swimsuit in the Marathi/Hindi bilingual Brahmachari (1938). Nonetheless, Nalini Jaywant was one of the early few to don the outfit on screen. Naturally, an image of boldness was created for her.

Sangram featured Ashok Kumar in a negative role and ushered in the theme where the father is a police officer and the son a criminal, which was to be repeated in numerous films, including, most famously, in Ramesh Sippy's Shakti (1982), starring Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.

Ashok Kumar romancing Nalini Jaywant in Naaz (1954)

Nalini Jaywant went on to do several films opposite Ashok Kumar, including Mr X (1957), the film that inspired the Anil Kapoor-Sridevi hit Mr India (1987). In an interview many years later, Ashok Kumar also admitted that he was in a relationship with his co-star for almost three years.

Nalini Jaywant also acted alongside Dev Anand in films like Rahi (1953), Munimji (1955) and Kala Pani (1958). In Kala Pani, she worked hard to perform the mujras choreographed by Lachhu Maharaj. Though not a natural, she performed the dances beautifully and won the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actress for the film.

Recalling her performances, Balani said, “In Kala Pani and Durgesh Nandini (1956), she was not the heroine of the film, but she outshone the heroines in both because of the quality of her acting.”

It is interesting that in all these films, Nalini Jaywant's character had the pivotal role. Durgesh Nandini, based on a novel by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, was a historical romance story featuring a love triangle and starring Pradeep Kumar, Bina Rai and Ajit as well. Yet, Nalini Jaywant had a strong role, one that allowed her to display her histrionic range. It was the first time she was cast in a film with Pradeep Kumar and she gave one of the finest performances of her career.

Always concerned about her image in films, the actress never shied away from trying different roles. In Shikast (1953), she was cast opposite Dilip Kumar. Balani recalled that someone asked if it worried her that she had been cast opposite such a big star. Nalini Jaywant's response was characteristically crisp: “So what? He has his role and I have mine. He knows about his image and I know best about my image.”

She was a quality performer whose performance was heightened by strong roles.

As a heroine, she did many films with second husband Prabhu Dayal. But her most frequent co-stars were Ashok Kumar and Ajit, with whom she did 11 and 10 films, respectively.

She also made some odd choices such as Railway Platform (1955), Girls Hostel (1962), and Bombay Race Course (1965), films which were not great and were not made by big banners either. Anokha Pyar (1948), Nastik (1954), and Milan (1958) are among her memorable roles.

With Amitabh Bachchan and Pran in Nastik (1983)

In characteristic style, Nalini Jaywant decided her own retirement, choosing not to do film roles after the mid-1960s. She did a small role in the 1983 remake of her film Nastik.

In later years, the actress became a recluse and stayed away from people. Zafar Balani said he tried to meet her several times when she was living in Chembur, a suburb of Mumbai, but she steadfastly refused to be recognized, telling anyone who did so that she was not the actress Nalini Jaywant.

With deep admiration, Balani speaks of her as a very strong woman who was not one to live in the past.

Balani did get a chance to ask Nutan about her aunt and, according to him, the great actress said she took pride in being related to Nalini Jaywant.

Zafar Aabid Balani is the author of Sadabahar Cinema. He is currently working on a book on chorus girls in the Hindi film industry. Readers can access his articles and collection of film memorabilia on his website http://dastaan-thememoirs.com/