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A dramatic shift in image: Remembering Nanda's negative role in Ittefaq (1969)

On the 50th anniversary of the experimental film Ittefaq (released on 4 October 1969), we take a look at what was a most unusual role for the film's lead actress Nanda.

Sukhpreet Kahlon

During the shooting of Aadmi Aur Insaan (1969), the film's heroine Saira Banu fell ill and had to go overseas for treatment. Unable to shoot the film without her, brothers BR and Yash Chopra came up with the idea of making a quick, low-budget film. Thus was born the idea of making Ittefaq (1969), an adaptation of a Gujarati play, Dhummas, by Pravin Joshi.

Also Read: Sarita Joshi discusses Ittefaq and her play Dhummas

A psychological thriller, the play details events that unfold over one night. Inspired by the play, the Chopras decided to make a film without any songs, an experiment they had previously undertaken in Kanoon (1960). It was also decided to shoot the film within a month, so the filmmakers had to look for artistes who would have a chunk of dates available.

The young Rajesh Khanna had already impressed the judges with his performance during the Talent Hunt and BR Chopra was in any case to make a film with him; so he decided to cast Khanna. At the time, Khanna had completed shooting for Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969) and Raj Khosla‘s Do Raaste (1969). However, as the shooting for Ittefaq ended in a month, it was released before the other two films, breaking Khanna’s dismal run at the box office just a month before Aradhana was to make him a star overnight.

In Ittefaq, Khanna plays painter Dileep Roy who is accused of murdering his wife in a fit of madness. While the doctors are determining whether the madness is real or feigned to escape capital punishment, Roy flees from police custody, landing up at the house of Rekha (Nanda).

Rekha is alone at home as her husband is travelling and her house becomes an ideal place for Roy to wait out the search for him. Rekha tries to alert the police but to no avail. Resigned to providing shelter to a criminal, Rekha befriends him, but when Roy finds the body of her husband Jagmohan (Rajendra Kumar) in the house, the plot thickens.

Most of the action in the film takes place within the house and the drama is reminiscent of a play but the film maintains a taut pace as the audience is kept riveted by the mystery of the motive for the murders. The cinematography highlights the suspense through shadow play and there are point-of-view shots that offer insights into Roy's state of mind.

While Nanda got top billing in the film, Khanna’s performance was praised by everybody who saw his potential. He got into the skin of his character of a possible schizophrenic trying to prove his innocence and while the performance was high-pitched, it was effective nonetheless.

The most unusual aspect of the film, however, is that the villainous roles belong to the women — played by Nanda and Bindu — who are rather understated. Bindu was yet to establish herself as a vamp. Her memorable cabaret number 'Mera Naam Hai Shabnam' in Kati Patang (1970) was still a year away, but the film was a complete change of image for Nanda, who was still associated in the popular memory with a holier-than-thou image, both on and off screen. 

Nanda had previously worked with the Chopras in Dhool Ka Phool (1959) and Kanoon (1960) and Yash Chopra was looking for a heroine who could not be imagined by the audience as being a murderer. It is believed that both Sadhana and Mala Sinha turned the film down as it required them to play a strongly negative role. But Nanda accepted and was, in fact, the ideal choice to play Rekha, stealing the show playing the innocent lamb, subtly manipulating the hapless Roy who is trying to piece together what has happened in his life.

There are subtle, carefully placed clues to Nanda being an adulteress — the sexy way in which her chiffon saree is draped and falls off her shoulder, for instance. The good Nanda would never dress in that manner. Her attempt to seduce Roy with her coy charm also tells the audience that something is not quite right, but no more.

There is one moment in the film, when she talks about her husband, that offers an indication of her predicament. When Roy asks if she loves her husband Jagmohan, she responds, “Jab meri shaadi hone wali thi, mujhe lagta tha ki woh pariyon ke desh ka rajkumar hai. Shaadi ke thodi der baad woh rajkumar gayab ho gaya. Uski jagah reh gaya ek thanda, khushk, bejaan Jagmohan, jise apne kaam ke siva kisi cheez se bhi pyaar na tha [When we were to wed, I thought of him as a fairy prince. But soon after marriage, that prince vanished, leaving behind a cold, aloof, lifeless Jagmohan who didn’t love anything aside from his work]."

We can imagine that it is this cold, aloof husband who drove her into the arms of another man, but aside from this the sequence of events pieced together by the police is neither confirmed nor denied by the characters. Unable to face up to the magnitude of her actions, Rekha commits suicide. As an essentially good woman, this action was necessary to somewhat redeem her in the eyes of the audience.

The significance of Nanda playing a negative character can be gauged from IS Johar’s reaction recounted in a Filmfare magazine article. After the premiere of the film, Johar reportedly told BR Chopra, “Aap satthiya gaye hain [You have lost it]. After her image of an adarsh bahen, beti and patni, you have shown her as a vamp!”

However, the film ran for 15 weeks and was a hit. It resurrected the floundering career of Khanna, whose five films prior to Ittefaq had failed at the box office. The film did more for Khanna's career than for Nanda's, but it will forever remain etched in history for not only the experimentation of the Chopras, but also that of Nanda, who took a huge risk by choosing to play this character.