Article Hindi

Nimmi (1933–2020): Another star fades away from the horizon


An actress who arrived in Hindi cinema only accidentally and chose projects without focusing on her own stardom, Nimmi was the last remnant of perhaps the most glamorous and glorious period of Hindi cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

At a time of extreme crisis, when government websites have rendered deaths mere statistics, it might feel unfair to focus on one passing more than on others. But that is only fair, because Nimmi was different. To a generation that had just awoken from another national calamity, Partition, there were few stars that shone on the horizon of Hindi cinema like Nimmi.

Born Nawab Banu in the erstwhile Agra province of British India, she was the granddaughter of a prosperous zamindar. "My maternal grandfather was a small zamindar in pre-Independence India," she recalled in an interview back in 1993. "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 [as my name] and insisted on calling me Nawab saheb till he died. But my naani [maternal grandmother] called me Banno." 

The Partition of India and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi led to a volatile situation in the erstwhile United Provinces of Agra and Oudh that drove Nimmi and her grandmother to Bombay. As fate would have it, the young Nawab Banu was living with her aunt, Jyoti, married to the singer GM Durrani. It was in Bombay that the stars were to align for the girl, who would also acquire a new name along the way.

In an interview in the Guftagoo series on Rajya Sabha TV, Nimmi characterized her foray into films as a happy accident. "I was in the habit of attending film shoots," she told host Syed Mohammed Irfan. "One such shoot I attended was that of Mehboob Khan's Andaz (1949). I was standing next to Jaddanbai [actress Nargis's mother] while there was a scene of Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor being shot on the balcony."

As Raj Kapoor came down for a conversation with the singer Jaddanbai, he spotted the young girl standing next to her. A few days later, that young girl was on her way to give her 'test' for the young actor-producer-director's next film, Barsaat (1949).

Describing that test in the Guftagoo interview, Nimmi said, "Although I learnt the lines well, and also spoke them well, I was in such a nervous state that I had tears in my eyes while I was saying the dialogues. Thankfully, they thought I was such an emotional artiste!

While the leading lady and man of the film were Nargis and Raj Kapoor, respectively, Barsaat was about as glorious a launch as the new 'Nimmi' could get. As she danced to the famed Shankar-Jaikishan track 'Jiya Beqarar Hai', her association with the RK banner was cast in stone.

 

The 1950s and 1960s were years of intense and explosive growth in Hindi cinema. With directors like K Asif, Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, Raj Kapoor and Chetan Anand and stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Madhubala, Nargis, Nutan, Mala Sinha and Meena Kumari, Hindi cinema was in its arguably most glamorous period.

To set oneself apart and leave a mark on the industry in the midst of such talent is, perhaps, the true quality of Nimmi's artistry. With films like Deedar (1951), Daag (1952) and Aan (1952), she had arrived as a star.

It was at the premiere of Aan in London that she made the international papers. Directed by Mehboob Khan, Aan was one of India's earliest films to enjoy an international premiere. Based on Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew, it was right that the film was premiered at the famed Rialto Theatre in Piccadilly Circus. With Hollywood stars in attendance, Nimmi's role in the flashy epic was praised.

An artwork featuring Nimmi for Aan (1952)

It was also the event where the legend grew that Hollywood star Errol Flynn offered to kiss her hand and the actress refused. Speaking later to The Milwaukee Journal in 1953, Nimmi said, "He admire my little feet. He ask permission to tickle my toes. I say no."

This was also the event where she caught the eye of movie mogul Cecil B DeMille who offered her a chance to join Errol Flynn in Hollywood. Nimmi again refused.

It was to become a signature of the actress, choosing to take the other road, and as the adage goes, it made all the difference. In Amar (1954), she chose another complicated role as a poor woman who is seduced by a calculating lawyer (Dilip Kumar). One of the earliest films to deal with the trauma of rape, it saw Nimmi deliver a powerful performance as the wronged woman. Sadly, the film did not do well at the box office.

Dilip Kumar and Nimmi in Amar (1954)

Yet, the actress saw some of her best performances and biggest hits in 1955 and 1956 with films like Sohrab Modi's Kundan (1955), SU Sunny's Uran Khatola (1955), Raja Nawathe's Basant Bahar (1956) and AVM's Bhai-Bhai (1956). She won the Critics' award for Best Actress for her performance in Bhai-Bhai.

Yet, by the end of the 1950s, Nimmi's stardom was fading. Her decision to refuse the lead role in BR Chopra's Sadhna (1958) was a sign. She also chose to play the role of Rajendra Kumar's sister in Mere Mehboob (1963), even though she was offered the lead role (eventually played by Sadhana).

In an interview, she said, "Mere Mehboob was among the last films I did. In fact, I gave up other films for this one, because I had committed myself to it. I refused Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) because they felt I should drop out of Mere Mehboob as it was only a sister’s role. I disagreed. I refused many other films, too. I was getting married and wanted to start a family immediately."

In another interview with the defunct Movie magazine {quoted by the website upperstall.com}, she said, "I opted for the role of the sister as I felt it was the backbone of the story and had scope for acting. Though it didn’t turn out the way I had visualized it."

Nimmi progressed into marriage with Ali Reza, the writer of her superhit Aan. Yet, there was a thirst for acting within her.

Her last major film was K Asif's monumental project, Love And God (1986), which was to have been the great filmmaker's magnum opus, greater even than his Mughal-e-Azam (1960), but was stalked by death all along. Nimmi was cast as the legendary Laila opposite Guru Dutt playing Majnu. Begun in 1963, the project was first stalled when Guru Dutt died in 1964. In 1970, Asif resumed work on Love And God with Sanjeev Kumar in the role of Majnu; then the filmmaker himself died in 1971. The film was eventually completed and released in 1986, much after Nimmi had moved away from the stage and even Sanjeev Kumar had died. It was a different work sent into a different world.

As Laila in Love And God (1986)

In the 1993 interview, the actress spoke of her disappointment at not getting the right roles. She said, with disarming honesty, "I could have done much better roles. Nobody gave me a really exciting role. The restlessness of an artiste is still there within me despite all these years. I have not been completely satisfied with a single performance of mine."

Her death marks the end of another life that shone brightly on the horizon during one of Hindi cinema's most glorious periods. From the moments of sparkling stardom to the graceful exit, Nimmi was always a star.