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Saibal Chatterjee: A sweet little waif
March 29, 2014
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Hindi film actress Nanda’s penchant for unconventional material was proven beyond doubt by the fact that she was a part of the first two song-less Hindi films, Kanoon and Ittefaq, both produced by BR Chopra. Saibal Chatterjee pays tribute to the actress

Hindi film actress Nanda, who passed away on Tuesday aged 75, was a fiercely private person even when she was at the peak of her popularity in the Mumbai movie industry. Once she went back into the shadows in the early 1980s, she stayed away from the public eye.

Nanda’s career as a lead actress lasted no longer than a decade and a bit – from the 1960s to the early 1970s – and she never quite attained the status of one who could be described as a diva who set hearts aflutter.

Nanda was nonetheless one of the finest screen performers of her time, a competent, confident and consistent actress who thrived on underplaying her roles in an era in which shrill overacting was usually the norm.

Why is it, then, that Nanda isn’t the kind of cult figure that she should have been? She delivered a string of outstanding performances in commercially successful films such as Chhoti Behen, Bhabhi, Hum Dono, Jab Jab Phool Khile, Teen Deviyan, Gumnaam and Ittefaq.

Yet she could not put her two principal contemporaries, the super talented Waheeda Rehman and the glamorous Sadhana, both of whom remained her lifelong friends, in the shade.

It was a combination of circumstances and her mental make-up that perhaps got in the way of Nanda making the most of her obvious accomplishments.

For one, in the early part of her career, she was stuck with the ‘little sister’ tag, having been launched as a 17-year-old by her uncle V. Shantaram in the 1956 film, Toofan Aur Diya.

It was the saga of an orphaned brother and sister pair that is buffeted by a series of tragic setbacks, including the girl losing her sight.

Pretty much the same plot device was repeated in the LV Prasad-directed Chhoti Behen. In this commercially successful 1959 film, Nanda was cast as sister to two elder brothers, played by Balraj Sahni and Rehman. The character she played goes blind following an accident.

When Dev Anand cast Nanda in Kala Bazar (1960), written and directed by Vijay Anand, she played the sister of the male protagonist. In 1960, Nanda featured in Usne Kaha Tha opposite Sunil Dutt. The Bimal Roy-produced film, adapted from a critically acclaimed Hindi short story about unrequited love and melancholy-tinged heroism, was a box office disaster. But it provided another glimpse of Nanda’s exceptional talent at arousing emotion with the minimum of effort.

It wasn’t until 1965 that Nanda’s demure image gave way to a more aggressively feminine persona, which rode on a trio of hit films – Jab Jab Phool Khile, Gumnaam and Teen Deviyan.

In Jab Jab Phool Khile, in which she was a rich girl who falls in love with a poor Kashmir boatman played by Shashi Kapoor, Nanda performed the seductive Yeh sama sama hai yeh pyaar ka number with great flair and shrugged off the shackles of on-screen coyness that seemed to hold her back.

In Teen Deviyan, she was one of the three women that Dev Anand, as a poet, falls in love with. Nanda was the perfect embodiment of sophisticated sensuality in the timeless duet, Likha hai teri aankhon mein kiska fasana.

Nanda’s penchant for unconventional material was proven beyond doubt by the fact that she was a part of the first two song-less Hindi films, Kanoon and Ittefaq, both produced by BR Chopra.

The courage to follow her instincts stood Nanda in good stead until the very end of her professional career. None of her last three films before she went into self-imposed retirement – Esmayel Shroff’s Ahista Ahista (1981), Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog (1982) and Ravi Chopra’s Mazdoor (1983) – was the kind of formula entertainer that was popular in the 1980s.

The fact that acting was in her blood probably explains why Nanda never felt the need to stretch herself in order to prove her natural talent. Her father was Marathi and Hindi film actor-director Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, popularly known as Master Vinayak.

He died at the age of 41, four days after India became an independent nation. Nanda was only eight years old at the time. She began acting in films to support the family and quickly emerged as a child star with precocious talent.

Nanda acted with most of the leading men of the 1960s, but it was with Shashi Kapoor that she formed a particularly abiding onscreen partnership. She worked with him in his very first film as a leading man, Char Diwari (1961), at a time when no other heroine was willing to do a film with a rank newcomer.

Kapoor’s indebtedness to Nanda translated into a series of eight films, including Mehendi Lagi Mere Haath, Jab Jab Phool Khile, Neend Hamari Khwaab Tumhare, Raja Saab and Rootha Na Karo.

She also shared screen space with Rajesh Khanna at a point of the future superstar’s career where he was only beginning to make his mark. The film was Ittefaq. She delivered two more hits with Rajesh Khanna – The Train and Joroo Ka Ghulam.

She may not have got everything that she deserved, but Nanda, the sweet little waif of Hindi cinema, will be more than just a footnote in Hindi cinema history.

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