She wasn’t exactly on Sunset Boulevard but pretty close to it. Residing in a row of commodious rooms in Neha Apartments on the Juhu seafront, she didn’t isolate herself but would occasionally venture out to showbiz events, particularly those which belatedly crowned her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
She passed away in a Juhu hospital at the age of 88 on Wednesday of advanced age ailments compounded by a long-standing lung infection. Her niece Bano, cousin Ruhi and trusty domestic help Rana, were by her side when the end came.
Born Nawab Banoo in Agra to Waheedan, a courtesan, singer and actor, and Abdul Hakim a military contractor of Agra, Nimmi acted in approximately 40 films, her career kicking off with the RK banner’s Barsaat in 1949). Raj Kapoor coined the screen name of Nimmi for her. Enacting a guileless shepherd girl who’s seduced by a city slicker, she danced delicately and expertly lip-synced to the song Jiya Beqaraar Hai..., one of Lata Mangeshkar’s earlier chartbusters.
Indeed, the petite-framed, soft-spoken Nimmi’s forte was in incarnating roles in which she was heartbreakingly vulnerable, and was victimised by males. In one classic case this was in Mehboob Khan’s Amar by the eternally spotless Dilip Kumar.
Arguably, Mehboob Khan’s most socially progressive work, Amar was the director’s hard-hitting indictment of rape. Nimmi’s nuanced acting, in fact, outclassed the performances of the lead stars Dilip Kumar and Madhubala.
Subsequently, the movie mogul cast her in India’s first technicolour film, Aan, a period swashbuckler adventure. At its London premiere, Hollywood’s legendary Errol Flynn was so entranced that he tried to kiss her hand, which she withdrew with fright, saying Indian girls don’t accept kisses. Back in India, she was interviewed by The Times of India’s feisty reporter B Seshagiri Rao who described her as “The No Kiss Girl”. That coy epithet stuck, in keeping with a majority of her roles in which she was always showcased as a young woman of Vestal virtues.
The entry into the hallowed circles of the film studios, it is believed, was facilitated by the family relative GM Durrani, a top-of-the-line singer, music composer and actor. Courtesy her instant hit-status with Barsaat, Nimmi featured in cushily-mounted period fantasies and social dramas during the black-and-white era of the 1950s and early ‘60s.
Acknowledged as one of the highest-paid heroines of the time, she teamed up with the iconic triptych Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. Her super-successful pairing with Dilip Kumar – in Deedar, Daag, Uran Khatola, Aan and Amar – made them the most-wanted jodi of the 1950s. As colour and breezy entertainers became the game-changers of the ‘60s, she found herself left out in the cold to a degree. Nevertheless, her latter-day films Kundan and Pooja ke Phool kept her endeared to the audience.
According to her peers, Nimmi sought to avoid those mandatory character roles of the mother, aunty and dai maa, her last two worthwhile appearances being in HS Rawail’s Muslim social Mere Mehboob and K Asif’s Love and God, an ode to Lalia Majnu, which was released in a mangled form. The director, and its original hero Guru Dutt had died while it was in the works. Dutt had been replaced by Sanjeev Kumar who suffered ill-health during its jagged path towards completion.
Nimmi had married writer S Ali Raza circa 1965, after a long-kept secret liaison. Her hairdresser, and comic actor Mukri had played Cupid. Film lore goes that Raza’s father, a noted academic, was against the marriage and thus, their nikaah had to be kept a secret for years.
They had adopted a son, Parvez. A retired businessman, he is settled in Manchester.
Writer Raza and his muse lived in Summit, a bungalow, in Worli. In 2007, Ali Raza passed away soon after losing his eyesight and the surgical complications which followed. The widowed Nimmi, then, moved to Juhu.
According to senior journalist Siraj Syed, Raza had launched two projects which he would direct with Nimmi as the heroine – titled Ghunghat ke Pat Khol, which didn’t go beyond the ‘mahurat’ shot and Ek Akeli, for which some reels were shot and then canned.
To her credit, Nimmi didn’t shy away from accepting unconventional cinema. Proof: KA Abbas’s Char Dil Char Rahen. Occasionally, her social dramas would turn out to be unintended oddities like Pehli Raat in which her bridegroom (Rehman) passes away after an accident on the wedding night but just about manages to consummate the marriage despite head injuries. Hell breaks loose, and her in-laws vilify her as ‘kulta” (immoral woman).
Unshakeable morality, a certain wistfulness and her waifish innocence were her forte, during the 1950s, perhaps emblematic of the immediate post-Independence years. Apocryphal or not, stories go that she refused to act in BR Chopra’s Sadhna (the role of a ‘hired’ courtesan, which eventually went to Vyjayanthimala, and Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? (she didn’t wish to play a trickster ghost).
Her relatives at Neha Apartments today point out that once she quit, she didn’t ever wish to look back. “At most, she would hum the song Mujhe Bhool Gaye Saawariya... picturised on Meena Kumari in Baiju Bawra… or remember the time she would drive all around town in a swanky Chevrolet.”
Down the decades her closest friend remained former actor Nishi Kohli who’d drop by regularly to check on her health.
They add that whenever Nimmi went out she liked to put on her make-up herself and had lately hennaed her hair. Her 88th birthday was celebrated on February 18. That’s one day in her life, her family says, when she would be the happiest.
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