'So close yet so far': Did Nanda's tragic love story lead to her death?

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·9-min read

Kabhi kisiko muqammil jahan nahin milta...

Hers was the face of innocence. Men wanted to protect her and women emulate her. In an endearing way, Nanda’s vulnerability worked as her strength. Raksha Bandhan is synonymous with her doting ditty Bhaiyya mere rakhi ke bandhon ko nibhana from Choti Bahen. Sahir Ludhianvi’s anthem for India – Allah tero naam Ishwar tero naam from Hum Dono – owes its serenity as much as to Lata Mangeshkar’s distilled voice as it does to Nanda’s pristine presence.

The poignant Ek pyaar ka nagma hai filmed on her in Manoj Kumar’s Shor celebrated her as a beloved and mother. Ideal sister, ideal wife, ideal mother… Nanda, with her gentle demeanor, epitomized the ideal Indian woman.

But the personal life of the star was far from idyllic. Having taken on the responsibility of looking after her family as Baby Nanda, she remained a committed provider through her adult years. With stardom there came a hundred suitors but none could win her over. Spring did come, though a tad late in her life, when she finally accepted filmmaker Manmohan Desai’s proposal, her admirer since decades.

Sadly, their engagement in 1992 couldn’t culminate in marriage. Her mother’s ill-health kept Nanda by her side through 1993. Meanwhile, Desai too was said to be battling financial and mental issues. In March 1994, the noted filmmaker fell off the terrace leaving behind a devastated Nanda. Since then her life acquired a monotone.

Opting to dress only in white, she retreated from the razzle dazzle. Just close friends and family comprised her world. Who knew that when Nida Fazli wrote the ghazal Kabhi kisiko muqammil jahan nahin milta for Nanda in Ahista Ahista, it would become the watershed of her life. Revisiting the tragic demise of a beautiful dream…

Nanda (original name Nandini) was the third child of renowned Hindi and Marathi filmmaker Vinayak Damodar Karnatki’s seven children. Her siblings were Meena, Subhash, Prafull, Jaymala and Mangala (twins), Bharati and Jayaprakash.

One day, Vinayak Karnataki, who was making Mandir (1948) featuring Lata Mangeshkar, took along five-year-old Nanda to the set. She was made to dress as a boy and enact a few scenes. It was perhaps a preview of her turning breadwinner for the family soon.

As luck would have it, Karnataki, 46, passed away on August 19, 1947 due to a heart problem. To pay off his alleged debts the family’s bungalow and cars were sold off. Their mother Sushila, hardly 40, found it hard to survive with seven kids. Thankfully, Mandir was released and ‘Baby Nanda’ won much love from the audience.

To support the family, she acted as a child artiste in more Marathi films including Jagat Guru Shankaracharya, Kuldaivat and the Hindi film Angaray (played Nargis’ childhood) in the early ‘50s. She went on to play the heroine in Marathi films including the hit Shevgacha Shenga (1955).

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SCREEN GODDESS

Nanda got a break in Hindi films in filmmaker and uncle V Shantaram’s Toofan Aur Deeya (1956) opposite Rajendra Kumar. The film was a hit with the popular track Mera bhaiyya hai deewana. In AVMs Bhabhi (1957), she played a child widow. The song Chali chali re patang meri chali re was a rage.

This was followed by Prasad’s Choti Bahen (1959), where she played Mehmood’s visually impaired sister. Her character as a sister in the film was so winsome that fans began sending her rakhis on the festival, which she’d autograph and send back.

Nanda played a sister yet again opposite Dev Anand in Kala Bazar (1960). But as promised by him, she was later romantically cast as his wife in Hum Dono (1961).

Through the ‘60s, films like Teen Deviyan, Dhool Ka Phool, Gumnam and The Train made her part of the elite club. A significant film was Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) opposite Shashi Kapoor, where she shed her conventional yards to slip in slinky gowns. Yeh sama sama hai yeh pyaar ka is still enjoyed for its dreamy vibe. Interestingly, the Shashi Kapoor-Nanda starrer inspired Aamir Khan’s Raja Hindustani three decades later.

Chiffon saree thrown sensuously around her, Nanda was all oomph in the thriller Ittefaq (1969). To further step out of her comfort zone, she played a drug addict in Naya Nasha (1973).

Prem Rog
Prem Rog

Her gravitas as an actor was witnessed in the ’80s, when she played the aging devdasi in Ahista Ahista, as Dilip Kumar’s supportive wife in Mazdoor and as the anguished mother in Raj Kapoor’s Prem Rog.

Mention must be made of Manoj Kumar’s Shor (1972) in which she had a short-lived role but nevertheless immortalized the Ek pyaar ja nagma hai track.

AN AFFAIR TO REMEMBER

Though there were no rumours of link-ups, Nanda did receive proposals from some heroes but she found them ‘temperamentally different’.

Blockbuster filmmaker, Manmohan Desai, who regaled audiences with megahits like Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish, Naseeb and Coolie, was a huge fan of Nanda. As a young man, he’d park his car and keep staring at her posters. So obsessed he was with her, that he’d often shoot near Nanda’s bungalow in Bandra in the hope of catching a glimpse of her. In the ’60s, he’d offered her Budtameez, Kismat and Sachaa Jhutha but she’d declined them.

It’s said Desai married Jeevanprabha (she passed away in 1979) because she resembled Nanda and that she was aware of his fascination for her. Supposedly, he cast Indrani Mukherjee in his films given her resemblance to Nanda.

Decades later after Jeevan’s demise, Waheeda Rehman invited Nanda home saying that filmmakers Yash Chopra and Manmohan Desai would also be coming for dinner. Desai proposed to Nanda there. Reportedly, they got engaged on June 18, 1992 in son Ketan Desai’s house.

“This phase was the shortest and the sweetest phase of my life. I came to know what love is… I found the reason to live. Though Manji and I never worked together, we fell in love with each other. ‘You are like a goddess. I am fortunate to have you in my life’ he’d tell me,” Nanda was quoted saying in a rare interview.

They were supposed to get married when Nanda’s mother was diagnosed with cancer. The actor chose to be by her side. She passed away in 1993.

Desai celebrated his 57th birthday on February 26, 1994. On March 1, 1994, he spoke to fiancée Nanda in the morning. Ironically, he spoke of buying a bungalow in Bandra and his future plans.

That afternoon he visited his office in Gaiwadi, Charni Road. He sent out thank you notes to those who’d wished him on his birthday. After attending a music sitting, the filmmaker went to the terrace to take a break. Reportedly, he sat on the parapet, lost his balance and fell.

There were speculations whether it was an accident or suicide. Reportedly, there was talk of him being involved in a family property dispute and facing financial problems. Manmohan Desai was also suffering from chronic back pain and depression following the debacle of Anmol (1993), his last directorial.

When Nanda saw him for the last time at the hospital, she was shocked. That moment something died in her too.

LIFE AFTER ‘MANJI’

After Desai’s death, she lived the life of a ‘sanyasin’. Nanda took to wearing white. On Desai’s birth and death anniversaries she’d unfailingly prepare his favourite dishes and perform puja. She stopped attending social events altogether. After 7pm, she would not meet anyone or entertain calls. She’d have early dinner and retire to her room to read or watch TV. She’d sleep with bhajans playing on the recorder, sometimes through the night.

But yes, she loved travelling abroad, relished exotic food and solitaires. She also enjoyed watching movies on home theatre. Colleagues including Waheeda Rehman, Saira Banu, Asha Parekh, Helen and Sadhana formed her inner circle.

FINAL FAREWELL

Nanda lived on the 14th floor of the plush Quarterdeck building in Versova. As per routine, every day after breakfast at 10 am, she’d go down to the 12th floor apartment, also hers, to have coffee.

On the morning of 25 March 2014, when she didn’t come down for long, her maid went to check on her only to find her lying on the floor outside the bathroom. The actor had passed away after a massive heart attack. She was 75.

The indifference shown to veterans at their demise often upset Nanda. “Didi had said, ‘When I’m gone don’t call the media. Perform my rites as soon as possible at the Jogeshwari crematorium. Immerse my ashes at the Banganga Temple at Babulnath instead of Nasik (as is the family tradition). Instead of a 13-day mourning period, just observe it for three days’,” revealed brother Jayaprakash who complied with her wishes.

For the last rites, Nanda was made to wear the white salwar kameez that Saira Banu had gifted her on her birthday on 8 January that year. Saira apparently broke down on seeing that, “This was not the occasion for which I had gifted the attire!”

In retrospect, it doesn’t surprise that Mere naseeb mein tu hai ke nahi from Manmohan Desai’s Naseeb was the late Nanda’s favourite track…

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