Why doe-eyed Nimmi was one of Hindi cinema’s last links to the Golden Age

Shaikh Ayaz
Nimmi dead

Nimmi passed away on Wednesday. (Express archive photo)

There was a time when you could be an ordinary fan-girl (think of it as Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi unspooling in real life) visiting a film shoot and the director spots you. The next you know, you are being launched in a magnum opus as an actress. This really happened to Nimmi, the veteran star of the 1950s, who passed away aged 87 on March 25 after a prolonged illness. The story goes that she had landed up on the sets of Andaz (1949). Leading men Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were there, so was Nargis. When Raj Kapoor saw her, he knew he had found the right face for his next film, Barsaat (1949). RK is famous for giving Bollywood many talents. His discoveries, from Nimmi to Dimple Kapadia, have set our screens ablaze. A passionate and musical tale of romance, Barsaat was intrinsically a Raj Kapoor-Nargis love vehicle, but Premnath who played Kapoor's sidekick had to have a heroine. The two urban boys have come to the hills for a vacay. Ergo, Nimmi was duly cast as an innocent mountain girl opposite Premnath after a tense audition in which, she confessed decades later (in an interview to Filmfare) that she was "so nervous that I started crying during the test. Rajji thought that I was such an emotional artiste."

A girl from Agra

Barsaat was a huge hit, turning the lucky debutant into an overnight star. For Nimmi, born Nawab Banoo in Agra, there was no looking back. She went on to work with the biggest stars and directors of her generation. If Barsaat gave Nimmi her first taste of success, Mehboob Khan's Aan (1952) made her a household name. She herself considered Aan as one of her landmark films. Auteur Mehboob Khan spared no expense in its making. "Although Nadira was its heroine the audiences loved my role (a village belle whose love for Dilip Kumar's character remains unreciprocated). It made me very popular," she said in a later interview. She acted alongside all the great male superstars — most famously with Dilip Kumar in Aan, Daag, Deedar and Amar, Dev Anand in Sazaa and Aandhiyan, with Bharat Bhushan in Basant Bahar and Sohni Mahiwal and with Ashok Kumar in Bhai-Bhai. Of all the heroes, her chemistry with Dilip Kumar (they acted in five hits together) remained the most special. So much so that the grapevine began linking her with the thespian. By all accounts, she was smitten by him. "God has blessed Dilip saab with magnet," she admitted to Filmfare magazine in 2016. "Everyone got pulled towards him. I was his fan too." Kumar's wife Saira Banu tweeted, "Dilip sahab and I are feeling a deep sense of personal loss at the passing away of our beloved Nimmiji. She spent good time with my mother Naseem Banu and through my mother and my husband, I built a bond with her. Such stalwarts are rare." Even though Raj Kapoor gave Nimmi her first break as well as her stage name, she didn't work much with the legendary showman after Barsaat and Banwara. In his condolence tweet, however, Rishi Kapoor rightly called her a "part of the RK family." The doe-eyed beauty worked with a roster of co-stars that included the Golden Era greats like Madhubala, Nargis, Shyama, Meena Kumari and Sadhana, with whom she delivered the hit, Mere Mehboob.

Nimmi

Nimmi in Udan Khatola. (Express archive photo)

Hollywood dreams

Mere Mehboob in 1963 was one of Nimmi's last great appearances. By mid-60s, she had faded out of public view. Her dream of working with the legendary K. Asif had remained unfulfilled as the latter's ambitious Love and God got shelved. Not many know that K. Asif was simultaneously making Laila Majnun in black and white with Nimmi and Bharat Bhushan alongside Mughal-E-Azam. "Love and God was, in fact, Laila Majnun with minor changes," she recalled, speaking to Rajya Sabha TV. "K. Asif was known for his unfinished projects," she laughed. While at a film premiere in London, she was also offered a few Hollywood projects including one by Cecil B. DeMille. "I am way too Hindustani," she claimed, declining her global destiny. The yesteryear star was married to writer S Ali Raza (of Aan, Mother India and Andaz fame). He died in 2007. Nimmi is survived by her sister's son who she had adopted. According to India Today magazine, "She was was suffering from breathing issues and was admitted to a hospital close to her Juhu home. She had also been losing her memory." But for fans and admirers of studio-era Hindi cinema, Nimmi's memory shall linger on for a long time to come.