Why was Nimmi called the ‘un-kissed girl of India’?

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·8-min read

Her beauty was portrait like. Brandy brown eyes, brunette tresses… Nimmi was the ‘Golden Girl’ of the golden era. Serenaded by the triumvirate of Dilip Kumar-Raj Kapoor-Dev Anand, she inspired several fantasies and blockbusters in the ’50s. A close rival of matinee queens Nargis, Madhubala, Meena Kumari and Vyjayanthimala, the petite girl from Agra cut an impressive figure.

Nimmi in Amar
Nimmi in Amar

Pitted against Nargis in Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat, she walked away with the best songs - Jiya bekarar hai and Hawa mein udta jaaye… While Nadira was the female lead of Mehboob Khan’s Aan, Nimmi’s Manjula inspired the film’s international versions Savage Princess and Mangala, Fille des Indes (Mangala, Girl Of India).

After playing muse to several filmmakers, she gave it all up to write her own love story with celebrated writer S Ali Raza. Though the prose of life tends to steal the poetry of dreams, she lived by her choices. Time could not steal her vintage allure, nor her penchant for Urdu shayri. She once summed the fleeting and fleeing years saying, “Waqt ka kaam hai guzarna, guzar hi jaata hai…” Poetic pragmatism this!

Remembering the veteran on her 88th birth anniversary…

Post Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, 15-year-old Nawab Banoo (Nimmi’s original name) left Fatahbad near Agra for Mumbai with her spirited grandmother. Lali (Nimmi’s pet name) had lost her mother, singer/actress Wahidan, at the age of 10.

In Mumbai, they approached renowned filmmaker Mehboob Khan, he having known Nimmi’s mother. The legendary filmmaker put them up in a spare room. “It was comfortable. But the toilet was outside. My servant would stand in the queue and call out when it was my chance,” Nimmi once laughed at the memory of her early days.

Those days Mehboob Khan was shooting Andaz (1949) with Raj Kapoor, Nargis and Dilip Kumar. Raj Kapoor was looking for a fresh face for Barsaat (1949). He saw Nimmi on the set and her earthiness appealed to him. He asked her to come for an audition.

The teenager was so nervous that she started crying during the test. “Rajji thought that I was such an emotional artiste,” she shared. Raj cast her as the mountain girl in Barsaat and gave her the screen name Nimmi.

To make her comfortable, Raj Kapoor got a kalawa (a coloured thread) and asked the nervous Nimmi to tie the thread on his wrist. Since then, Nimmi tied a rakhi to Raj every year. The film’s title song Barsaat mein hum se mile and others like Jiya bekarar hai, Hawa mein udta jaaye and Patli kamar hai, all filmed on Nimmi, made her a household name.

Soon, Nimmi teamed up with Dev Anand for Sazaa (1951) and Aandhiyan (1952) and was impressed by his discipline and reserve. But her blockbuster moment came with Mehboob Khan’s fantasy adventure Aan (1952). Inspired by William Shakespeare’s play Taming Of The Shrew, the film’s cast was top-lined by Dilip Kumar, Prem Nath and Nadira while Nimmi played village belle Mangala, who’s kidnapped by an evil royal.

Reportedly, the first edit of the film had ‘Mangala’ die early. But on the request of distributors, a dream sequence was added to appease Nimmi’s fans.

At the London premiere of Aan, famed actor Errol Flynn bent down to kiss Nimmi’s hand. “I pulled it away saying, ‘Don’t you know I’m an Indian girl?’ The next day newspapers carried the headline, ‘The un-kissed girl of India’,” the actress proudly revealed in one of her last interviews.

The English version of Aan, titled Savage Princess and the French titled Mangala, Fille des Indes (Mangala, Girl Of India) cashed in on her popularity. She also received a couple of Hollywood offers including one from Cecil B DeMille but Nimmi had set her sights back home.

Madhubala, Nimmi and Dilip Kumar in Amar
Madhubala, Nimmi and Dilip Kumar in Amar

Mehboob Khan’s Amar (1954) had her play a milkmaid, who’s raped by a lawyer (Dilip Kumar). Madhubala was the female lead. Out of respect, no one would sit on Madhubala’s chair. Unknowingly, Nimmi, her junior sat on it. Her maid nudged her to get up. But Madhubala sweetly gestured her to sit. This marked the beginning of a great friendship.

“Madhubala’s skin was velvety. She had a long Iranian nose. She was tall and had beautiful hands and feet. Her eyes were ordinary but her smile was extraordinary. Lipstick suited her,” Nimmi described her peer.

Like others, Nimmi too was awed by thespian Dilip Kumar. The duo did five films together in the ’50s - Aan, Amar, Deedar, Daag and Uran Khatola. While their ill-fated love on screen touched audiences, their off-screen friendship caught the fancy of tabloids.

“God has blessed Dilip saab with a maqnatis (magnet). Everyone got pulled towards him… I was also pulled towards him. Mujhe bhi woh bahut pasand the. Unke aashiq hum bhi the. I was his fan too,” Nimmi gushed in one of her last interviews.

Once they were shooting a scene for Aan where Nimmi, who was seated on a horse, had to throw a sword to Dilip Kumar. The tip of the sword hurt him. While Nimmi apologised profusely, Dilip romanticised his ‘hurt’ saying, ‘Hum sochenge zindagi mein ek chot (hurt) aur khayee’. It left Nimmi blushing.

Reportedly, Madhubala once told Nimmi that if she had feelings for Dilip, she’d leave him for her. Apparently, Nimmi’s light-hearted retort was that she didn’t want a husband in charity! “How could I ever be at par with beautiful women like Madhubala? I’d have been left heartbroken had I desired something unattainable,” she claimed in an interview years later.

Nimmi and Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob
Nimmi and Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob

Coming back to her career, an ambitious Nimmi produced the film Danka (1954), while Kundan (1955) with Sunil Dutt, cast her in a double role as a mother and daughter. In 1956, Nimmi’s hits included Basant Bahar and Bhai-Bhai.

What proved costly were some slip-ups like rejecting BR Chopra’s Sadhna (1958) and Raj Khosla’s Woh Kaun Thi? (1964). She was also offered the lead in Mere Mehboob (1963) but she opted for the sister’s role instead. She refused Saraswatichandra (1968) even though her costumes were ready.

Years later, she explained this professional hara-kiri saying, “Mujh pe shaadi ka bhoot sawaar tha!” In 1965, a starry-eyed Nimmi married writer S Ali Raza, who’d written the dialogue of her films Barsaat, Aan and Amar among others.

Her last screen appearances had her play a blind girl in Pooja Ke Phool (1964) and Ashok Kumar’s mute wife in Akashdeep (1965).

K Asif’s Love And God (1986), based on the Laila Majnu legend, was supposed to be an epic role for Nimmi. Sadly, the film was ‘jinxed’. What began in 1963, released 23 years later. It was first shot in black and white with Bharat Bhushan. It was then restarted with Guru Dutt. But he passed away in 1964.

Asif then roped in Sanjeev Kumar. But then the filmmaker passed away in 1971. Later it was edited heavily and released by K. Asif’s wife, Akhtar Asif, in 1986. Incidentally, Sanjeev Kumar passed away in 1985 before the film’s release. What was supposed to be Nimmi’s swan song, was thus reduced to a cut-paste job.

With regards her personal life, apparently co-actor Mukri and Nimmi’s hairdresser played matchmakers between S. Ali Raza and Nimmi. The beautiful actress settled down to a leisurely paced life with her writer husband though she missed the sweat and the sounds of the studios.

“No husband performs aarti of his wife - whether you’re Queen Elizabeth or a star. You have to nibhao. Khushi and ranjh is part of life. Raza saab used to write during the day and enjoy his drinks with friends in the evening. I missed work. Main bewakoof ne kaam chodh diya tha,” she lamented.

Later, the couple shifted from their bungalow in Worli to an apartment in Juhu. Raza passed away in 2007 due to a heart ailment. The couple didn’t have children. But in keeping with her youngest sister’s wish (she passed away when Nimmi was doing Barsaat), Nimmi looked after her son Parvez, now based in the UK.

The veteran led a quiet life, seeking solace in memories. “For an artiste, the saddest, the most miserable thing is when people no longer recognise you. Khuda ka shukr hai… someone or the other recognises me when I step out,” she stated humbly.

The last year of her life was spent being in and out of hospital as she suffered from a breathing problem. Nimmi passed away on 25 March 2020. Her 87-year-old innings culminated in a peaceful end.

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