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The Elusive Nanda

March 25, 2024 | By

Nanda’s sweet innocence made her the nation’s favourite. On her 10th death anniversary, Anuradha Warrier revisits some of her best performances

Nanda in Kaise Kahoon

The vulnerable sweetness – Nanda in Kaise Kahoon

Nanda had a career spanning over two decades. While it was weepfests like Bhabhi and Chhoti Bahen or melodramas like Jab Jab Phool Khile, where she donned a western avatar that brought her fame and made her one of the highest paid actresses of her time, she had a vulnerable sweetness and more talent than the roles she was offered demanded.

Born Nandini Karnataki in a showbiz family, it was no surprise when she donned the grease paint while she was still a child. Her father, Master Vinayak was a well-known Marathi and Hindi actor/producer/director. Her debut was a film called Mandir, directed by her father, in which she essayed the role of a boy. Nanda was, however, a reluctant actress, upset at having to miss school to face the camera.

But when her father suddenly passed away in August 1947, Nanda had no other option but to be the breadwinner of the family. Her mother and six siblings depended on her. Luckily, Mandir released in 1948, and Nanda began getting offers in both Marathi and Hindi films. She even acted as a heroine in a few Marathi films. It was V Shantaram, her father’s maternal cousin, who offered her a lead role in Rajkamal’s Toofan aur Diya opposite Rajendra Kumar. This film dealt with the trials and tribulations of a pair of orphaned siblings. Satish Vyas played the role of her brother. The film was an average grosser, but real success didn’t come her way until much later.  Until then, she played minor roles – the hero’s sister, or a love interest with not much to do except look pretty.

It was AVM Productions’ Bhabhi (1957), the remake of Kuladaivam (1956) that brought success to her door. Nanda played a child widow, unaware of her marriage. Other roles, both supporting and second lead, followed in quick succession, Nanda was becoming famous for playing the sweet, innocent girl next door.

Then, she was offered the titular role of Chhoti Bahen (1959). The film’s catapulted the actress into the big league. But Nanda never forgot her struggles; she was quick to work with newcomers when other actresses wouldn’t. Shashi Kapoor always spoke of Nanda with gratitude – she signed eight films with him at a time he was considered box-office poison. Their biggest hit was the 1965 blockbuster Jab Jab Phool Khile. Shashi Kapoor was not the only ‘new’ hero she worked with: while Sadhana and Mala Sinha had refused the role, she signed her career-best film Ittefaq with then-newcomer Rajesh Khanna.

Unfortunately, her films in the early 70s were not very successful. Nothing if not dignified, Nanda eased into semi-retirement. Until Esmayeel Shroff offered her a role in Ahista Ahista (1981).

Today, on her 10th death anniversary, five performances of Nanda’s that showcase her versatility.

Chhoti Bahen (1959)

Nanda’s appeal has always been her innocence. In this film, playing the titular little sister, Nanda became a star. Fans sent her rakhis; she became the nation’s little sister. The song Bhaiya mere raakhi ke bandhan ko nibhana became the nation’s Raksha Bandhan song for all times. Her trial and tribulations in the film – and there were many: a brother’s rejection; a malicious sister-in-law; blindness – made the audiences weep for, and with, her.

Hum Dono (1961)

The author-backed ‘heroine’ role might have belonged to Sadhana, but Nanda brought a vulnerability to her role as the loving wife of an army major, who’s perplexed by his distant behaviour when he returns from the battlefield. Unaware that she’s living with his double, her confusion and sadness as she feels continually rejected by him tugged at the audience’s heart. The bhajan, Allah tero naam, still resonates with the mothers, wives, sisters and daughters of the men in our armed forces, as they beg the deity for their men’s safe return.

Dev Anand had offered her the role of his younger sister in Kala Bazaar (1960) after several heroines had rejected the role. Initially, Nanda rejected it too; if she played Dev Anand’s sister, she would never be able to be his heroine. Dev promised her that he would sign her as his heroine in his next film, a promise the gentleman actor kept.

Jab Jab Phool Khile

Nanda in Jab Jab Phool Khile

Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965)

Nanda’s willingness to sign films with newcomers would pay off with this blockbuster hit. While their earlier films hadn’t done too well, her role as the spoilt daughter of a rich man who falls in love with a poor shikarawala (Shashi Kapoor) brought her to the pinnacle of her career. This was the 60s – colour and glamour became synonymous with films, and Nanda embraced the bouffants and glamourous gowns with alacrity. The sultry Ye sama sama hain suhaana is still a perennial favourite among old Hindi film music aficionados.

Ittefaq (1969)

This songless film was definitely Nanda’s tour de force. She turned in a bravura performance as a housewife trapped inside her home with an escaped convict. Her finely nuanced performance was a revelation for many as she held her own against Rajesh Khanna’s intense, gritty turn as a man on the run. Ittefaq’s success was also largely due to Nanda’s reputation as the ‘good girl’.

Joru ka Ghulam (1972)

Both Ittefaq and The Train were signed when Rajesh Khanna was still a newcomer, though by the time The Train released, he had become a superstar. Then, the duo starred together in this situational comedy where Nanda had the author-backed role of a daughter who lies about her husband’s prospects to impress her father (Om Prakash), and ends up in situations that are difficult to extricate herself from. Khanna played the titular Ghulam with verve. The film was a clean comedy and Nanda’s vulnerability helped immensely in making the audience sympathise with her.

Ahista Ahista (1981)

After a cameo in Manoj Kumar’s Shor (1972), Nanda eased into retirement. Nearly a decade later, she would surprise the audience by returning in Esmayeel Shroff’s remake of the Kannada blockbuster, Gejje Puje (1969). Nanda essayed the sympathetic role of an aging Devadasi, who wants to ensure that her daughter is educated and unlike her, not be forced to take up an accursed profession. Circumstances bring the mother and daughter to a tragic end. The film, while insipid and a failure at the box office, was elevated by the performances – Nanda, Padmini Kolhapure (as the daughter) and Shammi Kapoor.

Nanda did only two more films after this before retiring gracefully; Raj Kapoor’s last film, Prem Rog (1982) and Mazdoor (1983). Coincidentally, she played Padmini Kolhapure’s mother in all three films. After her engagement with director Manmohan Desai ended tragically with the latter’s accidental death, Nanda shut herself off from the world, preferring to live with her memories.

More Must Read in Silhouette

Jeevan Ka Matlab To Aana Aur Jaana Hai: Remembering Nanda

Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai – In Conversation with Yasir Abbasi

Traversing the Two Worlds of Mainstream and Art: Shashi Kapoor’s Unexampled Journey

The Spontaneity of Nutan That Rose Above ‘Acting’

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Anuradha Warrier is an editor by profession, a writer by inclination, and is passionate about books, music and films, all of which she writes about on her blog, Conversations over Chai.
All Posts of Anuradha Warrier

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2 thoughts on “The Elusive Nanda

  • N.S.Rajan

    Nanda was the quintessential “Girl next door” type of heroine. She had a captivating, coy smile that could floor the toughest of heroes. In her early films, she often played a mischievous girl (Tai lagake mana ban gaye Janab Hero”, ‘Bhabhi’ 1957), necessarily a secondary role, until she began to assert her own presence with her outstanding acting talent in a few good roles. Unfortunately there are too many films in which she had to share the screen with the likes of Waheeda, Sadhana, Mala Sinha, Simi among others. But she always succeeded in leaving her stamp on the film with her competent acting and her manner of ‘living’ her roles, despite the presence of other leading actors. Its hardly surprising that Shashi Kapoor held her in great regard, surely a high benchmark of esteem.
    Thank you for this write up on her death anniversary and recalling the good person that she was.

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