The face that launched most of the major male stars of an entire generation has passed away. But what makes Nanda’s sudden demise poignant is that she lived a quiet, contented but active life, in touch with family and close actress friends like Waheeda Rehman and Shammi.
Of late, she was spotted frequently with them at the movies, in a group that included Asha Parekh, Sadhana (her Hum Dono co-star) and Helen.
It was a rare privilege meeting her in 2011 at the persuasion of her homoeopathic physician, though she was a recluse from the media. Cheerful and sweet, she was the epitome of grace, though anyone passing her by on the street would not have recognised this slightly plump lady as the petite child actress-turned-frontrunner star of the ‘60s.
An open book
Forthright about every chapter in her life, including her ill-fated late engagement (Nanda was born on January 8, 1939) to filmmaker Manmohan Desai weeks before his death in 1994, she belonged to a frontrunner generation where work spoke for itself.
But even there, Nanda probably maintained the lowest-profile, and the Internet generation, so to speak, knows next to nothing about this daughter of Marathi and Hindi acting legend Master Vinayak and actress Meenaxi and niece of the legendary V Shantaram.
Losing her father (who incidentally gave Lata Mangeshkar her break in his 1942 Marathi movie Pahili Mangalagaur as actor-singer) at the age of eight, she began acting as child artiste Baby Nanda to support her family, and finally managed to educate all her five siblings.
Her most famous early films included the Satyen Bose classic Jagriti and V Shantaram’s Toofan Aur Diya. Moving to adult supporting roles, she finally broke through in 1959 with Yash Chopra’s debut film Dhool Ka Phool and L V Prasad’s Chhoti Behen. And with B R Chopra’s Kanoon and Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazaar, she entered the big league.
From here, she had a major role in boosting emerging star careers with hits in their struggle phases, like Manoj Kumar (Gumnaam, Bedaag), Dharmendra (Akash Deep, Mera Qusoor Kya Hai), Sanjeev Kumar (Pati Patni), Sanjay Khan (Abhilasha, Beti), Rajesh Khanna (The Train, Ittefaq), Jeetendra (Parivar, Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, Badi Didi) and Shashi Kapoor (eight films including Jab Jab Phool Khile and his debut Char Diwari in 1961). But Nanda made light of this significant achievement with a simple, “I was considered very lucky for them.”
In 1981, when she played a character role in Shashi’s son Kunal’s first film, Ahista Ahista, Shashi’s wife Jennifer made him touch Nanda’s feet, stating, “She is the lady who launched your father.” This was one of her last three roles, and according to Nanda, the most challenging of them, the others being the super-hit Raj Kapoor film Prem Rog (1982) and her first film with Dilip Kumar, Mazdoor (1983), also her last release.
Nanda recalled with a smile how almost a decade after she left movies, Raj Kapoor approached her for his film. “I said I would do the film only if I liked the story, and he just stared at me because people never said that to him. Then he said, ‘You are the first person to ask Raj Kapoor for a story. Okay, done!’ and promptly sent his writer for a narration the next day.”
Despite a string of hits and great performances, Nanda was never considered in the league of great actresses. “We had a branding then, and I was one of the trinity of suffering heroines,” she giggled. “Waheeda Rehman was the suffering girl in roles that needed dancing, Mala Sinha was the glamorous suffering woman, I was the innocent one who suffered. Also, some of my best films as actor — Usne Kaha Tha, Char Diwari, Nartaki and Aaj Aur Kal — did not do too well.” Nevertheless, Nanda broke her image of the innocent woman with her chilling turn as the ruthless and seductive femme fatale in Ittefaq, pleasantly surprising her fans.
Nanda also has a truly unique distinction — she is the only Hindi film actor to have worked with every Dadasaheb Phalke award laureate filmmaker in her time. Taking this revelation lightly, she smiles, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that.”
The list includes V Shantaram (Toofan Aur Diya), Nitin Bose (Nartaki, Umeed), L V Prasad, who produced Chhoti Behen, Hrishikesh Mukherjee (Aashiq), B R Chopra (Kanoon, Dhool Ka Phool, Ittefaq, Mazdoor), Yash Chopra (Dhool Ka Phool, Ittefaq), Raj Kapoor (Prem Rog), and Dev Anand (producer, Hum Dono).
The original pretty woman was one of a kind.