In one of those coincidences so beloved of the movies, I was leafing through a just-published volume on Waheeda Rehman when the news of veteran actress Nanda’s passing came in.
In Waheeda’s own words, Nanda and she were “close” friends, and had “some crazy times together”. The references to Nanda, who died Tuesday morning of a heart attack in her Mumbai home at 75, are brimming with affection: of films done together, sharing rooms and bathrooms, and good times and bad.
But the difference between Waheeda and Nanda was stark: the former has remained in the public eye, the latter vanished after she quit films in early ’80s, interacting only with a shrinking circle of friends (Waheeda remained a confidante). There were rumours of a brief entanglement and a public engagement with director Manmohan Desai. But Desai’s untimely death pushed Nanda deeper into her isolation. She never married.
The ’60s may have seen Nanda on the top, sharing the pinnacle with her contemporaries — Asha Parekh, Sadhana, Saira Banu — but she had packed in several years and scores of films by then. She did her first film Mandir in 1948 and became an instant hit as the lively, “chulbuli” Baby Nanda. Unlike many child stars who try desperately to break into the adult arena and fail, Nanda managed to work right through the ’50s in a variety of supporting roles (Choti Behen, Dulhan). She held her own till she reached the ’60s, turned into a triumphant lead actress and delivered a series of hits.
Her stints opposite Dev Anand (who liked calling her ‘Nandu’) in Hum Dono and Teen Deviyaan took her to the top and cemented her position as someone who could play the good wife and spirited young girl, both. But the film that gave her a much-needed change of image was Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) alongside a dazzling Shashi Kapoor, in which she plays a Westernised young girl. In the evergreen ditty Yeh Sama she gyrates in a white satin gown, with Kapoor looking on wide-eyed: the song became a rage, so did the pair. The film allowed Kapoor to break his jinx as a flop actor and Nanda to finally claim that she could do something other than be just sweet and demure.
She was cast type again in Ittefaq (1969) in which Rajesh Khanna plays a killer on the run. The film, directed by B R Chopra, was made famous by the fact that it was a songless thriller. I watched it again today, and was struck again by how natural Nanda is, in her single costume but layered role of a nervous housewife trying to keep a supposed murderer at bay. Everyone else in the film gets a chance to switch locations while she is confined to a house: Is she as innocent as she looks, or is there something else going on?
Nanda’s trademark look — a back-combed tumble of curls, a long plait or a low bun, heavy kajal fishtailing out and an occasional indeterminate fringe accompanied continued…