I was in college when Nanda made her debut as a leading lady in V Shantaram’s Toofan aur Deeya (1956). She was from an illustrious film family — her father Vinayak Damodar Karnataki, better known as Master Vinayak, was also a fine actor and director. So it wasn’t a surprise that Nanda, who started out as a child artiste, eventually chose acting as her career.
By the time I made my debut in the film industry, Nanda was already an established star. During her career, she worked with several newcomers, including Rajesh Khanna and Shashi Kapoor, and her presence in the film helped them. I was one such newcomer.
The first film we did together was Bedaag (1965). In the early days of the shoot, I would be very nervous and conscious that I was working with a big star; she was, after all, my senior. But she made me feel at home. Her encouragement helped make my journey easier. I remember everyone called her “chhoti behen”, after her blockbuster film by the
Gumnaam was our second film. I was to play the lead but the producer of the film asked me to direct the film as well. That’s when I realised that Nanda was perhaps the most self-aware artistes around. She would be watchful and alert even when the shot was being arranged, carefully making a mental note of what’s going on. When it would be time to shoot the scene, she already knew what she had to do, where she had to stand and how she had to move. In that sense, she understood the craft.
What set Nanda apart was the sense of innocence and purity about her. She also had an air of nobility, which perhaps stemmed from her confidence both on and off screen. To me, she was an embodiment of poet Kalidas’ idea of the ‘perfect woman’ — a beloved, a friend and a sister, all in one. She was my chhoti behen.
But in my memory, the third film we worked on together, Shor (1972), will always occupy a special place. I was to direct the film but Sharmila Tagore, who had agreed to be part of it, backed out at the eleventh hour. Also, my second choice, Smita Patil, wasn’t available to replace Sharmila. That’s when my wife suggested I approach Nanda, our old friend. Since she wasn’t the first one I had approached for the role, I felt it would be an insult to her, my senior. But my wife convinced me, and as an embarrassed man, I went to her house.
When I offered her the role, Nanda said she’d be glad to work with Gumnaam’s director, but on one condition — that she won’t accept any fee. I thought I’d repay her in some way later, but she didn’t allow me to.
She soon retreated from the limelight and became a near-recluse for reasons best known to her. I cannot remember when I last met her, but I can never forget her.