In March, it will be the second death anniversary of Nanda. Though she is remembered for her guileless innocence, I remember her for the steel that ran through her spine in certain performances. A few scenes in the second half of Prem Rog belong to Nanda. She plays the quietly suffering wife of a zamindar who routinely beds an outspoken, ‘lower caste’ woman but won’t let his own widowed daughter find love with a poor youth. She has a spectacular melt-down when he threatens to kill her daughter’s lover.
Her standout line is how a man like him won’t mix with those he thinks are beneath him but, “unki auratein chal jaati hai tumko.” She taunts him, about how the standards of morality don’t apply to men and that, “main aaj mar jaaon toh kal ka intezaar nahin karoge...” but because his daughter has found love in widowhood, she must be punished. As he bursts a blood-vessel and storms off, she rages behind him, “Bhagwan meri sunein toh main maangu..tum thakuron ke ghar saat janam tak koi beti paida na ho.” She pulls off the scene without hysteria but a fiery conviction that scorches us.
In another scene, she confronts the family matriarch Shammi Kapoor because he wants the boy who has dared to love his widowed niece, to be beaten up. She tries to reason from behind a bead curtain and then parts it to scream that though a poor boy must be punished for daring to love a high-caste widow, who will avenge her rape within the four walls of her marital home?
In my favourite scene, her daughter’s rapist is in her home and bows down to greet her. Nanda eyeballs him, one brow gently raised and her face without a word conveys, “I know what you did and you won’t get away with it.” The man shamed by her wordless accusation scurries away.
It is said that Raj Kapoor had written this role especially for her because no other actor, could convey her air of faultless breeding, strength and vulnerability.
The one thing her face was stamped over with was character. She was not forgettable. Not easy to be dismissed as a flighty Hindi film heroine because she was always real, deep, soulful. Never really the object of desire but of veneration and devotion. Someone with poised femininity, a voice like a clear spring, wells of unreleased emotion and natural charm.
Yet there was that hint of sensuality just under the surface. Watch her in Gumnam’s rain ditty where she and Manoj Kumar are getting drenched. She is in a churidar kurta, not a hint of skin except for her bare arms but her eyes smoulder, her face oozes passion.
Or Neend Hamari Khwab Tumhare, my favourite Nanda and Shashi Kapoor film where the two play urban Muslims. Both are part of a club-going cool set and she is the pampered, privileged daughter of a liberal father. In this film, she played a young woman who knows how desirable she is and wears that knowledge like perfume. She walks like she is floating on air, she dances uninhibitedly yet gracefully in parties and is not afraid to serenade the man she loves in public. In Bheegi Hui Iss Raat, a beautifully tactile song, she is dressed in a glittering black dress and her face is alive with emotion as she tries to coax a taciturn Shashi Kapoor to romance her.
This was not the Nanda of Chhoti Behen or Bhabhi. Not the perpetually quiet sister or wife. She was her own woman here. Someone unafraid. Free. The transformation began with Jab Jab Phool Khile where she shrugged off domesticated clichedom and wore red stretch pants, gowns and dresses that flirted with her curvy figure, laughed like a school girl and fell in love in Kashmir with a Shikarawala, setting the tone for the Raja Hindustanis and other rip-offs.
The transformation was complete with Ittefaq where she was no longer a girl but a woman who spends a day and a night locked up in a house with a fugitive, trying to escape, trying to seduce him, trying to frame him for a crime she knows everything about but would rather let someone else take the rap for. She was the Hindi film heroine gone wrong, the incorruptible, docile wife who has blood on her hands and can allow lust to take her anywhere, even the darkest regions of her mind.
She was also the tongue-tied daughter of a bully being wooed by Sunil Dutt in Aaj Aur Kal, the girl-next-door of Teen Deviyan, the playful wife of Joru Ka Ghulam, the aching memory of Shor, the childhood sweetheart of Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke, the heart and soul of even under-written characters like that of a sex-worker in Ahista Ahista.
It is in her songs that you see the Nanda even her best roles could not reveal. The Nanda who wanted to sway to life’s music, crinkle her kohl-lined eyes at a man she could adore, smile and let go of everything that was holding her back. Burdened with family responsibilities from a young age, Nanda could never let go in real life.
Could never live the life her films occasionally allowed her to live. She remained alone and after her short-lived engagement with Manmohan Desai ended in a tragedy, she perhaps did not have the heart to trust life again. I remember her most as the wheel-chair bound young girl in Aaj Aur Kal, who decides to walk towards love and freedom. I do not want to presume her life wasn’t full. Or that she was a sad , lost soul. She achieved a lot of success, carried her burdens with grace and quiet dignity. I do wish though, she had lived some of her own dreams too. And serenaded life fearlessly in a glittering black dress and not just for the camera.