With inimitable elan, the late veteran Nadira recommended ‘Mud mud ke na dekh, mud mud ke’ (Don’t turn back and look) in her famous song-and-dance number from ‘Shree 420’; but I can’t help but revisit memories of Nadira every December 5. She was born on this day in 1932.
For the uninitiated, Nadira was the fiery princess who was tamed by a commoner (Dilip Kumar) in Mehboob Khan’s technicolour Aan (1952); the sultry Maya who waylaid Raj Kapoor in the black-and-white classic Shree 420 (1955) and the soft-hearted-but-iron-handed mother of an unwed pregnant girl in Julie (1975). Her award-winning performance in Julie was an arresting amalgam of steel and sensitivity.
1983. I interviewed Nadira for the first time at her Peddar Road apartment in Vasundhara building where she lived for over half a century right until her death in 2006. Her room was igloo-cold; she liked to keep the air conditioner running constantly to mute the din caused by the traffic on the arterial road below her flat. Nadira hollered to her maid: “A shot of whiskey with water for me, and a glass of drinking chocolate for this bachcha (child).” Turning to me, she quipped, “You don’t look like you drink anything kadwa (bitter). And come closer and sit comfortably. I won’t seduce you.” I was palpably rattled and she laughed her head off.
As I grew to know her, however, I realised she was one of the most beautiful people I have met. In her very second meeting with me, Nadira insisted I call her Farhat but I couldn’t do so and always addressed her as Nadiraji even after becoming her friend and eventually her son as she chose to call me. I related to her sentimentality as well as her acerbic humour. We both enjoyed the fact that the other had an eye for spotting the absurd among the mundane. I recall her telling me that she saw a famous actor with his beautiful mother-in-law once and spontaneously ejaculated, “What a lovely couple” and fled even as he turned red.
She was an articulate woman with lacerating wit, but she was also overflowing with love, and was much loved herself by her neighbours in her apartment block and the many friends she had cultivated both within and outside the film industry — Nimmi, Shyama, Shammi, Deepti Naval, Anil Virwani, Rati Agnihotri besides her Peddar Road neighbour Tanuja, whom she would refer to as a ‘lift’ friend because she would often hitch a lift in her car.
Nadira’s exhaustive library took pride of place in her sprawling drawing room. She could quote liberally from poets as diverse as Keats and Mirza Ghalib. My first book, The Hundred Luminaries Of Hindi Cinema, found a prominent place on her shelves. She gave me a one-rupee coin at the release of the book as aashirwad (blessing) which I lost, but she preserved everything I gave her carefully. One day she called me to say, “Each time I open a drawer, I find a love card you have scribbled to me, beta. You make me happy.”
After the death of the famous columnist Devyani Chaubal, who wrote for Movie the magazine I edited, I convinced Nadira in the mid ’90s to step in her shoes. Nadira’s Nuggets, as her column was named, became a huge success and Nadira, always ready to compliment another, said, “Mehboob Khan was my mentor in acting, you are my mentor in film journalism.”
I could discuss films with her for hours. She would affectionately complain that Raj Kapoor would be lavish with his love and miserly with his money and she had to chase him for her rakhi money till eventually Krishna bhabhi would intervene and send the money across with her driver.
Raj Kapoor reminds me, I escorted Nadira to the premiere of RK’s Prem Granth. While climbing the stairs of Minerva theatre, Nadira got emotional and sniffed into the white lace kerchief she always carried with her. The theatre, she told me, brought back memories of a film, Sipahsilar, that she had done as the heroine of Shammi Kapoor (he had a stake in Minerva theatre).
Nadira could never forget her past. She recounted how difficult it was for her divorced mother to make ends meet — her grandpa would instruct a young Nadira and her brother to ask the paani puri vendor to fill the puris to the brim with paani (spicy water), so that their bellies were full.
She would often raise a finger skywards and tell God, “Sonny, you have a lot of answering to do when I get up there.”
I hope she has found her answers.