The first glam moll

Nadira’s transformation from the haughty, arrogant heroine of Aan to a sophisticated vamp of Shri 420 was amazing. All she wanted was to die with her make-up on, writes Devinder Bir Kaur in a tribute to the actor who passed away on February 9

Nadira in Shri 420
Nadira in Shri 420

Mud mud ke na dekh, mud mud ke...." So sang the young Nadira in Raj Kapoor’s Shri 420. The song became so popular that she was identified with it all her life. And she lived up to the ripe age of 75.

But Nadira believed that Shri 420 was responsible for ruining her career. It was the role of a glamorous moll who pulls hard on her cigarette and leads the hero into the underworld of dons. It changed her overnight from the haughty, arrogant heroine of Aan to a sexy, sophisticated vamp.

Nevertheless, she gave director Raj Kapoor full credit for doing a wonderful job. Afterall, so many vamps came into the industry but none could beat the vamp of Shri 420.

The actreess at a recent function in Mumbai
The actreess at a recent function in Mumbai

And to think that Nadira made her debut as a heroine in another mastercraftsman Mehboob Khan’s film Aan in 1952. Born into a staunch Jewish family, Farhat Ezekiel Nadira (her full name) went to St Anthony’s Convent and planned to become a doctor. But she could not study further as her mother had to leave her job with the Royal Air Force unit after India became free and couldn’t afford to pay her fees. Her parents had already divorced when she was just four and she and her brother were brought up by maternal grandparents. Her mother remarried and had another son. But the second husband threw her out, taking away her baby, and left her to fend for herself. Nadira and her brother went back to her.

Nadira was all of 17 and ready to face the camera. To think that she had never been photographed before and had seen barely two movies in her life —Laila Majnu and Mirza Sahiba. It was perhaps destiny that Mrs Mehboob Khan spotted young Nadira and got her signed for Aan. Nargis, the original choice for the role, could not do the film because of date problems. Mrs Mehboob Khan groomed her for stardom.

With Dilip Kumar in Aan
With Dilip Kumar in Aan

Aan not only had Mehboob Khan for a director, it had stalwarts like Dilip Kumar, Prem Nath and Nimmi in the star cast. According to the directions she had to glare at people to exhibit haughtiness. Throughout the film she was raising her eyebrows and glaring. Sometimes (in her own words) she feared that her eyeballs would pop out!

Dilip Kumar, top hero of the day, was her co-star. He spoke to her normally for barely three-four days when on the fifth day he told her: "You are the most despicable character I have ever met!" Nadira did not know the meaning of the word "despicable" and actually smiled, thinking he was paying her a compliment.

Later, at home, she looked up the word in the dictionary and came to know what he had really meant. Since then they never talked to each other. Years later whenever Dilip Saab patted her on the back and cracked jokes, she never really forgot the word "despicable".

Aan, the first Hindi film in colour, was processed in London colour laboratories and was a big hit. Nadira had become a star. Male friends and admirers made a beeline for her. Mehboob Khan flirted with her. An Urdu poet Naqshab wooed her with couplets and Nadira ended up marrying him. The poet, however, became a producer and made her act in his films Nagma and Raftaar. But he had double standards. He made her pose for sexy posters for films but kept her in purdah at home. And when he once declared that he and Nadira were not married and only living together, she walked out of his home in disgust.

She resumed her film career. But now Shri 420 had bestowed on her a different image. Producers offered her roles in which she had to wear revealing clothes, smoke, drink and play the vamp. Not having anyone to guide her, she rejected all those roles.

At about this time Nadira married again — an Arab who boasted he owned a kingdom which he would lay at her feet. But the ill-fated Nadira within hours of the marriage learnt that she had been duped and that her husband had nothing in the world. The marriage lasted just a week.

It was back to films once again. But now she had to accept character roles. One such memorable role was in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi with Raaj Kumar and the legendary Meena Kumari. As a rich, spoilt, pompous girl who marries a not-so-well-off doctor, she played the role to perfection.

The song "Andaaz mera mastana ..." picturised on the lead pair shows Nadira’s changing expressions as understanding dawns on her that her husband and the nurse were emotionally drawn to each other.

Years later, in 1975, she played another memorable role — that of an Anglo-Indian woman in Julie. Her portrayal of a distraught mother whose unmarried daughter becomes pregnant fetched her as many as 15 awards! Her performances in films like Chhoti Chhoti Baatein, Ek Nazar, Pakeezah and Hanste Zakhm also won her laurels.

Then came Ramesh (Sholay) Sipply’s Sagar and her touching performance as Kamal Hassan’s Miss Joseph was widely appreciated. She was also seen in Pooja Bhatt’s Tamanna and Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary and recently in Josh (2000). She also did some TV serials like Margarita but found the work out of sync.

In the later years of her life, Nadira was all alone (one brother was in Israel and another in London). Like she said, she was celebrating celibacy and solitude. She had books and music tapes for company.

So the actress who had 250 films to her credit died with one dream unfulfilled — to have a husband, children (seven in all) and a happy home. However, she did not want pity. All she wanted was to die with her make-up on.