Even if she had played no other role other than the scheming Maya in Raj Kapoor’s masterpiece Shree 420 (1955), she would always remain the Mud Mudke Na Dekh girl trying to entice the naive hero into crime!
Nadira was born Farhat (some say Florence), Ezekiel in a Jewish family on December 5, 1932, her parents splitting up when she was just four. Her mother got remarried and Nadira and her brother were brought up by her grandmother. She was still in her teens when she was spotted by Sardar Akhtar, the great filmmaker Mehoob Khan’s wife. After convincing her mother, Sardar Akhtar took Nadira under her wing and groomed her. Nadira recalled in an interview… “She bought me my first bra. I did not know the use of the garment till then. She gave me my screen name Nadira as Farhat was thought to be too soft. My first sari was a gift from her, so was my first tube of paint. She taught me to put on make up. I still have that tube which I use each time I start something new.”
Nadira was introduced as a leading lady in Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952), where she was cast in her place as a haughty princess opposite Dilip Kumar in this spectacular take on Taming of the Shrew, also co-starring Nimmi and Premnath. Aan, Mehboob’s first film in color, even had a release in London and was much appreciated even though a critic did quip – it goes on and on! Highlights of Aan include the lavish sets, the horse chases, breathtaking battle scenes and the spectacular finale with the sword fight between Dilip Kumar and Premnath in front of a pyre with Nadira bound to the stake. It is said that during the shooting of this sequence, Nadira actually was singed by the flames but carried on with the scene gamely. While her perennially arched eyebrow helped in bringing out her haughtiness all the better, Nadira’s performance is eye-popping to say the least. Still, Aan was a huge success and made her into a star.
At this juncture just when things were starting to look up for her, Nadira married film lyricist J Nakshab. Nakshab made her break her contract with Mehboob Khan and with her earnings, made films like Nagma (1953) and Raftar (1955) exploiting her star status but basically to move himself further. Nadira finally walked out of the marriage leaving behind all her money and rented a suite in Marine Drive and continued working!
It was Raj Kapoor who then used Nadira to stunning effect in what was to become her signature role in Shree 420 but which also proved to be almost a death knell in her career. Then still a leading lady, the film cast her against type as the cigarette smoking vamp, who, with her arched eyebrows, seduces the hero to a glamorous and crooked lifestyle to such strong effect (she has never acted or looked better!) that she stole a march over both Raj Kapoor and Nargis in the film and thereafter was only offered negative roles! She refused most of them still wanting to play the heroine only to find few offers now forthcoming. The negative roles she refused were then offered to Shashikala, making a big star out of the latter. thus making Nadira lose out in the vamp department as well. But films like Shree 420 and Pocketmaar (1956) with Dev Anand prove that there when Nadira was up to her scheming vamping antics or seducing the hero through songs like Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh or Duniya Ke Saath Chal Pyare, she had no equal!
When Vyjayanthimala turned down the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s classic Devdas (1955) arguing that both Paro and Chandramukhi were leading roles, the award was offered to Nadira for Shree 420. She sensibly turned it down, saying she would win the award on merit or not at all but never as a hand-me-down.
Nadira tried settling down again but went through a second, disastrous short-lived marriage to an Arab.
While doing the lead in B films like Sipahsalar (1956), Talwar Ki Dhani (1956), Garma Garam (1957) or Daughter Of Sinbad (1958), Nadira’s other really effective and most well-known film came in the Kishore Sahu directed and Kamal Amrohi produced Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai (1960), co-starring Meena Kumari and Raaj Kumar. Again she came off strongly in the film as the wife of Raaj Kumar, who would stop at nothing to keep her husband though he and Meena Kumari loved each other before his marriage. It was an interesting film in that the ‘vamp’ is the wife trying to make her marriage work while the goody-two shoes heroine really is the other woman but of course the film gives full sympathy to Meena Kumari and Raaj Kumar suffering in unrequited love with Nadira being the shrew in their way.
Substantial leads failed to come to her and she continued with second grade films like Black Tiger (1960) and Madam Zorro (1962). Post 1962, she worked less frequently, sometimes with long breaks, but always made an impact in the films she did especially Chhoti Chhoti Baten (1965) where she co-starred with Motilal. With Kahan Ja Rahe Hum (1966), Nadira shifted to mother roles and character roles. Some of her important films as a character artist include Sapnon Ka Saudagar (1968), Pakeezah (1972), Hanste Zakhm (1973), Ishq Ishq Ishq (1974), and especially Julie (1975).
In Julie, as the heroine Lakshmi’s mother Margaret – an Anglo-Indian housewife who considers herself more English and who keeps her brood together while facing crises with poise, Nadira came up with easily the strongest performance of the film and 20 years after Shree 420, won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress on merit! In fact when not vamping it, even when she played the mother, Nadira was rarely the stereotypical, crying, helpless woman in white. She always added spirit to the various roles of the mother, aunt or other older woman roles.
Nadira’s other films include Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Saagar (1985) – again making a very strong impression, Tamanna (1997) and Josh (2000). She also acted in the Ismail Merchant directed Cotton Mary (1999) and the Television Serials Thoda Sa Aasmaan and Margarita.
Nadira passed away in Mumbai on 9th February, 2006 after a prolonged illness.