Dilip Kumar considers her the greatest actress he ever worked with, citing her instinct for grasping the essence of a scene as second to none. Filmfare in their poll in the 1950s declared her the most beautiful woman in the movies, ahead of even Madhubala. She acted opposite all the top actors of her time, barring Raj Kapoor, having huge commercial successes like Samadhi (1950), Jaadu (1951), Nastik (1954), Munimji (1955), Mr. X (1957) and Kala Pani (1958) and received great critical acclaim for her performances in films like Rahi (1953), Shikast (1953), Railway Platform (1955) and Awaaz (1956). Yet, when one talks of the legendary actresses of the Indian screen, Nalini Jaywant’s name hardly ever crops up, something that is grossly unfair to this extremely good-looking and multi-faceted actress.
Nalini Jaywant was born in Bombay on February 18, 1926, the cousin of famous actress Shobana Samarth (mother of Nutan and Tanuja). She first came to some prominence while still a teenager with Mehboob’s Bahen (1941), which was about a brother’s obsessive love for his sister. The film was known for having strong shades of incest. She had two other releases the same year Nirdosh, opposite singer Mukesh, and Radhika. Nalini just starred in a handful of films over the next few years – Ankh Micholi (1942), Adab Arz (1943) and Phir Bhi Apna Hai (1946) to name some – hardly making an impact. During this period, she had also got married to her Nirdosh and Radhika director, VC Desai, who also made Gunjan (1948) with her and Balraj Sahni.
Nalini finally broke through with Anokha Pyar (1948). The film was a love triangle with Nalini, Dilip Kumar and Nargis, with Nalini sacrificing her love for hero, Dilip Kumar. It is to her credit that it was she who got the best reviews in the film, many critics calling her the only saving grace in the otherwise disappointing film.
1950 was Nalini’s big, big year as she became a top star with two of her films opposite Ashok Kumar, Samadhi and Sangram. Samadhi was a patriotic drama addressing Subash Chandra Bose and the Indian National army. Nalini and Kuldip Kaur played sisters who were spies for the British. The film, though called politically obsolete by leading film magazine of the day, Filmindia, was a huge success at the box office, its song Gore Gore O Banke Chhore being perhaps Nalini’s most popular song ever. On the other side of the spectrum, Sangram was a gritty crime drama wherein she played the heroine doing her best to reform the anti-hero. Nalini more than left her mark on both the films and went on to form a hit pair with Ashok Kumar, the two of them doing several films together thereafter like Kafila (1952), Naubahar (1952), Saloni (1952), Mr X and Sheroo (1957). It is said the two of them were romantically involved for a period as well.
Nalini remained an important leading lady through to the mid 1950s. Filmmakers like KA Abbas (Rahi), Ramesh Saigal (Shikast – arguably her career’s best performance opposite Dilip Kumar, Railway Platform) and Zia Sarhady (Awaaz) extended Nalini Jaywant’s association with realistic and socialistic films while filmmakers like Mahesh Kaul (Naujavan (1951)) and AR Kardar (Jaadu) developed her alternate musical persona, later personified by the frothy Filmistan musicals like Nastik, her biggest hit opposite Ajit, and Munimji, a carefree romantic film with Dev Anand as her leading man.
Perhaps Nalini’s last big, successful film was the Raj Khosla directed Kala Pani (1958). She gave one of the best performances of her career as the nautch girl Kishori who is the key witness in framing the hero’s father for a murder he did not commit. Playing a shaded character, she easily stole a march over goody-two-shoes heroine Madhubala and deservedly went on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress for the film. She is absolutely unforgettable in the film be it in the come-hither mujra Nazar Laage Raaja Tore Bangle pe or as she looks tearfully at Dev Anand from across the room in that all time great SD Burman composition, Hum Bekhudi Mein.
Thereafter even as she continued to act mainly opposite her Nastik hero, Ajit, none of Nalini’s subsequent films were particularly noteworthy, with her last films being Bombay Race Cource (1965) and Toofan Mein Pyar Kahan (1966) before she went into retirement, having married actor-director Prabhu Dayal. She did make a comeback of sorts years later as Hema Malini’s mother in Bandish (1980) and playing Amitabh Bachchan’s blind mother in Nastik (1983).
Since then, she had been living a reclusive life, keeping to herself till she passed away in Mumbai on December 20, 2010.