Nimmi was a hugely popular star right through the 1950s acting with all the top heroes of her time and working with the best of directors like Raj Kapoor, Kidar Sharma, Mehboob Khan, Amiya Chakravarty, SU Sunny and KA Abbas. However, her larger than life gestures and eye popping theatrics in some of her films have not always held up well down the years and admittedly, some of her performances look stilted today but there’s no denying her stardom and popularity in her heyday. In fact, one of her greatest admirers was no less than Ismail Merchant!
Nimmi was the daughter of Wahidan, an actress and singer. She was born Nawab Banoo on February 18, 1933 in Agra. Her father, Abdul Hakim, was a military contractor. The sudden death of her mother when she was just 9 made her father send her off to Abbotabad (now in Northwest Frontier, Pakistan) to her grandmother, while he stayed on in Meerat. In 1947, Nimmi and her grandmother came to Bombay to stay with her aunt, Jyoti, who was also an actress.
Wahidan used to be well-known to Mehboob Khan and using this connection, Nimmi met him on the sets of Andaz (1949). Here she was spotted by Raj Kapoor who was looking for a newcomer to cast in his forthcoming film Barsaat (1949). Impressed by her, he took her screen test. It is said that Nimmi gave a wonderful shot and then immediately broke down in tears after the shot was over. This endeared her to Raj Kapoor who gave her the role of the naive village hill-maiden who falls for city slicker, Premnath, who seduces her and uses her to his advantage. Barsaat, also co-starring Raj Kapoor and Nargis, made Nimmi an instant star. Though playing the second lead, she had her moments in the film with the title song and Jiya Beqarar Hai being picturised on her. Nimmi had the nation in tears when due to a misunderstanding, she kills herself in the film’s climax.
Following Barsaat, Nimmi was flooded with offers. She was among the earliest actresses to act in films opposite the then rising trimurti of Hindi cinema – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, working with Kapoor in Bhanwara (1950), Anand in Sazaa (1951) and Kumar in Deedar (1951). In fact, her pairing with Dilip Kumar worked particularly well in films like Daag (1952), Aan (1952), Amar (1954) and Udan Khatola (1955). All the films had Nimmi suffering and willing to sacrifice herself for the sake of her love if need be. In fact, she was typecast as the suffering martyr or victim in most of her films. Of her films with Dilip Kumar, special mention must be made of Aan and Amar, both directed by Mehboob Khan.
Aan remains one of the more enjoyable swashbuckling films in Indian Cinema. The film has an epic feel reminiscent of Hollywood films like Quo Vadis and Duel in the Sun. The film was also released in a shortened dubbed version in French as Mangalla Fille des Indes in 1954 named after Nimmi’s character, Mangala, and was the first Hindi Film to be dubbed in Tamil. But the biggest compliment for the film came to Mehboob, regarded as India’s Cecille B DeMille, from DeMille himself. In a letter to Mehboob after seeing the film he wrote,“I believe it is quite possible to make pictures in your great country which will be understood and enjoyed by all nations without sacrificing the culture and customs of India. We look forward to the day when you will be regular contributors to our screen fare with many fine stories bringing the romance and magic of India.”
Amar saw Nimmi making a major impact as the poor girl who is raped by the hero and who refuses to disclose his identity even when she is disgraced and found to be pregnant. Finally the hero’s fiance realizes the truth and sets things right. Unfortunately, the film flopped at the box-office.
Nimmi’s best years came in 1955-6 where she got critical acclaim in films like Kundan (1955) and Basant Bahar (1956) and had huge box office successes with Udan Khatola and Bhai Bhai (1956).
However, by the late 1950s, Nimmi’s career began slowly sliding. Her refusal to do films like BR Chopra’s Sadhna (1958) in an effort to be more selective backfired when Sadhna received both critical and commercial success including the Filmfare Best Actress Award for Vyjayanthimala. Meanwhile, the films she did do like Anjali (1957), Char Dil Char Rahen (1959) and Shama (1961) flopped at the box office. She did rate her performance as Anjali as her favorite though.
But perhaps Nimmi’s biggest mistake was in rejecting the heroine’s role in Mere Mehboob (1963). Initially, Nimmi was asked to play the heroine and Bina Rai, the role of Rajendra Kumar’s elder sister but on hearing the script, Nimmi felt the sister’s role had more scope for performance and opted for that role. Consequently a younger heroine was now needed and HS Rawail cast Sadhana in the part. The rest they say is history. Mere Mehboob was instrumental in making Sadhana a top star. Even though Nimmi received a nomination from Filmfare as Best Supporting Actress for her fine performance, it was of little consolation. In an interview to Movie magazine Nimmi recalled, “I opted for the role of the sister as I felt it was the back bone of the story and had scope for acting. Though it didn’t turn out the way I had visualised it.”
Playing the sister had adverse effects on Nimmi’s career. Raj Khosla replaced her with Sadhana in Woh Kaun Thi? (1964) and Pooja ke Phool (1964) had her playing a suffering blind woman in support to Mala Sinha who played the romantic lead opposite Dharmendra. Daal Mein Kala (1964) opposite Kishore Kumar did release in this period with Nimmi as the solo heroine but it was a long delayed film that was finally seeing the light of day. Akashdeep saw her play Ashok Kumar’s mute wife but even here, the romantic onus was on Dharmendra and Nanda.
Despite much pressure to not to take her, K Asif announced Love and God, a magnum opus based on the Laila – Majnu legend with Nimmi and Guru Dutt in the lead. It is said that when she heard people telling Asif to drop her since she was past her prime, Nimmi cried and begged him not to do so. However, tragedy struck the film when Guru Dutt died in 1964 and was replaced by Sanjeev Kumar. The film continued in fits and starts and then K Asif himself died in 1971. The film was released in incomplete form in 1986 and flopped miserably. However, the portions shot do show us that Nimmi never looked or acted better.
Nimmi married writer S Ali Raza who had written dialogue in Aan, Amar and Mother India (1957) among other films. The couple had no children. Raza died in 2007 at the age of 85. Nimmi, herself passed away in Mumbai on March 25, 2020.