From a dream debut in BR Chopra’s Hamraaz (1967) starring opposite two top stars of the day, Sunil Dutt and Raaj Kumar, to a pitiful death by drinking, barely a decade later, Vimi’s is one of the most tragic tales of an actress getting swallowed up by the big, bad world of Hindi cinema.
Vimi was born in Mumbai, then Bombay, in an orthodox Punjabi family. She studied psychology at Sophia College and then married Shivraj Agarwal, a businessman from Calcutta belonging to the reputed Amirchand Pyarelal family. Agarwal was a millionaire dealing in stainless steel and post marriage, Vimi shifted to Calcutta where she settled into a comfortable married life with two children, Rajnish and Shona. It was at a dinner party at the Grand Hotel in Calcutta, that music director Ravi saw her and was totally taken in by her stunningly beautiful looks along with her chaste diction and manner of speaking. When he asked her if she would act in films, she laughed off the idea wondering who would give her the big break. But it was also clear to Ravi that she – and her husband – were not averse to acting in films. He invited them to Bombay and promised to arrange a meeting with BR Chopra, who was looking for a new heroine in his upcoming film, Hamraaz.
In Bombay, Ravi invited Vimi and her husband to his son’s birthday party, knowing that BR Chopra would attend. According to Ravi, one look at Vimi and Chopra asked him for an introduction to her. Though they spoke for a while, Chopra left without saying a word about his new film. Even as Vimi was contemplating whether she had it in her to temperamentally become an actress, Ravi came over the next day with Chopra’s offer. For three weeks Vimi battled with herself whether she should say yes or no. While on one side she knew it was the best possible launch a new actress could get, at the other, moral support from both, her and Agarwal’s family, was not forthcoming. Finally, she decided to take the plunge and said yes to Chopra. A screen test was done, she was found to be extremely photogenic and Chopra signed her on. She would be his new heroine in Hamraaz opposite two of the top stars of the day, Sunil Dutt and Raaj Kumar.
Even as Vimi broke new ground in entering films after marriage and motherhood at a time when marriage was regarded the death knell for a heroine, her family turned against her. Her parents, who regarded acting in films as a disreputable profession, cut off all ties with her and disowned her. Though born and brought up in a cosmopolitan city like Bombay, Vimi’s family was highly conservative and leave alone films, they even looked down on Western dresses and putting on make up. Once when as a little girl, Vimi cut her hair playing with scissors, she was soundly beaten up by her mother! Agarwal’s family too disapproved of Vimi working in films and while they gave the couple some money to tide them over for some time, they also cut off all ties with them.
To make things worse, Vimi had a hard time on the sets of Hamraaz. Though she had done the odd radio play, she was totally raw as far as film acting was concerned and BR Chopra, for all his experience as a filmmaker of repute, struggled to get a performance out of her. Finally, he requested character artist Manmohan Krishna to help out in rehearsing with Vimi. The rehearsals, sometimes done three days in advance, helped tremendously, according to Chopra. But there were other problems. Chopra had bound Vimi to a two film contract and since she was being launched in such a grand manner, offers for further roles were pouring in from all sides. When Chopra refused to release her from her contract, it is said Vimi (and Agarwal) played hard to get by agreeing to shoot for Hamraaz’s last schedule only once she was released from her contract. Chopra, who had to finish his film at any cost, did so but the entire episode left a bitter taste in his mouth and he refused to work with her again. It was to cost Vimi heavily.
Hamraaz (1967) was a smash hit and Vimi became a big star. However, critics were cold towards Vimi calling her performance wooden. In hindsight, as one looks at the film today, one would say this is a harsh assessment as to be honest, Vimi’s understated performance actually holds up pretty well. She is meant to be wooden-like and shattered, first having lost her husband, army man Raaj Kumar, thought to be dead. And then she is told that her baby girl too was stillborn though she is actually alive. It is only after singer-theatre actor Sunil Dutt’s persistent wooing that she starts looking up at life again and marries him till the big twist comes as we (and her) realize that Raaj Kumar is still alive. To be fair to her, Vimi is quite okay in this part of the film and manages her character graph pretty well. Nevertheless, the damage was done. And with Chopra not repeating her, other producers were now wary of signing her. It is also said that her husband’s excessive interference in her career finished it off even as it had just begun.
Still, Vimi did sign two big films opposite Shashi Kapoor, Patanga (1971), and the long-in-the-making Vachan (1974), but her next release following Humraaz was the extremely disappointing Aabroo (1968) opposite newcomer Deepak Kumar. It was a poor follow up and flopped miserably with more poor reviews for Vimi. Said to be more bothered about her looks and costumes rather than the character she was to portray, she was no longer hot or salable property and Vachan‘s producer, Tejnath Zar, recalled his distributor requesting him to replace Vimi after about six reels of the film were shot. Zar refused and stood by his heroine. Sadly though, the long delayed film was a washout as were Vimi’s other films in this period – Patanga, Kahin Aar Kahin Paar (1971) opposite Joy Mukerji, and Kahani Hum Subb Ki (1973), though she had only a guest role in the last mentioned with Mala Sinha playing the lead role. Guddi (1971) did well at the box office but she again had just a small guest appearance in it, playing herself. She continued to be dismissed as a non-actress though again, it is grossly unfair to her when one sees some of these performances today. And even more so, when compared against the highly mediocre-yet-acceptable acts of current successful actresses like Katrina Kaif and Sonam Kapoor. The one silver lining for Vimi was the Punjabi devotional film, Nanak Naam Jahaz Hai (1969). The film celebrated a silver jubilee and is regarded as a classic today with many old-timers calling it the greatest Punjabi film ever made in India. Along with Prithviraj Kapoor, Suresh, IS Johar and Nishi, Vimi too made a fine impression in the film as Som Dutt’s dutiful girlfriend and wife-to-be who accompanies him on a pilgrimage around the various holy shrines of the Sikhs to help him get his eyesight back.
Meanwhile, even as Vimi’s career began to dive down, the extravagant lifestyle of the film world soon caught up with Vimi and her husband. As money became scarce with her films flopping, the couple moved out of their Juhu apartment, unable to afford its rent and moved to a much smaller place in Bandra’s Pali Hill area. But even here, they often spent life in the darkness with diyas (lamps) and candles for light as they couldn’t pay their electricity bills. It is said that during this period, Agarwal would even make her sleep with ‘prospective producers’ for money and would often be violent with her if she refused.
Vimi finally left Agarwal, having gotten involved with a small time film producer, Jolly. She moved in with him, first at the Oriental Palace Hotel and then as their limited funds dried up, in other downmarket neighborhoods. She had also taken to drinking in a big way by now. She met BR Chopra in 1977 and apologized to him for her misbehavior during the making of Hamraaz. Chopra recalled the meeting in an interview saying, “Though it was quite early in the day, she was reeking of cheap tharra (alcohol). She was very distraught, her back and arms were covered with bruises.” Barely one week later, while still in her 30s, Vimi died on August 22, 1977, having spent much of her last days at the Nanavati Hospital in the hospital’s general ward. With no money on her or Jolly when she died, her body was wrapped in a dirty dhoti and laid on a handcart before being taken to the Santa Cruz crematorium. Neither Agarwal, who it is said had conveniently gone back to his family, or Vimi’s side of the family attended her funeral. According to Tejnath Zar, there were only 9 people who attended the last rites, and just two from the film industry outside of Jolly – producer-director SD Narang’s brother and Zar himself.
Even today as one remembers Hamraaz, one cannot help but be moved by the tragic real life tale of its heroine, Vimi, who had it all and lost it all… Her son, Rajnish Agarwal, later sought solace with Osho Rajneesh’s teachings once he grew up. However, he had an uneasy relationship with the ashram authorities who banned him on at least 3 occasions. Today known as Swami Rajneesh, he is the author of various books including Tears Of The Mystic Rose, published in 2008. In the book, while recalling his memories of his mother, he writes, “I loved my mother and was attracted to her fragile and innocent qualities. She was beautiful and humble and always considerate towards others and to human sensitivities… even being a superstar did not distract her from her daily simple routines of going to the kitchen and preparing meals for us or for guests… always insisting on serving us herself… she was radiant and full of compassion towards all those who met her and never ever considered money to have any special or real value in her relationships with people. I loved and admired these simple qualities she lived by… and she became my idol and what I would wish to emulate once I grew up.”