Nimmi was a highly popular star right through the 1950s acting with all the top heroes of her time and working with 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 have not always held up well and admittedly many 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 Banu in 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 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. There was no looking back for Nimmi now.
Nimmi was flooded with offers. She did films opposite the rising trimurti of Hindi cinema – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. In fact, her pairing with Dilip Kumar worked particularly well in films like Deedar (1951), Daag (1952), Aan (1952), Amar (1954) and Udan Khatola (1955). And yes, all the films had Nimmi pouting and suffering and willing to sacrice 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 best 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. Finally the hero's fiance realizes teh truth and sets things right. Unfortnately 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 Sadhana (1958) in an effort to be more selective backfired when Sadhana received 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.
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, 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 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. K Asif stuck with her. 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 show 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. Today Nimmi lives alone making the odd public appearance.