Remembering Nadira: The Diva Who Didn’t Want to be Rescued
When cinema was being born in India, the biggest problem that producers and directors faced was casting female characters, since movies were a far cry and any kind of public performance was deemed indecent for Indian women. So men played women, gradually making way for real women, but not of native race. Only Anglo-Indian, Jewish or Parsi women could do the honours.
Two Jewish women stood out in the race among many prolific names starting from the early days of cinema. In the silent era, Ruby Myers was the most successful star known in film history as Sulochana, and in the post-independent Hindi cinema, Florence Ezekiel, better known as Nadira shone the brightest.
In 1949, When Mehboob Khan was making India’s first feature film in Technicolor, he wanted to be as grand as possible. The swashbuckling sword and sandal epics were in fashion, and Khan planned a big budget film around romance and action, keeping in mind the soaring nationalism of his time. Dilip Kumar, Premnath and Nimmi were cast, but the role of the princess turned out to be a non-stop woe. Nargis and Madhubala were in the running, but finally didn’t make it to the film. Irked, Khan cast a young Jewish girl, a fair maiden with chiselled features, and Hindi cinema was introduced to Nadira.
Released in 1952, Aan, the action-packed narrative of The Taming of the Shrew set-up, was a massive success, and Nadira became a star overnight, earning praise from the Indian public and even Hollywood legend Cecil B. DeMille. The girl who had started on a monthly salary of Rs 1200, had producers eating out of her hands, with incessant offers.
When Raj Kapoor offered her Shree 420, she took on the role of the temptress Maya, because it offered her a challenge. She smoked cigarettes with a cigarette-holder, and wore gowns that kissed the outline of her body, gracefully and seductively. The song Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh dished Maya with all the possible allusions, and she entered collective consciousness as the enchantress who knew how to warm her way into a man’s heart so instinctively.
The result was both good and bad. Shree 420 was a sweeping hit, but Nadira could never be ‘heroine’ again. In the newly independent India, the ice princess who didn’t belong to the land could only be the vamp, the marker of a cesspool of moral decline. Her turn as Maya consolidated her position as the siren, and the roles that were offered post that only desired to see her in that black dress, holding her smoke, and enticing the respectable to go cock-eyed.
Though offers were in flow, they mostly relegated her to western characters, or supporting roles, most notable being Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee (1960), Pakeezah (1972) and Julie (1975). Never a believer of keeping secretaries in fear of losing privacy, Nadira didn’t care what others thought about her career management, and ran her vocation on her own terms.
As fame fades, the audience usually exercises amnesia towards even their most loved ones, but luckily for Nadira, she didn’t really crumble in the by-lanes of oblivion. Though later in the 90s, she played an Indian version of Norma Desmond (Billy Wilder’s timeless take on show business in Sunset Boulevard) in Gulzar’s TV show Kirdaar, she wasn’t an unaware ghost, but one very much in touch with her times, and riding along.
She lived at Peddar Road and almost all neighbours swore by her affectionate humaneness. She maintained a close bond with her friends, lived happily among books, and spoke eloquently to make her point. But there was a sense of loneliness that engulfed her and visitors sensed it, behind her happy repertoire. For an actor of her calibre, who knew how to balance wit and intellect, it is perhaps decipherable that she could find no one worthy of her. She was the anomaly in a society where women didn’t dare. The viewing public limited her career in a swift stroke of judgment in Shree 420, and in real life, men couldn’t gather the courage to handle an informed mind.
She craved companionship without having to be rescued, but we didn’t have enough imagination to understand that.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)