Nimmi passed away yesterday. Her death got lost in the midst of a global pandemic but her life was no less than a Bollywood film. Not many moviegoers from today might recollect the name of Nimmi. She was among the handful of actors of Hindi cinema in our midst who made their debut in the 1940s. Nimmi’s story in Hindi cinema is also linked to the rich legacy of courtesans and theatre artistes to the film industry.
Wahidan Bai, a famous courtesan of Agra came from Kinari Bazar. In the late 1940s, Mehboob Khan went to Agra to shoot his movie Humayun (1945), starring Ashok Kumar and Nargis. He met Nimmi, the daughter of the famous Wahidan in Agra. She was a little girl then. He invited Nimmi to Bombay for an audition as a test singer. Nimmi did not clear the audition and returned to Agra. But things changed in 1947, when communal riots broke out in Agra.
Wahidan came to Bombay with her daughter and approached Mehboob Khan again. He let them live in his garage near Central studios, in Tardeo, where Andaz (1948) was being shot. Nimmi was a constant visitor at the sets. Mehboob also introduced her to other producers. One day, she went to Filmistan to meet Sashadahar Mukherjee. She waited for hours before she was called in by Mukherjee, who made her sit, stand, walk around and emote different expressions. Nimmi was conscious of her height and kept making efforts to hide her heels.
Over time, money was drying up and Wahidan decided to leave Bombay and went to bid farewell to Mehboob a day before her departure. They collected the photographs that had been clicked by the photographer there. Raj Kapoor happened to see those pics. Jaddan Bai, who was present there, told Raj about Nimmi. Raj was looking for a second lead in his second directorial venture Barsaat. Mehboob called in Nimmi and introduced her to Raj and Nimmi made her debut with Barsaat (1949).
In a way, Barsaat was a film that launched the careers of many greats at once. It was the first film of Shankar Jaikishan as music directors and also the first film outing of lyricists Hasrat Jaipuri and Shailendra. Lata Mangeshkar, who had seen a warm welcome with Andaz struck gold with Barsaat and Mahal in 1949, with all the songs being runaway hits. Ramanand Sagar made his debut in movies as its story writer. It was also Raj Kapoor’s first success as a producer and director. The money from Barsaat helped him build RK Studios in Chembur.
In a programme called Yaadein Radio Ceylon ki, actress Tabassum said that the screen name Nimmi was chosen by Raj Kapoor himself. But the original name he intended to give her was Ginni but Tabassum protested as Ginni was her nickname. So Raj Kapoor christened the new girl Nimmi.
Nimmi’s stardom is now restricted to the pages of film history. She had many laurels to her credit. She acted in India’s first technicolour film Aan (1951) and made a successful pair with Dilip Kumar in many hits from the 1950s like Aan, Daag (1952), Amar (1954) and Uran Khatola (1955). Her acting might seem theatrical from today’s standpoint but back then, her presence in film posters set many a heart aflutter.
But Nimmi also made some poor career choices in the end of 1950s. For instance, she rejected BR Chopra’s Sadhana (1958) as she did not want to play a prostitute in it. The role went to Vyjayanthimala and it also fetched her a Filmfare award. Her last hit was HS Rawail’s classic Mere Mehboob (1963), where she was paired opposite Ashok Kumar.
Nimmi also had some wonderful films in the pipeline that got shelved later. Not many know that Raj Kapoor had planned a historical romance called Ajanta starring himself, Nargis and Nimmi. It got shelved. After Mughal-e-azam, K Asif planned another grand love story based on the legend of Laila-Majnu called Love and God. The initial cast had Guru Dutt and Nimmi. Guru Dutt committed suicide in 1964 and the film production got stalled. Asif restarted it with Sanjeev Kumar but Asif himself died in 1970 and the film never got completed. The incomplete film was released in the 1980s by his wife. There is no better way to sum up this departure of Nimmi than her own song from the movie Sazaa (1951).