Nadira – Interview
Nadira was and still remains one of the most vivacious and impish beauties Bollywood has ever produced. Her graceful élan in Aan, her bold, coquettish presence in Shree 420… She had the country turning and staring with her famous `Mud mud ke na dekh’!
But the Nadira of today had lost it all, we heard. She had been reduced to a mere shadow of her former self… Crying at the drop of a hat, drowning in self pity and acute loneliness…We had to discover if this inimitable lady had really lost her spirit…
With a fair amount of intrepidation, I approached Nadira’s abode, ‘Vasundera’, on a pleasant Tuesday morning. I was surprised to be greeted by a charming Nadira at the door itself. There were no tell-tale signs of grief on her still smooth face. So far so good! Pleasantries over, we got down to talking shop, and her first film Aan which made her a star even before the film hit the theatres…
“Nobody in the history of the world has had a beginning, a debut like I did,” she declared proudly. “I had the biggest banner, Mehboob Productions launching me and my director was none other than Mehboob Saab himself. I was cast opposite the famous Dilip Kumar with Premnath playing the villain. But the funniest part is that I didn’t even know the meaning of the term ‘star’! In fact, Mehboob Saab would often tease me and ask me to behave like a star, when he would find me sitting along with the chorus girls and sharing their lunch.”
“The film was made at 35 lakh rupees, an astronomical amount then,” she revealed grandly. “It was one of the most expensive films ever made at that time. But now a girl appears in a film and says, `What will I do in Khandala?’ and gets 35 lakhs for it!”
“This is not to say that we were a poorly paid lot,” she replied defensively. “In our days we had studios and production houses, which hired us at a stipulated salary. Money then had a lot of barkat, it had tremendous value. Today inflation is so high that even if you are paid astronomical amounts, one’s buying power remains limited, as compared to our times. Secondly, today half the money paid is in black, so you can’t really invest much. You end up blowing it up, because there’s the constant fear of being raided. In our time, there were people like Motilalji and Chandra Mohanji, who knew how to take care of their money. They didn’t waste it all on racing, gambling and throwing lavish parties, and they lived well all their lives.”
“I started Aan with Rs 1200 a month in 1949, which increased to Rs 2500 in the second year and Rs. 3000 in the third year,” she reminisced with obvious pride. “When I got my first three-monthly instalment of Rs 3600, I didn’t know what to do with it! That day I asked Mehboobji if I could be dropped home in his car because I was afraid to carry so much money! When my mother saw it, she asked if I had stolen it! I remember going out immediately and buying furniture – which still occupies my bedroom – and a full gold-set complete with 12 gold bangles. Thereafter, every night I’d count the bangles and cover them with a handkerchief before sleeping. I would count them again in the morning! We’d bought such a lot of food that day, since we had not eaten well in a long time. Ultimately we had to give away half of it to the neighbours!”
Fame surely changed her world overnight.
“Oh, in a big way!” she admitted. “I moved into a bigger flat at Rs 664 a month, an amount that I’m still paying. It seems big and empty today but there was a time when this same flat seemed too small and congested. When you are famous and successful you are surrounded by so-called loving and doting relatives. But they disappear the moment you lose your stardom. There was a time when I was the only earning member of my family, which comprised 14 members. Everyone in my family, including my parents, died due to serious illnesses. I did the best I could for them. I served them well and tried to be a dutiful daughter…”
In spite of her grand debut and more than promising start, she never made it as a heroine. Instead she was relegated to playing the vamp…
“I took up Shree 420 for a lark but it became my Waterloo. I took up the role as a challenge, to prove my versatility, and it ruined my career. After that, I starved for a year and a half because everybody wanted me to wear the same black fitting dress and hold the cigarette the same way.”
Perhaps it would have helped if she had had someone to guide her?
“I have never believed in secretaries or so-called artist-managers. They all eventually turn producers because they become blackmailers. They know how much of your money is black and white. They enter your home and you lose your privacy. You can’t even make eyes at other men! Then they have access to your bedroom too… I may have lost out on a lot of money due to the lack of a smart secretary but I don’t care!”
Heroine or not, fact remains that nobody could really take away from her, her well deserved glory. Nadira has gone down in the history of cinema as one of the best actresses ever…
“I can’t sit here and praise my own acting capabilities but I guess my awards and trophies speak for themselves,” she replied modestly. “I have a huge collection of trophies which have been stored in the attic because my living room is reserved for my books. I have a fantastic library, which is my trousseau. I guess even at this age, I’m waiting for a man to marry me for my books,” she quipped.
Friendship offers solace in times of need. Something that our present lot of stars sorely lack. How was the scenario in her time?
We were like one big happy family,” she revealed. “But of course, only a few films were made per year, while today there are scores of films being churned out. Today stars take on more than they can handle, which is not at all professional. Very frankly, I never really had any film friends except for Shammi (actress). In spite of our busy schedules, we would still meet every day, even if it was for just a few minutes. I’ve had friends from all walks of life and my best friends somehow have all been big officers and bureaucrats. They have never treated me as an actress and I have never been affected by their big posts. Some friends have passed away and the rest, I have never lost. I know they’ll do everything for me probably because I don’t ask for anything.”
One alarming tendency most old-timers seem to share is a general dependence on alcohol. Is loneliness to blame?
“Yes, I do drink but it’s not a habit with me. When I return home very tired, I have a drink to relax, that’s all! My drinking has never interfered with my work. I never reach the studios with a hangover and nobody has ever seen me drinking in the vicinity of a studio. I don’t even drink with my colleagues except for the one time I had a drink with Raj Kapoor. Nargis too was present that day. But he insulted me so badly after downing a few drinks, I swore never to drink with him again.”
Perhaps marriage would have provided her with that much needed companionship…
“I have never really loved the men – I just married them. Everyone knows that I’ve had disastrous marriages. I guess I wasn’t lucky enough to find the right person. I am quite unlucky in love. I know for certain that had I met the right person, I would have been a good wife and a great mother. I’m totally against the idea of being married and having a career at the same time, simply because you cannot have two careers at the same time. Marriage is a full-time career. And God help you if you end up marrying someone from your own profession! There are bound to be ego clashes. It’s the most colossal mistake you can ever make.”
“Not really. I’m extremely grateful to God for every thing he has given me. At times I cry because I am very lonely but then I guess you can’t get everything in life. I suffer from insomnia so I have more hours to kill than other people. Since there is no-one to really talk to me, I listen to music, knit and read to pass my time, when I’m not working. The only thing I ask God is to keep me fit enough to work, till I’m alive. I don’t ever want to be dependent on anyone in my life!”
“In search of the silly word ‘happiness’ I have made a lot of mistakes,” she continued. “Many have deceived me, many have hurt me. But I am not a sad person. I still have plenty of space in my heart for love. Right from the watchman, to the lift boy, to the oldest man in my building, I am mummy to everyone! They are my children!”
And so she loves and lives… (Nadira interviewed by Purnima Lamchhane in 1999).