Today's Mumbai Mirror column:
The late actress Nanda is usually remembered for her girlish innocence. But that wasn't all there was to her.
Nanda's death in March this year was mourned by the industry. But as in life, so in death: she didn't really get the critical attention she deserved. Nanda was that rare actress whom the usually inflexible Hindi film industry allowed to graduate from one slot to another, embracing her first as a child artiste (in films like Mandir , Angaarey, Jaggu  and Jagriti, then as the younger sister (in V. Shantaram's Toofan Aur Diya , Bhabhi , Dulhan , Chhoti Behen  and Kala Bazaar ) and finally as a romantic heroine (after Dev Anand kept a promise made during Kala Bazaar and cast her as his heroine in Hum Dono ).
Despite this, there is a Nanda stereotype. We think of her as the achchhi ladki, the simple girl who could be coyly romantic but not sensual. The childlike innocence that had worked for Baby Nanda segued seamlessly into chhoti behen roles (younger sisters have always been infantilised by Hindi cinema) and seemingly clung to her even as she transitioned into playing romantic leads. Her good girl image was also a result of the sharply moral heroine-vamp divide that characterised the era. The heroine had to exemplify 'Indianness'; the vamp was 'Western', if not racially then culturally. The heroine's non-threatening sexuality meant being virginal, and putting her charms on display only for the hero. This was in stark contrast to the vamp's open display of desire (invariably unfulfilled), which in conjunction with her other sins -- smoking, drinking and alcohol – had, of course, to be punished.
One of my favourite Nanda appearances is in an unusually sophisticated version of the good girl-bad girl narrative: Teen Devian . Nanda plays the wholesome middle class girl, literally the girl next door, but her rivals are not cabaret dancers – a category the audience knows can never succeed with a hero -- but liberated memsahibs. Both Simi the well-connected socialite and Kalpana the famous actress flirt outrageously with our music-shop-salesman-turned-poet. Whereas with Nanda, it is Dev who flirts and Nanda who coyly accepts his overtures. Though perhaps this is not quite true either. In an adorable and surprising early scene, on their first coffee date, Dev asks to see Nanda's hardworking secretarial fingers. “Is this just an excuse to hold my hand?” asks Nanda. “Aur agar kahoon haan?” says the unflappable Dev. “Then I will oblige you,” says Nanda in English.
In the more mainstream Gumnaam (1965) and The Train (1970), Nanda's good girl Indianness is produced at least partially by being pitted against our most memorable vamp: Helen. Usually the heroine and the vamp never share the same space, it being a given that the vamp's netherworld of lowlit restaurants and hotel bars is not one in which a respectable Indian woman would ever find herself.
But both Gumnaam and The Train are slightly unusual in this respect. In Gumnaam (a pretty awful cannibalising of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None), Nanda and Helen, bearing the religiously-marked names Miss Asha and Miss Kitty, appear in the same frame quite early on. They are both on the fateful plane ride that will seal the fate of its ten passengers. Of course, Nanda wears white, and Helen red. Then, though both swiftly acquire boyfriends among the men they're marooned with, they keep their distance from each other. The bad girl spends most of her time with a drunken Pran, the good girl with a constipated-looking Manoj Kumar. But having put this effort into keeping them apart, the filmmakers decided some frisson would arise from having them bond. So we get Helen, who has spent many scenes before this refusing to drink with Pran, deciding to get drunk -- with Nanda! And they have a blast, until Nanda is violently shaken back to reality by Manoj Kumar, who being Mr. Bharat cannot be expected to enjoy himself. What I thought was fascinating was MK's sarcastic heroine-shaming dialogue, uttered in full hearing range of the vamp: “Ab bhi tum mein aur Kitty mein thoda sa fark baaki hai”.
In The Train , which like Gumnaam was a murder mystery, cabaret dancer Helen (Lily) is the rotten apple, and Nanda (Nita) the misjudged goody-goody one. So Helen gets to throatily proposition Rajesh Khanna, while Nanda only gets to lie with his head in her lap. But then Nita gets a job as a hotel receptionist, letting her into the same space as Lily. And then the film does something truly unexpected: it gives us a glimpse of the 'bad' Nanda. Instead of the saree-clad version with a long choti, we suddenly see a 'Westernised' Nanda with a stylish haircut, the hushed voice and swaying derriere now those of a seductress in a murderous plot.
It seems to me that Nanda's overt innocence was precisely what enabled directors to use her to play on this “fark” between the heroine and vamp -- clearly thrilling male audiences but being careful to eventually re-establish moral order so as not to alarm them.
But remarkably, Nanda didn't stop there. In order to see where this fascinating trajectory took her, watch Yash Chopra's Ittefaq. The vamp-virgin divide is hopefully gone forever, but Nanda needs to be given some posthumous credit for having crossed the line when she did.
Published in the Mumbai Mirror.