Alone and forgotten

HER LIFE: 'Her peers said that she had an extraordinary ability to emote -- but nobody said that she was always a sad, lovely woman'. A file picture of Nalini Jayawant.   | Photo Credit: scanned in chennai_grrks

In the end, her long years of film stardom did not matter, and no one seemed to care. Nalini Jayawant died of a heart attack, alone and forgotten in a small bungalow in Mumbai's Chembur suburb, where she had lived in seclusion for more than two decades. She was taken to a hospital in a municipal ambulance summoned by neighbours who were alarmed that her mongrels, Bachchan and Pappu, kept howling. Later, someone claiming to be a distant relative had her cremated. She was 84 years old.

The encomiums followed from her peers such as Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar. They said she was the finest actress of her generation; they said that she had an extraordinary ability to emote; they said that she was a warm and caring person who got along easily with everybody. Nobody said that, behind her large eyes, full lips and porcelain face, Nalini was always a sad, lonely woman who had weathered much opprobrium from her parents and brothers; they had opposed her decision to enter films. Her father, Dadasaheb Jayawant — uncle of another star, Shobhana Samarth, mother of actresses Nutan and Tanuja, and grandmother of Kajol — would frequently beat her up. Nalini's family argued: Wouldn't a wholesome girl from Maharashtra's elite CKP community be corrupted by the sleazy world of Bombay's filmmakers?

Classic films

Their argument was not entirely without merit. As was all too common in the film industry of those times, Nalini was pulled into the vortex of drinking and debauchery. The trade-off was that she got to make her debut in 1941 in “Radhika.” Classic films such as “Anokha Pyar,” “Samadhi.” “Sangram,” “Mr. X,” “Kafila,” “Mehbooba,” “Muqqadar,” and “Munimjee,” followed. She won a Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actress in the 1958 film “Kala Pani.” Her career pretty much petered out after her second marriage — to director Prabhu Dayal — and roles were hard to come by as Nalini aged, Mr. Dayal sought solace in the bottle, and Bollywood sought young, lithesome lasses. Nalini's last released movie was a remake of “Nastik” in 1983: it was, she said, her “comeback.”

I heard her say that with the same quiet determination that had characterised her professional life, regardless of what price she had to pay with her body and morals. Of course, there would be no comeback. Her time had long gone. Nalini was a relic of a glorious past who lived in an unforgiving present. If she understood that, she certainly would never acknowledge it. Listening to her in the autumn of her life made you flinch.


Nalini Jayawant was a major presence in my life when I was growing up in what was then known as Bombay. Even as a child, I saw all her movies. My parents took me to her dainty home for many meals.

We were frequent visitors to her home because my mother, Professor Charusheela Gupte, was Nalini's aunt, the younger sister of her mother. That made Nalini my first cousin. It was Nalini who gifted me the great enduring love of my life, a Scottish terrier named Lola. Lola died of old age in 1966, the year before I left India to go to college in the United States. I rarely got to see Nalini after that; we reunited in 1978, when I got married, and then we saw each other a few times after that.

She was, of course, not the only female actress of her generation whose acting skills took her films to exceptional artistic heights and to commercial success as well. Some of the others included Nargis, Madhubala, Suraiya, Geeta Bali, and Meena Kumari. But there seemed to be a pattern to their lives, for the most part: Their success spawned a wrenching loneliness. Men galloped through their lives, leaving behind broken hearts and a child or two. Occasionally there was a marriage — as in the case of Nalini Jayawant — but the unions were largely shams.

I know Nalini was bothered by what she perceived — correctly — as the lack of love in her life, and her childlessness. She would confide in my mother. And as I entered my teens, Nalini would sometimes speak to me about how important it was that family ties be retained and strengthened. She spoke about her estrangement from her father and brothers. She spoke to me about her broken marriage to director Virendra Desai, and her subsequent unhappy union with Prabhu Dayal.

She would cast envious looks at her cousin Shobhana Shilotri Samarth. Dadasaheb Jayawant had also opposed his niece's desire to get into films on the grounds that no one would marry her. In the event, Shobhana married Kumarsen Samarth — one of the early developers of the Films Division of India — who hailed from the same CKP community. While they had four children, Shobhana took up with the actor Motilal, whom she would publicly refer to only as a “good friend.”

But Nalini Jayawant had no such close friend. That may explain why she was so attached to dogs. She kept Pomeranians and terriers. She cared about them so much that Nalini ensured that her pets ate before she did; she would rarely travel because she was afraid of missing her dogs. She always said that it was important to keep dogs of good pedigree. Maybe that subtly underscored the fact that, as a CKP-born woman, she came from a community that traditionally produced intellectuals, playwrights, writers and scholars.

Nalini, bright though she certainly was, recognised that her achievements would never be in the realm of the cerebral. Film stardom was the most she could expect. It may be conjecture on my part, but somewhere deep within her I suspect that Nalini felt that stardom notwithstanding, she had let her community down. And I also suspect that, if Nalini reflected on death at all, she never thought she would end her life in the company of dogs who were just plain mongrels she had found on the narrow lanes of her dilapidated suburban community.

( Pranay Gupte is a veteran journalist and author. His next book, “Dubai: The Journey,” will soon be published by Penguin-Viking. He is currently working on his memoirs of more than four decades in international journalism.)

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 17, 2021 5:58:01 AM |

Next Story