He had been sitting twiddling his thumb for almost two years before a new television production house approached him to play the central role in a serial called Rishte-Naate. This was way back in 1985—exactly 15 years after he made a sensational debut in Mohan Segal’s Sawan Bhadon together with Rekha and Ranjeet (1970). In the decade after the debut he played the leading man in 24 films including Sansar, Parwana (Amitabh Bachchan played the villain), Buddha Mil Gaya, Victoria No. 203, Hanste Zakhm, Dhund and Woh Main Nahi, and performed character roles in nearly 80 other films apart from umpteen television serials. He shifted residence to Pune after he was absolved of abetting second wife Geetanjali’s suicide in 2006. One of the reasons for his short innings was that despite a handsome visage, he failed to demonstrate variations of expression.
Nini’s, as Navin Nischol was fondly called by friends, last memorable performance had again been opposite Rekha in Basu Bhattacharya’s final take on extra-marital relationship, Aastha. That’s when we met last in 1997. His was a surprise but somewhat convincing appearance in the film. His name did not even feature in the title rolls. It was a difficult role but he conveyed Basuda’s idea of erotica through toe sucking and bites. Interestingly, the idea of casting Nini in Aastha was that of his first heroine, Rekha. “Since my work involved bold, love-making scenes with Rekha, Basuda asked her who should be cast opposite her in that role with whom she would be comfortable. Apparently she instantly said ‘Nini’.”
His last release was the Imran Khan-starrer, Break ke Baad in 2010. Ace film critic of the 70s, the late Amita Malik had described him as “the most handsome actor” though at best he was called the “poor man’s Rajesh Khanna” even though Navin had been the first gold medalist from the Film & Television Institute, Pune to make it as a star at a time when his seniors like Shatrughan Sinha were running pillar to post to get a break. Few even in Bollywood recall that he had been director Yash Chopra’s first choice for Shashi Kapoor’s role in Deewar. And Rajesh Khanna had been short listed for Amitabh’s role in the iconic film.
He did not ask this columnist too many questions when he approached the actor for Dr Karan Bedi’s role in Rishte-Naate as the writer-producer of the television serial which gave him a second lease of life as an actor. His last release had been the 1983 film Aasra Pyar Da. In those days Nini had been living with the chain smoking divorcee Delhi socialite, Pimma after having earlier separated from Dev Anand’s niece Neelu. It was also rumoured that the marriage broke down because of his suspected affair with starlet Padmini Kapila who later became more infamous as producer-director Prakash Mehra’s leisure time interest.
Moving from Rishte-Naate to Dekh Bhai Dekh seemed a natural progression because Shobha Doctor’s Concept Advertising had been the go-between the sponsors and Doordarshan, and the director Anand Mahendroo a regular visits to the sets in various studios. In both these serials and at his best in later films also, Nini demonstrated a very casual approach to acting. In Rishte-Naate he was to essay the role of a doctor whose small family disintegrates because of his commitment to the medical profession. He did not seem the kind who liked to rehearse his role or lines before reporting on the sets. That’s perhaps why he never had the opportunity to work with any major director of his time, except Chetan Anand. There was certain casualness, nonchalance in his performances which probably stemmed out of the fact that he was an affable, kind hearted person who bore no complaint against anyone.
Almost every evening during the shooting schedule over the next months was a party time. We played a game almost every day after pack-up as to whose ‘birthday’ it would be celebrated that night. The producer being the most favourite target other than actor-friend Tinnu Anand (he had then been directing Shahenshah with Amitabh Bachchan). Nini was hooked onto beer, and could consume galloons—a trait, one understands, continued till his premature end on 19 March 2011.
The biggest hit of Nini’s career was director Brij’s Victoria No. 203 opposite Saira Bano though veterans Ashok Kumar and Pran ran away with all the laurels. His lesser known successful movie in a double role was the 1974 Woh Main Nahi again opposite Rekha and directed by Mohan Segal. One of his other better-remembered starrer was Chetan Anand’s Hanste Zakhm opposite Priya Rajvansh—an out-and-out commercial attempt based on a Gulshan Nanda lost-and-found story which will always be remembered for the picturisation of the song Tum jo mil gaye ho—a Kaifi Azmi song set to soulful music by the incomparable Madan Mohan. It shows Bombay by night during heavy showers. The hero, Nischol, heir to huge fortunes, drives a cab to make a living after a showdown with his father in the company of a woman he loves.
Although he worked as a character actor in 80 films, his notable performances had only been in otherwise star-studded films like The Burning Train, Desh Premee, Dil Hi Dil Mein and Jawaani. Although lately he had also had meaty roles in Aa Ab Laut Chale, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Khosla ka Ghosla and won praise for his performance as a egoistic eclipsed star in Nagesh Kukunoor’s 2001 comic caper Bollywood Calling reportedly based on the real life behaviour pattern of Rajesh Khanna. How one wonders he had displayed these shades of expression during his vintage days.
By Suresh Kohli