Bina Rai was a leading Hindi cinema actress of the 1950s and 1960s admired for her elfin charm and versatility. Beautiful and talented but slightly introverted, Rai made fewer films than her contemporaries tended to. "I believe in quality, not quantity," she said, and many of the 30 or so films she made were critically acclaimed and commercially successful.
There was a regal aura about Rai, who is particularly remembered for her performances in classic films such as Anarkali (1953), Ghunghat (1960) and Taj Mahal (1963). Ghunghat, directed by Ramanand Sagar, brought the Filmfare Award for Best Actress despite Asha Parekh's substantial role in the film. "A woman of rare elegance, she was like a queen on and off the screen," Parekh said of her. "She wasn't quite like the average film person. She always appeared to be different and detached. But what an actress!"
Rai acted opposite the handsome Pradeep Kumar in these three blockbusters and a couple of other films; theirs was one of the most popular pairings in the history of Hindi cinema. Rai did not have such good chemistry with the brother-in-law of the actor-director Raj Kapoor, the dashing Prem Nath, with whom she worked in a few films, notably Anarkali, and Aurat (both 1953), the latter a Bollywood version of the Biblical tale of Samson and Delilah. However, the two fell in love during the making of Aurat, and married and set up their own production unit, P.N. Films.
Shagufa (1954), with Rai and Nath in lead roles, was its first offering. The starry-eyed lovers of Aurat had pinned high hopes on their first independent venture, but Shagufa failed at the box office; neither Rai's ethereal beauty nor Nath's touching portrayal of a doctor could save it. Prisoner of Golconda, Samunder and Watan, which followed, were also flops.
Bina Rai was born on 4 June 1936 into a conservative family in Lucknow in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. As a first-year arts student at Isabella Theodore College in Lucknow in 1950, she saw an advertisement for a contest for talented actors. On an impulse she applied and, to her surprise, received a call from the sponsors.
She won the contest, held in Mumbai, and along with a staggering prize (in those years) of $500. The veteran actor and producer Kishore Sahu offered her the lead role in his film Kali Ghata. Though Rai had acted in some plays in college, she had never dreamt of appearing on screen. She was tempted by the offer but her parents did not want to let her act in films. She went on hunger strike until her parents gave in.
Kali Ghata (1951), which launched her film career, was only moderately successful, though her beauty did not go unnoticed. The same was the fate of her next two films, Shole and Aurat with Ashok Kumar and Nath respectively, which came two years later.
Her fourth release, Anarkali, made her a star. It was based on the legend of the Mughal emperor Jahangir, and Rai's eponymous, sensitive portrayal of the ill-fated dancing girl in love with the crown prince Salim had the critics gasping. Anarkali was the top-grossing Hindi film of its year and one of the biggest hits of the 1950s.
Rai was offered what became a celebrated role, the prostitute and dancer Chandramukhi in the 1955 classic Devdas opposite the reigning superstar of that time, Dilip Kumar. But she refused, saying it was beneath her dignity to play what she called an "immoral" character. She stopped acting after her last film Daadi Maa (1966), claiming that "women of a certain age don't get good roles". Her husband, who later emerged as a ferocious and much sought-after Bollywood villain, died in November 1992.
Her son Prem Kishen tried his luck at acting then became a television producer, while her grandson Siddharth Malhotra directed the successful medical television drama Sanjivani in 2004.
Bina Rai, actress: born Lucknow, India 4 June 1936; married Prem Nath (died 1992; two sons); died Mumbai 6 December 2010.