Bollywood femme fatale

Wednesday 15 February 2006 01:00

Florence Ezekiel (Nadira), actress: born Baghdad 5 December 1932; died Bombay 9 February 2006.

For more than two decades, into the 1970s, the femme fatale Nadira enthralled a generation of Indian cinema audiences. She appeared in over 60 Bollywood films, mostly playing the fetching vamp. With her sultry, come-hither looks, arched eyebrows, exaggerated swagger and outlandish cigarette-holder, at a time when anything remotely risqué was considered unduly forward in women, the saucy Nadira titillated the imagination and fantasy of millions of fans, who hooted gleefully whenever she appeared on screen.

Nadira, who used one name, rarely disappointed. With effortless élan she led a succession of virtuous leading men astray and played the egregious, greedy and heartless brothel madam to perfection. And, though each time she got her comeuppance in formula Bollywood productions, it seldom came without a large dose of empathy from her audiences.

Several of Nadira's contemporaries in Bombay considered her ahead of her time; for, though typecast in her roles, she defied accepted social norms of the day with insouciance and irreverence. She was also the only Bollywood star to possess a Rolls-Royce in the 1960s. In her later films when she often played the widowed mother, Nadira was rarely the sobbing hapless woman in the traditional white sari, but a feisty personality replete with dignity and chutzpah.

Born Florence Ezekiel into a Jewish family in Baghdad in 1931, she migrated as an infant with her family from Iraq to the port city of Bombay, then a modern metropolis and bustling centre of commerce in the region. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries hundreds of Baghdadi Jewish families like the Ezekiels flocked not only to Bombay but also to Calcutta, the capital of colonial India, in search of business opportunities. Many ended up as tea and opium traders. However, since India's independence in 1947, almost all such Iraqi Jews have migrated to Israel and the West.

Adopting the screen name Nadira, the 12-year-old made her Hindi film début in 1943 with a small role in Mauj ("Fun"). But her career blossomed nine years later when she played the princess Rajshree opposite Bollywood's legendary hero Dalip Kumar in the box office hit Aan ("Pride").

The film's director, Mehboob Khan, chose Nadira for her glowing skin, sharp features and overall European look as he had wanted to render the film into English as well, but never did. One British critic, however, dismissed the historic film, peppered with endless sword-fight episodes, as one that "goes aan, aan and aan".

But it was in Shree 420 in 1955, in which Nadira plays the villainous Maya who lures the righteous hero on the road to profligacy, that she realised her forte as a vamp. Her chiselled features, flared nostrils and sharp voice that fluently spewed venom and vituperation in flawless Urdu, led to Nadira's being typecast as the amoral temptress, evil brothel-keeper or vicious schemer in films like Ek Nazar ("One Glance", 1972), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Pakeezah (1971) besides a host of second-rate films that have faded into oblivion.

But in Julie (1975), Nadira played a poor Anglo-Indian housewife trying to keep her family together in the face of grave crises and insurmountable odds with sensitivity and poise, earning herself a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress award. Nadira's career declined after the 1970s and thereafter she featured only occasionally in films, including Tamanna ("Desire") in 1997 and Josh ("Feistiness") in 2000, which was her last.

A vivacious extrovert at the peak of her career, Nadira became reclusive as her fame and finances dipped and she openly admitted to being lonely as she had no family in India after her two brothers migrated abroad. But she was widely read and well informed about current affairs and, though she never married, Nadira's name was romantically linked to some of her leading men.

Kuldip Singh

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