March 1, 1957. It’s 4 pm. A film unit at Umra, a small village between Surat and Billimora, is preparing to shoot a fire sequence. The lead actress looks down at her hands which with make-up suddenly looked old and wrinkled, and eerily begins talking of death.
A quiet voice interrupts her, “Ready for take?” She nods silently and the director crisply instructs some stacks piled high to be set on fire. As the hay bursts into flames, the megaphone stutters to life, “Baby, run in!” Without a moment’s hesitation, the actress dashes into the blaze, supposedly to rescue her errant son caught in the inferno. But the wind suddenly changes direction and she finds herself trapped in the circle of fire instead. As the unit watches in dazed horror, a young man plunges into the fire. Minutes later, he dashes out with the lady in his arms. She’s bruised and burnt but alive. “Cut, print!”
Inadvertently, Mehboob Khan has the perfect shot for his under-production Mother India! And the near-death incident has sowed the seeds of an unanticipated love story.
Nargis has found her real-life hero. She writes in her diary, “I am a new Nargis. Still as childlike as the old but somehow, after passing through the fire, I feel happily, gratefully and satisfyingly different...”
On September 5, 1967, Mother India opens in the theatres. It is hailed as “India’s greatest picture”. Nargis becomes an iconic mother.
Six months later, on March 11, 1958, she marries her on-screen son, Birjoo, and becomes Mrs Sunil Dutt. If the couple’s friends are to be believed, the marriage almost doesn’t happen.
Where’s the bride?
Sunil Dutt is at the Arya Samaj Hall in Mumbai, the venue for the hush-hush ‘shaadi’, at 7 pm sharp. Nargis doesn’t show up for almost three hours. She is caught in a terrible traffic jam and sitting in her car is convinced that her groom will think she has ditched him and leave.
Dutt doesn’t leave. In fact, he remains rooted to the spot, afraid to dash out even to make a quick phone call to enquire about Nargis’s whereabouts. What if his bride shows up in his absence, think he had ditched her and drives out of his life forever?
The wedding finally happens, close to midnight. It grabs headlines and raises eyebrows. How could a son marry his mother, never mind if the relationship was limited only to reel life?
The worldy wise insist that Dutt married Nargis for her money and connections. They predict that she will be back in the studios in six months.
What they don’t know is that for years Nargis has had a dream… Waiting at the door of a cottage, her two children—a girl and a boy — besides her, for her husband to return from work. The dream has finally come true. For years, Mrs Dutt was content to wait for Mr Dutt to return home from the studios, with three not two children — Sanjay, Namrata and Priya — by her side.
Good boy, bad boy
From Mother India Nargis had become simply mother. And she doted on her Sanju as much as she had on Birjoo. Interestingly, had Mehboob Khan gone with his original cast, Dilip Kumar would have played her husband and also her wayward younger son. The actor had air-dashed to London after signing the film to try out different wigs so he could differentiate between the two characters. Meanwhile, Khan’s writers convinced him that it was not a good idea to have Dilip Kumar in a double role. When he returned, Dilip Kumar was informed that he’d have to let go of the son’s role. He chose to let go of both roles.
Raaj Kumar was the husband and Sabu who had played the lead in The Elephant Boy, was Birjoo. But after a few days of shooting, it was clear that that the Hollywood star wouldn’t connect with our ‘desi’ audience. And Sunil Dutt was informed that he was turning from ‘good boy’ Surendra to ‘bad boy’ Birjoo.
Buy her a bouquet
Cut to 1977. Nargis has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment at the Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York. Her husband and children rally around her as she battles for her life in the cancer ward.
A friend is speeding across town to visit her. “Can you drive a little faster?” she urges the cabbie. “I don’t want to miss the visiting hour at the hospital. My friend is a famous Indian movie star.”
The American is unimpressed. “Who’s she?” he asks. “Nargis and she had starred in a movie called Mother India,” he’s told. Immediately, he snaps out of his bored disinterest: “Hey, I’ve seen that flick!” The cab is suddenly flying. After they arrive at Sloan-Kettering Hospital, he waves away his fare saying, “Buy the lady a bouquet with the money.” It’s a fan’s tribute to an unforgettable Mother India!