On Nargis’ 91st birth anniversary, a look at a star who symbolised passion onscreen

Updated on Jun 01, 2020 05:17 PM IST

Actor Nargis would have turned 91 had she been alive today. On her birth anniversary today, looking at why she was such a phenomenon on screen.

Nargis in Mother India.
Nargis in Mother India.
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | ByNivedita Mishra

It is during rare moments in Hindi cinema when women are allowed sexual agency, with the filmmakers largely showing them as objects of desire. One actor who turned this reductive portrayal on its head was Fatima Rashid, better known as Nargis. On her birthday today, a look at her momentous life and career.

Nargis was born on June 1, 1929 in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to Jaddan Bai -- who was an institution in herself in the music and film world in 1930s and 1940s -- and Abdul Rashid, said to be a prosperous Hindu from Punjab who converted to Islam. Aged only 5, she made her film debut as a child artist in Talash-e-Haq. She was given the screen name Baby Nargis. Then, in 1942, at the age of 14, Nargis appeared in a film called Tamanna as an adult.

She would continue to work in Hindi films and earn popularity after appearing in films like Mela with Dilip Kumar and Nur Jahan. Her true legacy, however, would be carved out only after her association with legendary actor and filmmaker Raj Kapoor. Their first film was Aag (1948). They went on to work in 16 films together, six of which were produced by Raj Kapoor himself.

Nargis with Raj Kapoor in Awaara.
Nargis with Raj Kapoor in Awaara.

Their six films under RK Films banner include Aag (1948), Barsaat (1949), Awaara (1951), Aah (1953) and Shree 420 (1955). In Jagte Raho (1956) Nargis had a cameo. Their notable film, which was not produced by Raj Kapoor, was Chori Chori (1956). Aag flopped at the box office, Aah did average business but the rest of the four films did roaring business with Awaara and Shree 420 going down as two of the most iconic Hindi films of all times.

To a legion of fans of Hindi films, the memories of these two stars live on in the songs they featured in - Jiya beqarar hai, Barsat mein humse mile (Barsat); Ghar aaya mera pardesi, Dam bhar jo udhar munh phere (Awaara); Pyar ha ikraar hua, Ichak dana beechak dana, Sham gayi raat aayi (Shree 420); and Aa ja sanam madhur chandni mein, Pancchi banoon udti phiroon, Yeh raat bheegi bheegi (Chori Chori) - all of which are fresh in collective imagination.

Nargis in Awaara.
Nargis in Awaara.

Watch these songs to know what passion felt like, what love could do and how desire manifested itself on the silver screen. This is particularly noteworthy given how conservative we were as a society then. Such passionate love is unmatched even today. Nargis was anything but a coy beloved - these songs show how she formed the boisterous, joyful, intense beloved to the more staid and restrained Raj Kapoor. A consummate artist that she was, it wouldn’t be hard for her to portray the de-sexualised heroine too. Her portrayal as virtuous Vidya (Shree 420) and Jagte Raho can serve as examples.

Also read: Salman Khan pays tribute to Wajid Khan who began, ended career with him: ‘Will always love, respect, remember you’

However, it was with Mehboob Khan’s Mother India that Nargis’ true legacy would be cast in stone. Playing a young bride who soon becomes a widow and goes on to bring up her two sons - played by Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar - Nargis was a tour-de-force. The film not only showed the injustices society throws at those on the sidelines (in this case a young widow), it also showed Nargis as a strong and virtuous Indian woman, with a mind of her own, who kills her own son, when he goes rogue.

Nargis’ personal life has been of immense interest to cine-going audience in India. She was in a long relationship with the already married Raj Kapoor. She reportedly asked him to end his marriage but he refused to divorce his wife to marry her. Soon after, Nargis ended the relationship. Her Mother India co-star Sunil Dutt proposed to her and she agreed. Together, they remain one of the most loved couples of Bollywood. Nargis’ end came in 1981 after a long battle against pancreatic cancer.

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