Nargis: The luminous star
The well-known Hindi film lyricist and scenarist Javed Akhtar in an interview with Nasreen Munni Kabir, the celebrated film writer of Indian cinema and Bollywood specifically, comments: "How do we create a character? We take the morality and aspirations of society and personify them. That becomes a character who is idealized and then some actor or actress plays that role and they become big stars. Until the 1960s we were very clear about the image of this so-called Indian woman. The kind of person she is, what her values and virtues are and what is expected of her."
One of the greatest actresses of Indian cinema Nargis, was born on June 1, 1929 in Calcutta. Daughter of actress, singer and filmmaker Jaddanbai, she was christened Fatima Rashid and also called Baby Rani. Jaddanbai, was not only a filmmaker of repute, she was also a very ambitious woman and a close friend of Mehboob Khan - with whom Nargis would make her landmark films. But of that later.
Mehboob introduced Nargis as a heroine at the age of 15, opposite Motilal in his film, Taqdeer. Mebhoob also changed her name because he believed that the stars should have right kind of names - the names that would click with fans immediately. In The Life and Times of Nargis, biographer TJS George recounts how the young actress was renamed. "He (Mehboob) had a particular fondness for names beginning with 'N' which he considered lucky, so he chose for his new heroine the name of Nargis."
She continued to work with the same filmmaker in Humayun as Hamida Bano but stardom knocked on the door with Andaz (1949) where she starred with Raj Kapoor (the love of her life on and off screen until she married Sunil Dutt) and Barsaat (1949).
Andaz to date remains a benchmark for Hindi films of a similar genre - the love triangle. Nargis turned in a superlative performance as a woman caught between Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.
The plot of the film revolves around Neena (nargis) who leads one man on, despite being in love with another. She becomes fond of Dilip (Kumar) after he saves her life but she really is romantically inclined towards Rajan (Kapoor) - who is abroad at the time of the accident. Despite warnings from her father to the contrary, Neena leads Dilip to believe that she reciprocates his love - strengthening his belief further when she hands him over the reins of her father's business.
However, when Rajan returns and claims Neena she marries him and Dilip is devastated. He decides to leave on the night of her wedding but is stopped by Neena who insists that she tell him why he's going and enquiring whether she has committed a mistake. His confession that he's mistaken her affection for love and apology makes Neena very angry who insists that he apologise. But she knows that she has been unfair to him. Rajan in the interim started suspecting Neena of infidelity and takes away their child, not believing her until the very end - by which time Neena is serving a jail sentence for killing Dilip.
Andaz was a film ahead of its times and Nargis' character of a woman driven to distraction by the two men in her life, is so contemporary. Mehboob's idea of the Indian woman is culturally rooted, and morally upright. And any woman who stepped out of line would have to pay the price. He genuinely believed that "a true woman is one who enters the husband's house upon marriage and leaves it only when she dies."
That is what glorified in Mother India (the ultimate role that an Indian heroine aspires for was played by Nargis), a remake of his own austere black and white classic Aurat. According to Munni Kabir, Radha the heroine of Mother India is the "most exemplary heroine of Indian cinema. Mother India is a … moving and extraordinary epic." Radha is married to Shyamu (Raaj Kumar) and they live an idyllic life until Shyamu loses his arms in an accident and leaves home since he can't provide for his family anymore.
On Radha falls the burden of managing her family of a mother-in-law and two small sons Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) and Birju (Sunil Dutt). She tills the land with her sons' help, braving starvation, floods and storms and resisting (often violently) the overtures of the village letch (Kanhiyalal in an unforgettable performance) who also happens to be the village moneylender. She not only beats him up one day, she also exhorts the villagers not to leave their homes after a flood, stating that the land is their only hope for sustenance.
As Munni Kabir says, 'Mother India's underlying message is that the land gives dignity to the poor and a woman's dignity lies in her honour.' Radha goes to the extent of killing Birju when he is trying to escape after kidnapping the moneylender's daughter. For her, honour is more important that her son's life. This adherence to ideals is what Mehboob reinforce in film after film.
Off-screen, her affair with the already married Raj Kapoor was a coming together of soulmates. Even though she knew that Kapoor would never marry her, she continued to be with him, to the extent that she took to dressing exclusively in white because of his preference for the colour. Nargis worked with Raj Kapoor across 16 films and almost exclusively post Aag (1948), following it up with Barsaat and Andaz (1949), Awara (1951), Anhonee and Ashiana (1952), Bewafa, Chori Chori and Dhun (1953), Shri 420 (1955) and Jagte Raho in (1956), among several others. She even turned down her Mehboob's Aan (1952). The Raj Kapoor and Nargis had a chemistry which remains incomparable even today and their off screen passion and love was so immeasurable and obvious on the silver screen.
And even though they'd broken up, she put in a special appearance in his production Jagte Raho (1956) for old times sake. With Raj Kapoor out of her life, almost as if on cue, Mehboob offered her his magnum opus Mother India (1957), which earned itself an Oscar nomination that year and lost out to Frederico Fellini's masterpiece The Nights of Cabiria by a single vote. Mother India represents the pinnacle of Nargis' career and did win for Nargis, the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
In fact, Nargis chose to marry Sunil Dutt after he rescued her from amidst burning haystacks during the shooting of Mother India. As the flames got out of control, Sunil Dutt ran through the fire and brought her out. He subsequently proposed and she didn't say no. She did quit films after marriage, except when she lent her voice in Sunil Dutt's Yaadein (1964). Her comeback as a woman with a split personality in Raat Aur Din (1967) brought her the much deserved National Award.
Nargis was the first Hindi film personality to be awarded the Padmashree and later her charitable work for spastics saw her nominated to the Rajya Sabha. She died of cancer on May 3, 1981, the same year that her son Sanjay Dutt made his screen debut with Rocky.