Article Hindi

10 roles that defined Nargis's illustrious career

Often considered the finest actress of her generation, Nargis had an unmatchable presence on the Hindi screen in the 1940s and 1950s. On her 88th birth anniversary, we look at 10 films in which she played trail-blazing roles.

Sonal Pandya

1. Taqdeer (1943)

Nargis was just 14 when she was paired opposite 33-year-old star Motilal in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943). She had made her debut as Baby Rani in her mother Jaddanbai’s production Talash-e-Haq (1935). Born Fatima Rashid, she was rechristened Nargis for her role as lead actress in this film. The fairly confusing plot of Khan’s Taqdeer had Nargis and Motilal switch families at a young age when they get lost at a fair. The only problem was that Nargis’s screen mother mistakes Motilal to be her daughter, and therefore both Motilal and Nargis are called Shyama in the film. Despite it being her first role as lead heroine, Nargis seemed completely at ease in front of the camera.

2. Andaz (1949)

In six years following Taqdeer, Nargis quickly rose to the top of the Hindi film industry with roles in Bisvi-sadi (1945) and Nargis (1946) with co-stars Motilal and Rehman, respectively. In Andaz (1949), she was once again working with Mehboob Khan and seen in a love triangle with Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. It was the only time all three screen legends worked together in a film. Nargis played the modern Nina, who can be seen wearing fashionable trousers and boots, who knows her mind, even as the men in her life try to control her. In a film that held two stalwart actors, Nargis stood out as the driving force of the film.

3. Barsaat (1949)

The same year as Andaz, Raj Kapoor and Nargis lit up the screen in the first hit for Kapoor’s banner, RK Films. Barsaat (1949) was a musical success composed by Shankar-Jaikishan which solidified the Raj Kapoor-Nargis chemistry and the iconic pose of the duo, with Kapoor embracing her with one hand while holding a violin in the other became the logo for RK Films. Written and directed by Raj Kapoor, Barsaat featured Nargis as a simple village girl, Reshma, who falls in love with city boy Pran (Kapoor). Yes, she does get her heart broken, but eventually their love prevails.

4. Jogan (1950)

Kidar Sharma’s Jogan (1950) was an unusual film in which Dilip Kumar played an agnostic man, Vijay, who falls for a woman, Surabhi, who has given up all worldly desires and sings bhajans in a temple. The intense chemistry between Nargis and Dilip Kumar was praised in the film as was Nargis’s restrained performance of a woman torn between two worlds who must hold the temptation of love at bay. The film contained 14 songs composed by Bulo C Rani, many of them devotional songs sung by Geeta Roy and picturized on Nargis. These were the kind of roles that Nargis thrived on. It is hard to imagine anyone but her taking on a complex and layered character like Surabhi. And she was just 21.

5. Babul (1950)

In this love triangle directed by SU Sunny, the object of affection was the handsome Dilip Kumar who played Ashok. Though wealthy, he works as a postmaster. Nargis played Bela, the former postmaster’s daughter who falls in love with Ashok. While he gets closer to Usha (Munawar Sultana), Bela plots to claim Ashok for herself, with disastrous results. Author SMM Ausaja noted in the book, Bollywood in Posters, that Nargis, playing the third wheel in a triangular relationship, "delivered a scintillating performance as a woman in love, whose longing for a man she can’t marry takes her to a gloomy climax”.

6. Awara (1951)

In Raj Kapoor’s global hit Awara (1951), the character of the lovable tramp was first introduced. Much of the action in the film pit father against son, with Raj Kapoor's real-life father, Prithviraj, essaying the role of Judge Raghunath who finds his own son in court as a thief. But the woman Raj loves, Rita (Nargis, looking especially radiant), steps up for him in court to defend him and whenever he thinks he is less than her. Her character’s practical and forward-thinking ways were a precursor to many of today’s female characters.

7. Shree 420 (1955)

As Vidya in RK Films’ Shree 420 (1955), Nargis’s character represented knowledge, goodness and hope. It was Raj Kapoor’s enduring image of her. As was her performance in the iconic song, ‘Ichak Daana’, when she teaches young children and which became popular around the world. In the film, Vidya is the one who saves Kapoor’s Raju from drowning. And when Raju is tempted with a flashy and corrupt life, it is because of Vidya and her love that he tries to make amends for his wrongs. Shree 420 (1955) also became the last full film Nargis acted in for RK Films; she had a cameo appearance in Jagte Raho (1956).

8. Chori Chori (1956)

Largely inspired by the Hollywood film, It Happened One Night (1934), Chori Chori (1956) had Raj Kapoor taking on the part made famous by Clark Gable and Nargis, his co-star Claudette Colbert. She played Kammo, a pampered rich girl who wants to get married to Sumankumar (Pran) who is only after her money. She runs away from home to reunite with him and, along the way, her life is changed by Sagar (Kapoor), a newspaper reporter who manages to reform the spoilt heiress. Nargis dominated the film with her performance in this romantic comedy, overpowering even Raj Kapoor.

9. Mother India (1957)

Any mention of Nargis’s career is incomplete without a mention of Mehboob Khan’s classic, Mother India (1957). It set the standard for Indian actresses and it was an astonishing role for someone of Nargis's calibre to take on. Playing a village woman, Radha, she is the one who shoulders the responsibility of her family when her crippled husband (Raj Kumar) abandons her. Radha is stoic and strong and has to take hard decisions for the sake of her children. The role was a gamble that paid off spectacularly. Nargis played mother to both Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar in the Oscar-nominated feature.

10. Raat Aur Din (1967)

Nargis won the first National award for best actress with her portrayal of Varuna, a woman who suffers from multiple personality disorder. Nargis essentially takes on two roles in the film – the fun-loving, life-of-the-party Peggy and Varuna, the housewife. The film was also one of the first in Indian cinema to address mental health, and did it in a realistic manner. The critically acclaimed film, directed by Satyen Bose, was among Nargis's last film roles. She had married her Mother India co-star Sunil Dutt in 1958 and took on only very few roles thereafter.