Article Hindi

Nargis, nostalgia and then some: Birth anniversary special

Nargis was beautiful, but more than that it was her dignified personality that awed all those who came in contact with her.

Shoma A Chatterji

As a girl of 12 or 13, I saw Nargis in person at RK Studios in Chembur, Bombay. I lived at Shivaji Park in central Bombay then and we had to change two buses and the third would halt at the 'RK Studios' bus stop in Chembur. Inside the beautiful studio complex stood a small, single-storey bungalow in which “Babyji’ stayed.

“Babyji” was Nargis, always dressed in pure white saris and white, elbow-sleeved blouses, a dash of red lipstick and heeled sandals. She was beautiful, but more than her beauty it was her dignified personality that spread awe among whoever came in contact with her.

We did not know whether she lived in that bungalow, but she would come every morning, get off her car and go up the steps to the bungalow. She did not come out during the day or wander about the complex, ever. Sometimes she would pull the end of her sari over her head like a ghunghat but just covered a bit.

In the main building of the studio, where the shooting floors were on the ground floor, Raj Kapoor had set up a beautiful music room on the first floor with musical instruments lining one wall of the huge hall. There were sofas placed against the wall opposite, and on top of these sofas hung a beautiful oil-painted portrait of Nargis dressed in a white sari and white blouse, hair as if flying in the wind.

Some years later, I saw her getting off a car in her makeup and shooting clothes when she had come after her shoot for Mother India (1957) once and for Jagte Raho (1956) once, which was being shot on one of the RK floors. She looked so different and yet merged into that image as if naturally structured into it.

Raj Kapoor and Nargis, the iconic pair of Hindi cinema

Her relationship with Raj Kapoor was under strain at the time. The story goes that after RK Films began to suffer losses at the box office, it was Nargis who decided to act in productions outside the RK banner to rescue the studio from its financial crisis.

She would smile at all those who greeted her at the entrance and then inside the campus. Educated in a convent school, she spoke impeccable English. Once, when I was studying for my graduation, I met her at the Jehangir Art Gallery in south Bombay where she had come to cut the ribbon for the art exhibition of actress Jabeen Jalil. This time, she was draped in a printed silk sari and I understood why.

She was married to Sunil Dutt and her days of being 'the lady in white' were over. She wore white because Raj Kapoor loved his women in white and Krishna Kapoor, his dignified wife who never uttered a word about her husband’s relationship with Nargis, also always wore white, even after Raj Kapoor had passed away.

With Raj Kapoor in Awara (1951)

As an actress and as a woman, Nargis had looks and a sense of dress even for her films that never feels dated. If you watch Awara (1951) or Barsaat (1949) or any of her other films, not once does she appear to be “out-of-date” or passé. Her hairstyle was unique and yet it did not set off a trend at the time. And it was Raj Kapoor and his cameramen, Radhu Karmakar and the others, who invested her screen persona as if with magic, caught often in close-ups that remain charismatic to this day with the backlight creating an ethereal halo around her head, setting her beautiful features in relief.

Rarely did she play rural women or women with little or no education. But when she did, like in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, which made her immortal for the film archive and also fetched her several awards, she proved that she could easily turn the tables on her typical Raj Kapoor productions.

Female stars in those days did not need to show cleavage or thigh or much skin and Nargis was no exception. But she did quite a titillating scene in Awara, where she has to change her dress with the hero present. A piece of cloth is hung between the hero and the heroine and she asks him to turn away. Her bare shoulders are revealed and the hero decently turns away. That small scene is an ideal blend of titillation and restraint.

Another beautiful scene one recalls is the song sequence in the midst of heavy showers in Shree 420 (1955), which goes: 'Pyaar hua ikraar hua hai, pyaar se phir kyun darta hai dil.' It is one of the most moving and mesmerizing song sequences shot in Indian cinema. In this song, the three small children of Raj Kapoor, in raincoats, are seen walking along the pavement and the pair points out to them as their “symbols of the future”.

Nargis matched Raj Kapoor in every expression, every body movement and attitude as the song moved from one emotion to another, moving gracefully from the erotic to the parental.

Nargis, who could not dance to save her life, also managed to keep the audience glued to their seats in the dream dance scene 'Ghar Ayaa Mera Pardesi' in Awara.

Nargin was born in Calcutta on 1 June 1929. She had a very open upbringing. Her mother Jaddanbai, one of Indian cinema's first woman film producers and directors, was a trained classical singer. Though originally a courtesan, Jaddanbai married a Hindu who later converted to Islam, but the marriage was a happy one.

Jaddanbai had had three marriages and begot two sons from her two earlier marriages, Anwar and Akhtar Hussain, who were very close to Nargis. When the family shifted to Bombay, Nargis was admitted to a posh, English-medium school which shaped her personality.

Her original name was Fatima A Rashid, which was changed to Baby when her film career began as a child artiste at just five or six years old. Her first role as leading lady came when she was just 14, in Mehboob Khan’s film Taqdeer (1943) opposite Motilal.

In Mehboob’s Humayun (1945), where Nargis played a commoner, Hamida Bano, with whom Humayun (Ashok Kumar) fell in love, she is said to have performed very well indeed, though she was still very young at the time, barely 16.

In Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949), Nargis broke the prevailing norms and played the modern miss to perfection. The mirror scene in which she questions the ambivalence of her own feelings was the hallmark of her histrionic ability. It was a film made before its time, a love triangle where she, as leading lady, was pitted against two of the rising stars of Indian cinema — Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor.

It was probably during the shooting of Andaz that Raj Kapoor fell in love with her because, following Andaz, she worked in a chain of 16 films opposite Raj Kapoor, most of them produced under the RK banner. This screen pairing is the most popular till date in the history of Indian cinema, barring the magic created by Uttam Kumar and Suchitra Sen in Bengali cinema. The magic they created was mesmerizing even when other actors were present, such as Dilip Kumar in Andaz and Nimmi in Barsaat.

However, it may be noted that Nargis, the powerful actress, remained in the shadow of Raj Kapoor in all these films, from Aag (1948) through Barsaat to Shree 420. The story and script were always structured in a way that made the character played by Raj Kapoor so important that his lady love remained a glamorous beauty added for romance, chutzpah and the female touch.

It was only when she resumed acting in outside productions such as Miss India (1957), Adalat (1958), Lajwanti (1958) and, of course, Mother India and Raat Aur Din (1967) that she truly came into her own as an actress.

In Raat Aur Din, she played a schizophrenic woman after her marriage and the birth of her son Sanjay. The film did not do well when it was released, but it fetched Nargis her first National award for Best Actress.

Nargis was nominated to the Rajya Sabha for her contribution to social work under her husband's Ajanta Arts banner to entertain troops at the border and for heading another social organization. Following her death from pancreatic cancer on 2 May 1981, the lane in which the Dutts lived was renamed Nargis Dutt Road. A postage stamp was released by the postal department and the Union ministry of information and broadcasting named a National award for her.

The love story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt and their married life reads like a fairy tale with its ups and downs mainly due to the issues created by their son Sanjay. Nargis passed away before Sanjay Dutt's first film was premiered. Youngest daughter Priya Dutt made a documentary on her mother, also titled Nargis, which not many have had the chance to watch. A detailed biography has also been penned.

Senior journalist ML Dhawan, in a touching tribute, wrote: “In her films Nargis projected the image of a woman who could be desired as well as deified. As Radha in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Nargis imbued divinity to motherhood/womanhood. In the climax scene when Radha guns down her fugitive son Birju (Sunil Dutt), the feelings of seething anguish and tearing rage on her face are to be seen to be believed. Mother India remains a crowning glory for Nargis as an actress. The image of Nargis balancing a plough on her fragile shoulders simply refuses to fade away from the memory of the cinegoers.”

Before her pairing with Raj Kapoor began to exert a mesmerizing influence on the audience, Nargis's roles in Mela (1948) and Jogan (1950) focused on her beauty as well as on her talent. In films that paired her with Raj Kapoor, it was her ethereal beauty that was emphasized, though she got sufficient footage. The cameraman had a field day, capturing her in captivating black-and-white with a halo around her head in medium and big close-ups with chiaroscuro light effects to reveal the dreamy romanticism in her eyes, the curve of her lips offering a perfect and symmetrical foil to the somewhat confused and disturbed, sometimes dishevelled and mostly naïve image that Raj Kapoor presented.

In Aag, Raj Kapoor even took the risk of giving himself an ugly look with half his face burnt and scarred while Nargis was presented as her beautiful, sophisticated, modern self.

If one looks closely, one observes that in most films featuring the couple, the hero’s character was multi-layered and evolved over the film while the leading lady did have her moments but was more a catalytic agent playing her role to bring about a positive change in the man she loves.

It was only when she began to feature in films with other leading men such as Balraj Sahini, Pradip Kumar and Sunil Dutt that one got to saw what she was capable of. Films such as Pardesi (1957), Mother India, Miss India, Lajwanti, Adalat and Raat Aur Din are classic examples. These films presented different layers of the actress in Nargis that lay hidden behind that veil of beauty, glamour and stardom.

After that chance meeting at the Jehangir Art Gallery, I never saw Nargis again. But the memory remains as fresh as if it happened yesterday.