Nargis was undoubtedly one of the greatest Indian actresses of all time. Her performances through the 1940s and 50s were authentic and natural to a degree not seen then in Indian Cinema, which could still be quite loud and theatrical.
Daughter of actress, singer and filmmaker Jaddanbai, she was born Fatima Rashid on June 1, 1929. When just 5 years old, her mother introduced her as a child actor, Baby Rani. Barely into her teens, she played her first adult lead role in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943) opposite Motilal. She made her presence felt in the same filmmaker’s Humayun (1945) as Humayun’s wife, Hamida Bano, and though she did a steady lot of films like Mehndi (1947), Mela (1948) and Anokha Pyar (1948), real stardom came her way with Andaz (1949) and Barsaat (1949). That year she also played the lead in the film film made in India with the backdrop of the Partition, Lahore (1949).
Andaz remains one of the best triangles in Hindi Cinema with Nargis turning in a fine understated performance as the modern woman caught between Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. In fact, Nargis often played women caught in a dilemma of the heart leading to a tragic ending – Mela (1948), Jogan (1950), Babul (1950), Deedar (1951) and Bewafa (1952) among others (the kind of roles Patience Cooper did in the 1920s). In many of these films, the love triangle was solved with the death of one of the principal characters.
Off-screen, her alleged affair with the already married Raj Kapoor was a matching of soul and spirit. After Awara (1951), where she convincingly played a strong lawyer who defends hr childhood sweetheart, Raj Kapoor, she worked almost exclusively with him even turning down her mentor Mehboob’s Aan (1952). The Raj Kapoor and Nargis pair had chemistry hitherto unseen on the Indian screen. A partnership that began with Aag (1948), the passion that each had for the other poured out on the screen as they romanced each other in several films – Pyar (1950), Amber (1952), Anhonee (1952), Dhoon (1953), Papi (1953) and Shree 420 (1955) to name some. The song Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua from Shree 420 with Nargis and Raj under the umbrella in heavy rain is subliminal romance at its best. Nargis knowing Raj Kapoor’s obsession for white took to dressing in white and was known as his lady in white. She even met the then Home Minister Moraji Deasai to try and get him to sanction a marriage between her and Raj Kapoor! Of course, the honorable minister politely refused.
However, by 1956 the pair had broken up with Chori Chori (1956), a breezy entertainer based on Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934), being their last film together. She did do a special appearance in his production Jagte Raho (1956) for old times sake and perhaps it was fitting that at the end of the film she is the woman who finally quenches Raj Kapoor’s thirst by giving him water to drink. With Raj Kapoor out of her life, almost as if on cue, Mehboob offered her his magnum opus, Mother India (1957).
Mother India is the ultimate tribute to Indian Womanhood! This epic saga of the sufferings of an Indian peasant woman has an inherent and perennial appeal, being typical of the Indian situation. The film is an opulent colour remake of Mehboob’s earlier austere Black and White film Aurat (1940). In fact everything about the film is highly charged right down to the strong, earthy central performance by Nargis. The film represents the pinnacle of her career. Even the hard to please Baburao Patel had to admit in the Filmindia review, “Remove Nargis and there is no Mother India. Nargis is both the body and soul of the picture. Never before has this girl given such a superb and dynamic performance. Nargis reaches such rare heights of emotion that it will be difficult to find another artiste in the entire film world today to compare with her. Nargis lives the role better than Radha could have lived it.” The film won her the Best Actress award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary festival.
Mother India was also nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Film but it lost to Fellini’s Nights of Caberia by a solitary vote! It is a well-known story that while shooting for the film, Nargis was trapped amidst lit haystacks. As the flames got higher and higher, Sunil Dutt playing her rebellious son, Birju, in the film ran through the fire and rescued her. He proposed to her and Nargis married Sunil Dutt and quit films after marriage, her last lot of films coming in 1958, Ghar Sansar, Lajwanti and Adalat.
She did lend her voice and we do see her silhouette in Sunil Dutt’s ‘one actor movie monument’ Yaadein (1964) and she did make a comeback of sorts expertly playing a woman with a split personality in Raat Aur Din (1967) winning the National Award for Best Actress for the same.
Turning to social work, Nargis was the first film personality to be awarded the Padmashri and later her charitable work for spastics saw her nominated to the Rajya Sabha in 1980. She did court a minor controversy as a Member of Parliament when she accused Satyajit Ray of selling India’s poverty to the West to win awards. Incidentally, she had turned down a cameo in his Hindi film, Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977) earlier. The role was subsequently played by Veena.
Nargis died of cancer on May 3, 1981, the same year her son Sanjay Dutt made his screen debut as a leading man with Rocky.