Nargis was, undoubtedly, one of the greatest Indian actresses of all time. Her performances right through the 1940s and 50s were authentic and natural to a degree not seen then in Indian Cinema, which was still quite loud, melodramatic, and theatrical.
The daughter of actress, singer, composer and filmmaker Jaddanbai, and Abdul Rashid, formerly ‘Mohan Babu’ a wealthy Hindu, she was born Fatima Rashid on June 1, 1929 in Allahabad. The family shifted to Calcutta, then Bombay when Fatima was very little. Fatima studied at the Queen Mary High School for Girls in Bombay where she developed a life long love for Literature. When just 5 years old, her mother introduced her as a child actor, Baby Rani, in the film that her production company, produced, Talash-e-Haq (1935). Followed a series of roles as a child artist and when barely into her teens, Fatima, now christened Nargis for the screen, played her first adult lead role in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943) opposite Motilal. The film, which combined elements of the lost and found trope against the world of the stage or theatre, was a huge success making Nargis a star. In the film, Nargis played Shyama, the daughter of a judge separated from her family as a child, who is then found by a widower in the theatre business. She grows up as a stage performer and falls in love with Motilal, who is brought up by her actual family and who happens to be the long lost son of the theatre owner!
Nargis reunited with Mehboob in the filmmaker’s Humayun (1945) making her presence felt, playing Humayun’s wife, Hamida Bano, to Ashok Kumar‘s Humayun. The same year also saw her being cast as Anarkali in K Asif’s magnum opus, Mughal-e-Azam (1960). However, due to the partition of India, filming came to a halt and post Independence, the film underwent a series of changes with Madhubala finally taking over Anarkali’s role. By now an established actress, Nargis was seen in a series of films like Nargis (1946), Romeo And Juliet (1947), Mehndi (1947), Mela (1948) and Anokha Pyar (1948). But real stardom came her way with Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) and Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949). That year, she also played the lead, as an abducted woman, in one of the earliest films made in India with the backdrop of the Partition, Lahore (1949).
Andaz remains one of the best love triangles in Hindi Cinema, albeit one with a tragic ending for all three protagonists. Nargis turns in a superb performance as a modern miss far removed from the traditional Indian heroine of the day, who is caught between the two men who love her, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. Reviewing the film, Filmindia was all praise for Nargis’ act. Quoting the review, “Nargis gives an eloquent performance as a tragedienne when sighs and tears begin to punctuate the drama. This girl is great when she has to say it with tears.”
Besides Andaz, Nargis often played women caught in a dilemma of the heart leading to a tragic ending. We see this in Mela, Jogan (1950), Babul (1950) and Bewafa (1952) among others – a throwback to the kind of roles India’s first ever film star, Patience Cooper, did in the 1920s. In many of these films, the love triangle is finally solved with the death of one or more of the main characters. Among these, Jogan is particularly special. Filmed in just 29 days by Kidar Sharma, this film sees Nargis playing a young woman, Surabhi, who escapes her arranged marriage to a much older man done by her alcoholic brother for money. She becomes a female mendicant, only to find herself battling her devotion to God against her love for an atheist, Vijay, played by Dilip Kumar, who also falls for her. Nargis is the life and soul of Jogan and gives a compelling performance under Sharma’s strong direction. The film also sees some wonderful music by Bulo C Rani, composing several exquisite Meera bhajans for Nargis in the expressive voice of Geeta Dutt, then Geeta Roy. Songs like Ghunghat Ke Pat Khol, Aeri Main To Prem Deewani, Main To Girdhar Ke Ghar Jaoon and Mat Ja Mat Ja Jogi are remembered fondly even today as the definite Meera Bhajans in Hindi cinema. In fact, in 1957 when listing her top ten songs, Dutt named the last as perhaps her best ever song!
Earlier in 1948, Nargis had played the main lead in Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut set against the world of the theatre, Aag. It was the beginning of a partnership between them, both professional and gradually, personal as well. The Raj Kapoor-Nargis pair had a searing chemistry hitherto unseen on the Indian screen. The passion they felt for each other poured out on-screen as they romanced each other in several films – Jan Pehchan (1950), Pyar (1950), Awara (1951), Amber (1952), Anhonee (1952), Bewafa, Dhoon (1953), Papi (1953) and Shree 420 (1955) to name a few. In fact, after Awara, where she convincingly played a strong lawyer who defends her childhood sweetheart, Raj Kapoor, accused of murder, she worked almost exclusively only with him. She even turned down her mentor, Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952) opposite Kapoor’s ‘rival’ and with whom she already had a successful pairing across seven films, Dilip Kumar. The song Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua from Shree 420 with Nargis and Raj Kapoor under the umbrella in heavy rain is subliminal romance at its best and easily one of the most romantic songs ever seen on the Indian screen.
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 as a romantic couple together. She did, however, do a special appearance in his production, Jagte Raho (1956), for old times sake and perhaps it is 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). The film would immortalise Nargis.
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 film critic, 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 Filmfare award for Best Actress as well as the Best Actress award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film 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. The same year, she was in the midst of making Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani, opposite Kishore Kumar, when she got pregnant. She opted out of the film which was then shelved. Dutt and Nargis had 3 children, a son, Sanjay, and daughters, Namrata and Priya.
Post marriage, Nargis 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 first ever 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 (she was an early patron of the Spastics Society of India) saw her being 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. That role was subsequently played by Veena.
In 1980, Nargis was detected with pancreatic cancer. She went to New York to undergo treatment at the Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Centre. There she had 5 operations and lay in a coma for 2 months, her heart and kidneys also failing. Miraculously, she recovered somewhat and returned to India. However back home, she fell ill again, the cancer having spread all over her body. Nargis finally bid adieu to this world on May 3, 1981, not yet 52, and just days before her son Sanjay Dutt made his screen debut as a leading man with Rocky. At the premiere of the film, the chair meant for her was kept empty as a mark of respect for her.
The Award for the Best Film on National Unity and Emotional Integration, launched in the 13th edition of the National Awards, was later named the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Film on National Integration in her honour and for her contribution to Indian cinema. Nargis has also been the subject of three books – Mr. and Mrs. Dutt: Memories of our Parents by daughters Namrata Dutt Kumar and Priya Dutt, Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt by Kishwar Desai and The Life and Times of Nargis by TJS George. Daughter, Priya Dutt, made a documentary on her, Nargis (1991) for Films Division.
Recently, Nargis was played by Manisha Koirala in the biopic on her son, Sanjay Dutt, Sanju (2018). Her character is also seen briefly in Nandita Das’ film on Saadat Hasan Manto, Manto (2018) and is played by Feryna Wazheir.