Nargis—daughter of Mohan Babu, a Hindu from Rawalpindi who got converted to Islam, and of renowned Hindustani classical singer Jaddan Bai—was born in Calcutta in1929. She made her silver screen debut as a child artiste, baby Nargis, in Talash-e-Haq in 1935, when she was barely six years old. In 1943, Nargis was given her first lead role, in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer, opposite Motilal, an established actor at the time. Interestingly, it was Mehboob Khan again who offered Nargis the most challenging role of her life, in and as Mother India in 1957, which still remains the most iconic role in Hindi cinema, which every actress wishes to enact. The overriding message of the film—call of duty is higher than even bonds of blood—has inspired several Hindi films, such as Ganga Jamuna, Deewar and Shakti to name a few.
While Nargis worked with several top actors of her generation, such as Motilal, Ashok Kumar, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, she was paired with Raj Kapoor in as many as 17 films. Besides Kapoor’s most famous trilogy, Awaara, Sri 420 and Jagte Raho, she was also featured with him in successful films like Barsat, Aag, Aah, Andaz and Chori Chori. In fact, Raj Kapoor immortalised a memorable scene in Barsat, where he is holding Nargis on his left arm with a violin in his right, which became the logo of R.K. Films.
Her successful roles with the tragedy king Dilip Kumar, in films like Hulchul, Deedar, Mela, Babul, Jogan, Andaz and Anokha Pyar, were mostly serious. The triangular love story of Andaz, in which all the three main actors—Dilip, Raj and Nargis—gave superb performances, offered a template for the successful, tragic, love-triangle plot, which was followed in several films, including in Raj Kapoor’s own Sangam which turned out to be one of the biggest hits of his career.
Nargis was a unique combination of beauty, brains and guts. In many ways, she was ahead of her time. She was a versatile actor who could carry off serious roles, light roles and even comic roles with the same élan. She could be urbane and sophisticated, as in Awaara, Chori Chori and Andaz ; simple and ordinary, as in Sri 420; and every inch a traditional village woman, as in Mother India.
So much has been written about romantic pairs but no other pair could match up to the infectious romance dripping from the glances of Nargis and Raj Kapoor—from their simple gestures, from their whispers, and from words spoken, unspoken or partly spoken. Love doesn’t have to be expressed in designer clothes and long statements, like in Shah Rukh Khan and Katrina Kaif’s Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Remember that boat scene in Awaara in which Nargis looks towards the moon and sings “Dum bhar jo udhar mooh phere, mai unse pyar kar loongi”. Or that unforgettable rain scene from Sri 420, in which under the broken umbrella, the body language of the fully-drenched Raj and Nargis conveys a thousand shades of tender feelings of love, especially when Raj hums “Pyaar hua, iqrar hua…” We don’t see them hugging and kissing and rubbing noses as has become a routine in today’s films, but through their effervescent personal chemistry, Nargis and Raj convey a sublime form of love, which is beyond words. Gulzar described it so beautifully in that memorable song in Khamoshi, “Humne dekhi hai, un aankhon ki mehakti khusboo”.
Mother India offered Nargis more than a pivotal role. The whole film revolves around her—an epoch of rural India is narrated through her life. She expresses a myriad of reactions, emotions and feelings at different stages in her life: young, youthful wife working in the field and sharing her husband’s burden; a woman whose husband just disappears forever, a debt-ridden middle-aged Radha who has to fight against all odds to keep her sons alive and bring them up, resist advances of the greedy, lecherous Lala; and an affectionate, caring, elderly mother who shows courage, guts and steely nerves to shoot down her own son, Birju, to protect the honour of her village. Not only in Hindi films but even in Hollywod films, there have been only a few multi-layered roles like Radha. Scarlett O’hara so convincingly portrayed by Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind may be one that offered so much of scope to display one’s histrionic brilliance. No wonder Nargis’ role in Mother India remains the text book role for all Indian students of acting.
While Mother India brought laurels, respect and critical acclaim for Nargis, which she richly deserved, it was Awaara that made her an international star along with Raj Kapoor in different parts of the world: Soviet Union, China, Poland, Hungry, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt and Latin America. With virtually no population of Indian origin in these countries at that time, Nargis and Raj Kapoor were the first internationally recognised film couple from India.
It was an open secret that Nargis was madly in love with the eldest son of Prithviraj Kapoor, already married and father of two kids. But their love went up in flames in the fire of Mother India. Nargis, the creative inspiration of Raj Kapoor, decided to tie the knot with Sunil Dutt, who saved her life in Mother India risking his own. As Mrs. Dutt, she said good bye to the arc light of the celluloid and devoted her time to her family, three children and helping several organisations devoted to social causes she held dear to her heart, such as the Spastic Society of India.
Once an actor, always an actor. When she was persuaded to return to acting after a hiatus of 15 years to play the role of a person with split personality, in Raat Aur Din, she got her first National Award for best actress. She was the first female actor in India to be honoured with a Padma Shree and became the first actress to be nominated as a Member of Rajya Sabha.
Always impeccably dressed, mostly in a white sari—Raj Kapoor’s influence—she looked elegant and graceful. She broke many taboos in Bollywood, appeared in a swimsuit in Awaara and smoked in Raat Aur Din. She was elder to her husband, Sunil Dutt: not a common phenomenon in Indian society. She was an articulate speaker who was held in high esteem for her views by her peers and contemporaries. She was rightly voted as the millennium’s greatest Indian actress in a Star Dust poll.