One of Hindi cinema's brightest stars, seen through 10 images
Nargis Dutt was such a pre-eminent figure in the history of Indian cinema that her life and work are well known. Here are the 10 images I have chosen to acknowledge one of my favourite stars.
Nargis is perhaps remembered best for her role as Mother India in Mehboob Khan’s great epic. The film’s poster shows Nargis shouldering the plough as a beast of burden, a woman taking on the role of an animal and later a machine. The identification of Nargis with the new nation, as the heroine of a new national epic, also occurred when she moved from cinema to a new role as a wife, mother and member of the Rajya Sabha, before her terrible suffering with cancer. It says much about what a great star she was that winning the National Film Award for Best Actress, a high point in any career, which took place 10 years after Mother India, with Satyen Bose’s Raat Aur Din, is seen as being after her greatest days. We might wonder also about other films she could have made with Khan, who had introduced her in Taqdeer in 1943, following her earlier roles as a child artiste.
My second image of Nargis is an offscreen shot of her throwing her head back in laughter, a modern Bombay woman in her capri pants with her hair styled like a Hollywood star—much like Katharine Hepburn but possibly inspired by Nargis’ own favourite, Joan Fontaine. Her early life typifies the glamour of 1940s and 1950s Bombay, then, as now, a cosmopolitan and stylish city, even though she was born in Calcutta to north Indian parents. Her father, Mohan Babu, a Mohyal Brahmin (the same caste as Sunil Dutt), was eclipsed by her mother, the fascinating Jaddan Bai, a singer and courtesan of Allahabad, later one of India’s first film producers. While her name, Fatima Abdul Rashid, reveals her mother’s religion, she adopted the stage name Nargis, “daffodil", a more “modern" name though, unlike many of her contemporaries, such as Meena Kumari and Madhubala, one which still was evidence of her Muslim heritage.
One of my favourite films of Nargis is Khan’s Andaz, where she shines between the two heroes, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar. It is said that Kapoor did not want her to act with Dilip Kumar—another of the great pairings of Hindi cinema—in films such as Mela, Anokha Pyar and Jogan. Two kinds of masculinity which dominate Indian cinema are presented here—the restrained hero who suffers through no fault of his own, played by Dilip Kumar, and the man-child who cannot handle his emotions, played by Raj Kapoor.
The fourth image is of Nargis as the third heroine in Raj Kapoor’s Aag, who first appears dishevelled and half-mad, saying she has no name and no home but has come from hell (narak), meaning Punjab, which has been consumed by the fires of Partition violence—one of the first mentions of Partition in a mainstream film.
This is very different from the fifth moment in Barsaat when, as Reshma, the daughter of a Kashmiri boatman (seemingly Hindu although the boatmen are Muslims, again possibly referring to Partition), she hears her beloved Pardesi Babu (Raj Kapoor) playing the violin, abandons her housework and rushes to him to fall into his arms, a moment captured in the logo of RK Studios.
In the sixth moment, the famous dream sequence from Awara, where Rita is, located in heaven, singing Ghar aaya mera pardesi, as Raj struggles to find his way out of the hell his life has become. She reaches out to him and seems to lift him to heaven, offering the possibility of redemption in a mixture of mostly Hindu but also Christian imagery, only for him to fall back into his nightmare.
The seventh image is my favourite. In Shree 420 Nargis had few glamorous moments, but the image of her and Raj Kapoor in indisputably one of Hindi cinema’s greatest love songs, Pyaar hua ikraar hua. The glamour of a rainswept Bombay and the star couple, R.K. and Nargis (as well as his children, who appear in their raincoats), is framed by a comic-pathetic sequence in which he cannot afford to buy his beloved even a cup of chai (tea) from a street stall, while the catchy music orchestrated in a modern style is set to profound lyrics about the dilemma of love.
The eighth image of Nargis is when she appears at the end of Jagte Raho, singing Jago Mohan pyare, where she appears to R.K., a man lost in a cruel world who finds solace in the kindness shown to him by a child and then a woman associated with the new dawn. Her song to Krishna also addresses R.K. as the innocent, while she bears the security of tradition as well as beauty and eroticism.
The ninth is more a moment than an image, namely that of Nargis in the Rajya Sabha, where she attacked Satyajit Ray in her maiden speech, saying that his films were giving images of India that the West wanted, namely those of abject poverty, which were incorrect depictions. When pushed by a journalist about how India should be shown on screen, she said she wanted images of modern India, suggesting these were represented by dams, as indeed in Mother India. In The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie returns to these various themes of Nargis the star and as Mother India, the quarrel with Ray and the reading of the star text into the movie, in an episode in which the actress visits the narrator’s mother.
Lastly, the family image of Nargis Dutt—the wife of Sunil Dutt, and mother of three children, including Sanjay Dutt, whose life reads like a Greek tragedy.
Nargis is remembered today by the road named after her in Bandra and by the Nargis Dutt Award for the Best Feature Film on National Integration. There are also books written about her, by T.J.S. George and Kishwar Desai. I would like to see two more memorials. One is a blue plaque on Chateau Marine, which I look out for every time I drive along Marine Drive, and the other is a biopic. To play Nargis? My first choice is Kajol.
Rachel Dwyer is professor of Indian cultures and cinema at SOAS (the School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London.