Famously known as the Lady in White or the ‘First Lady of Indian Cinema’, Nargis would’ve turned 89 on June 1. Calling her the greatest gift to Indian cinema, her niece and former actress Zahida Sahay says, “It has been 37 years since she passed away, but people still remember her. When I go for my walks, many ask me if I am a relative of Nargis, which is a huge compliment for me.”
Let’s go down the memory lane. Nargis was born Fatima Rashid on June 1, 1929, and made her screen debut as a child artiste in Talash-E-Haq as Baby Nargis. She was already a veteran of sorts at the age of 20 - this was much before she got her first film with Raj Kapoor. She would go on to play different kind of roles to avoid getting typecast. Nargis had once said in an interview, “A woman can by instinct be a better artiste than a man for the simple reason that you’ll find much more depth and understanding in her portrayal.’’
Many are curious about Nargis’s first meeting with Raj Kapoor and how she ended up being an integral part of the RK banner. Contrary to what most believe, she was a last-minute entry in Raj Kapoor’s Aag and was paid about ₹ 10,000 for it. Her brother Akhtar Hussain wanted top billing for her as she was an experienced actor but Jaddan Bai didn’t want her daughter to miss a chance of working with Prithviraj Kapoor’s son. The actress went on to command more fees than her male counterparts. Nargis was known to pick up roles and characters that broke stereotypes.
As mentioned in one of the books written on her, the actress welcomed unconventional roles. She smoked with abandon in Anhonee and played complex and sagacious roles in Lajwanti and Jogan. The diverse characters that she took on were matched by her talent.
Zahida said that there was no method to her acting. She said, “She was totally dedicated to her art, but in a simple way. She never went overboard preparing for it, it just came naturally to her. Nor did she ever train professionally for it. I remember we would go on the set on our holidays. She would be sitting in her shorts one minute, the next minute she would be doing a serious scene.
After Raat Aur Din, she slipped into her role in Jogan with the same amount of ease. She could switch on and switch off; she didn’t really have to sit in a corner and sulk to be in character.” Nargis had 55 films to her credit as an actress and won the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Award for her role in Mother India in 1958.
According to film historian Amrit Gangar, Nargis was one of the earlier actresses to turn producer. He said, “One of the early woman film producers in Indian film history, Nargis even established her own production house, Nargis Art, producing films directed by Akhtar Hussain.” Gangar said that Nargis had a certain steel in her inner being and yet she remained an iconic mother, even a jogan and an eternal lover – whatever roles she essayed were etched in her own being.
He further adds, “Radha who sang these lines of Duniya Mein Aaaye Hain in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India had a certain faith in the Almighty, a certain resolution within herself in real life, and Nargis immortalized these values in her impersonation of Radha. It was this indomitable faith that grew out of Baby Rani, that five-year-old girl that her mother Jaddanbai had introduced to the world of cinema.’’ Nargis’s daughter, Namrata Dutt, reportedly said in one of her interviews that Nargis was a fun-loving person who did not mind stepping out to have paani puri or roadside chai. She would often take her nieces along with her.
While they would wear burqas, she didn’t really care about wearing them on an outing. Zahida recalls, “She would wear a crumpled saree and step out without make up to meet people. She was a simple soul and had no airs about being a star. She would step out in a cotton saree and didn’t really care about what people thought, unlike today’s heroines who undergo plastic surgeries, trying to look good.” She further adds, “I remember an incident where she was invited for lunch by the tailor who would stitch all her blouses. She decided to go and took us along with her. We went to this small place, walking up a rickety staircase. He laid out food for us on the floor. When we asked if the water was boiled, she gave us a sharp stare and told us ‘paani chup chaap pi lo’.
We dared not disobey our aunt. You know we would call her Sitadevi (Lalita Pawar’s character in Professor) as she was very strict with us.”
When Nargis met Sunil Dutt in 1957, life changed for both. Dutt saved her life during a fire scene-gone-wrong on the set of Mother India. He hurt himself. Nargis nursed him by changing his bandages and taking care of him till he got well. Not many know that Nargis wanted to be a doctor. There were was a murmur that the relationship was a rebound following her heartbreak with Raj Kapoor.
Sunil Dutt, however, told a website in 2003 that he didn’t want to know about her past and that he just knew that she came into his life as a wife and a homemaker. Marriage to Sunil Dutt was not easy for Nargis. She was known to be the first lady of the industry, while Dutt was still trying to gain a foothold in the industry. He also faced criticism for his role as Birju. To add to it, Nargis’ brother Akhtar Hussain was against the marriage and didn’t meet them or give the couple his blessings when the two returned home after an Arya Samaj marriage. Nargis’ priorities changed after marriage. She quit acting after Raat Aur Din. Zahida said, “My father told her that she would win more accolades for this film than what she got for Mother India.
And right enough, she did get a lot of appreciation for her role of a schizophrenic in the film.” After marriage, Nargis got involved in Sunil Dutt’s productions. They formed the Ajanta Arts Cultural troupe which had several film stars and singers taking part in stage shows at the border areas. Nargis got involved in charity work in the 70s and became the first patron of the Spastic Society. Zahida said, “Her social work and public life began after marriage. She would travel to the Afghan Church and work with the children there. She is the one to get the Bandra reclamation land for the Society.” She later got nominated as a Rajya Sabha member in 1980.
Since she was a straightforward person, she didn’t spare anyone. Gangar said, “As a Congress (I) MP in the early 1980s, she criticised Satyajit Ray’s films for exporting India’s poverty and earned a negative feedback for it.” He said, “She was always in search for truth, her right in life.” From 1929 to 1981, Nargis lived for a little over half a century with the zest and the spirit of a rebel with a cause.