Remembering the enigmatic Nargis Dutt

Contrary to widespread belief Nargis’s best performance was not in 'Mother India' but in 'Adalat' (1958) where she played a prostitute. She was only 51 when we lost her to cancer on 3rd May, 1981

Remembering the enigmatic Nargis Dutt

Subhash K Jha

Nargis Dutt was in her 20s when she played her future husband Sunil Dutt’s 70-year-old mother in Mehboob Khan’s magnum opus Mother India, an epic tale of good son-bad son and conflicted mother with Nargis in a performance that defined dramatic acting for all times to come.

Later on, Nargis was to confess she never thought the film would become synonymous with her career. She did other female-oriented films like Lajwanti and Raat Aur Din. But everywhere she went she was hailed as Mother India.

Nargis was only 51 when we lost her to cancer in 1981. Her last wish was to see her darling son Sanjay Dutt on the big screen in Rocky. That was not meant to be.

“I miss her, yaar! I miss her all the time,” Sanjay had once confessed to me. “And you know what? I don’t think my troubles would have happened if she was with me. I kind of lost my way after she was gone. She was my anchor and my fairy godmother. She made every wish of mine come true.”

It is also true that Nargisji spoilt her only son silly. “She just let him do whatever he wanted and covered up for him whenever Sanju’s disciplinarian father tried to control him. Dutt Saab would ask where Sanju was, Nargisji would say he was in his room. She would sneak him back into the house in the wee hours as if he was sleeping the whole night,” a senior actress once told me.

Nargis Dutt was a very strong woman. She had the inner strength to walk out of a 10-year relationship with Raj Kapoor when she saw no future, no marriage, in it. Within months of the breakup, she met and fell in love with Sunil Dutt on the sets of Mother India. Theirs was one of the most successful marriages in Bollywood. Till death did them apart.

After marriage, Nargis never looked back at her career. Her final film Raat Aur Din where she played a split personality and for which she won the National Award, was released after marriage. Some of her other notable films featured her as the strong resilient woman who often wore the pants in a marriage.

In Mehboob Khan’s Andaz (1949) she was the headstrong modern woman Neena who sees nothing wrong in keeping male company in her circle of friends. In Raj Kapoor’s Awaara she was again the headstrong westernized cool-chick.

Image changes came with Lajwanti and Ghar Sansar both co-starring Balraj Sahni, where she played the central role of the indomitable homemaker. In 1957 a year after she broke away from Raj Kapoor, Nargis was the cynosure of all eyes in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. The film defines her career. Interestingly the comic virtuoso I.S. Johar, known for his satirical mimicry, made and released Miss India with Nargis in the lead during the same year as Mother India.


Contrary to widespread belief Nargis’s best performance was not in Mother India. Though she was supremely powerful in the film her best performance is to be seen in a film called Adalat in 1958 where she played a reluctant prostitute with just the right amounts of passion and pathos.

Lataji and Nargisji were very close friends and the actress insisted on Lataji’s ghost-voice.

Lataji remembered the Mother India actress as possessing tremendous elegance. “She was a woman with great poise. Her lifestyle, clothes and speech were always proper. I never saw her improperly dressed. She always wore white saris with matching accessories. And since white was my favourite colour she would send over the door-to-door sari sellers from Lucknow to my house. I have never seen her wearing non-white.”

I remember the enigmatic Rekha’s words to me on Nargis: “She was visible everywhere from cinema to politics. And yet what mystique she conveyed! To this day she's an enigma to everyone.”


Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines