Nargis Dutt: The woman and the actress

Nargis Dutt, the famous actress who died 38 years ago was, truly, a renaissance woman who left her footprints behind for others to follow

Photo courtesy: Twitter
Photo courtesy: Twitter

Biswadeep Ghosh

Nargis’s acting career had ended before I was born. She passed away on May 3, 1981, when I was a school-going kid. Everything I saw and learned about the remarkably accomplished actress and philanthropist was long after she was no more. It was then that I realised that the best of her performances could have served as lessons in acting for her peers and those who joined the profession later.

Nargis was, truly, a renaissance woman who left her footprints behind for others to follow.

Born Fatima Abdul Rashid in Kolkata on June 1, 1929, to singer and filmmaker Jaddanbai and Uttamchand Mohanchand, known as Mohan Babu to most, Nargis made her acting debut as a six-year-old in CM Luhar’s Talashe Haq in 1935. She was credited as Baby Nargis in the film. After finishing her schooling at Queen Mary’s in Mumbai, she wanted to study medicine. But she was persuaded to go for a screen test conducted by the legendary Mehboob Khan, resulting in a role in Taqdeer at 14.

By the time 1950s began, Nargis, which was her screen name given by Khan, had acted in several films. That includes Humayun (1945), Anokha Pyar and Aag (1948) Andaz and Barsaat (1949). She had been noticed as an actress who carried herself gracefully and acted not with exaggerations but subtlety. She also came across as a person who symbolised the spirit of the new Indian woman, which became her enduring identity.

Nargis comes to mind for several reasons. One of them is her professional relationship with Raj Kapoor, the iconic actor-director with whom she was also in a long-term romantic relationship for nine years. Raj Kapoor was already married and had children. When he refused to leave his wife and family to marry Nargis, the latter ended their relationship.

Their cinematic association led to 16 films, among them Kapoor’s debut directorial Aag, Andaz, Barsaat, Jan Pahechan, Awaara, Sri 420, Chori Chori and Jagte Raho. Few other onscreen couples have been as successful and popular as Kapoor and Nargis, whose films are still enjoyed by those who had seen them when they were released – and more importantly, by countless others who got exposed to their body of work much later.

This writer has a favourite, Awaara, the story of a man who grows up to become a criminal. His mother had been thrown out of her house by her husband after she had been kidnapped and was found to be pregnant later. When the man is accused of murder, Nargis, who plays the lawyer, defends him in court. Nargis’s performance was nothing short of memorable, and the film was a huge success.

There is little doubt, however, that the highlight of Nargis’s career is Mehboob Khan’s Mother India released in 1957. It was while she was shooting for the film that she fell in love with co-actor Sunil Dutt, who played her son. The romance began dramatically after a haystack caught fire and Nargis was trapped in it. Sunil Dutt rescued her from the leaping flames, an act of bravery that would bring them closer. The duo got married in 1958, and had three children – Sanjay, Namrata and Priya.

Mother India, Khan’s remake of his own black and white classic Aurat, covers the journey of Radha, a peasant woman, from her days as a young bride until her old age. A fascinating film in which Nargis stands tall as a symbol of womanhood, it was nominated for the Best Foreign Film award at the Oscars, a distinction it reportedly missed by just one vote.

Nargis slowed down considerably after her marriage and childbirth, and she was only seen in a few roles in the 1960s. She concentrated on social work, establishing a school for the underprivileged, working for the physically challenged, apart from associating herself with various organisations such as Boy Scouts and Guides, the Children’s Film Society and the Film and Television Institute of India.

The first person from the film industry to be honoured with a Padma Shri, she also won the inaugural National Award for Best Actress for her performance in Satyen Bose's Raat Aur Din (1967) in which she played a character who has dissociative identity disorder.

Nargis received a Rajya Sabha nomination in 1980, but she passed away not long after her tenure began. She was suffering from pancreatic cancer. She was only 52 when she left this world forever, which brought an untimely end to a chapter that should have extended much longer.

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