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01 June 2018

The Greats: Nargis

01. 06. 1929 – 03. 05. 1981
When I’m asked about my favourite Hindi film heroines, I usually have Meena Kumari top the list, followed by Waheeda Rehman and Nutan. But then, I also adore Madhubala. And Geeta Bali. Funnily enough, if you’d asked me about Nargis, my response would have been ambivalent. She was my father’s favourite heroine, but I kept thinking I'd never warmed to her. Until I actually began watching her on screen. Which is when I realised just how expressive a performer she really was. How charming.  How her smile lit up the screen. And how I liked her very, very much indeed.
Nargis may not have been classically beautiful like Waheeda Rehman or had that scintillating charisma that Madhubala possessed in abundance, but she definitely had a screen presence. And, while I may not like some of the roles she did (Mother India, Adalat), I can safely say I have never seen a bad Nargis performance. Not even when she was a gauche teenager.

Nargis was born ‘Fatima Rashid’ to Jaddan Bai – a thumri singer, and later, film producer, director and music director – and Uttamchand Mohanchand, a former Hindu Brahmin who converted to Islam and came to be known as Abdul Rashid. When she was barely six years old, she made her debut as ‘Baby Rani’ in Talash e Haq, a film scripted and produced by her mother, who also composed its music.   

A handful of films in which she played the child artiste followed, but by the time she entered her teens, Mehboob Khan had spotted her and cast her in Taqdeer (1943) opposite then-matinee idol, Motilal. ‘Baby Rani’ was rechristened ‘Nargis’ – she was 14, Motilal was 33.
Taqdeer was the 9th highest grosser that year, and young Nargis won both public adulation and critical acclaim. Soon other films followed – Humayun, Mehendi, Beesvi Sadi, etc., opposite actors who were years older than her.

By all accounts, the young teenager was a top heroine by the time Raj Kapoor approached Jaddan Bai to cast her in Aag (1948). It was with Aag, the newly-formed RK Films’ first production, and SU Sunny’s Mela (1948) that Nargis actually began to act with heroes who were her contemporaries. Unfortunately, that was also the year of personal tragedy – she lost her parents within months of each other. (There’s a confusion about the dates – Nargis’s diary notations claim her parents died in 1948; Wikipedia’s Jaddan Bai page puts the year of her demise as 1950.)
The next year (1949) would see her star in mentor Mehboob Khan’s Andaz. That was also the year in which she would act with Raj Kapoor in his second directorial, Barsaat. While Andaaz saw her essay Nina, the urban sophisticate, Barsaat found her being Reshma, a rustic beauty. Two very different roles, two powerhouse performances. Nargis was consolidating her position among the top rung of heroines.
A long and tumultuous relationship would ensue between Nargis and Raj Kapoor, and the parting would be bitter – the heroine of six RK productions, his co-star in ten other outside productions, one part of the logo of RK Films, finally walked out – ostensibly to star in her mentor’s remake of his own Aurat – Mother India. The previous year, she had closed the RK chapter with a cameo in Jagte Raho. It would be the end of a professional – and personal – relationship.

Mother India would be forever touted as a tour de force performance – as a woman struggling to keep her ethics and her honour under critical circumstances, as a wife compelled to be the man of the house when her husband abandons her, as a mother forced to kill a son she loves more than life, Nargis was pitch perfect. The film would prove to be a turning point in more ways than one – saved from a fire by her on-screen son, Sunil Dutt, Nargis would find in him the haven she was seeking. 
He was, she wrote in her diary, the one person who had sacrificed something for her. The family’s golden goose wanted nothing more than to make a home and family with someone who loved her unconditionally, and who didn’t care about her past. Early on, she’s said to have flippantly remarked – ‘Who will marry the daughter of a tawaif?’ In Sunil Dutt, she would find that anchor.
Happily finishing off her remaining few films, Nargis bid good-bye to films to carve out alternate careers – as a wife and mother, as a social worker, the co-founder of Ajanta Arts Cultural Troupe, and as a parliamentarian. Well-read and down-to-earth, she was loved by all who met her. She famously treated her employees just as well as she treated 'stars'. However, the Dutts' happiness was all too temporary. In 1976, Nargis was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Husband Sunil Dutt would run from pillar to post seeking a cure for his beloved wife, but in 1981, four days before the release of her son, Sanjay Dutt’s debut film (Rocky), Nargis passed away at the age of 52.

She left behind a legacy that cannot be easily matched. Her gamin charm and her effervescence will forever enshrine Nargis as one of Hindi cinema’s foremost heroines, while her transformative performances have rightly earned for her a place in the pantheon of industry greats.

On the occasion of her 89th birth anniversary, here's a subjectively curated list of her performances that I think are among her greatest. And because one cannot talk about Nargis without also talking about Raj Kapoor, and because she had extremely strong characters to play in his films, I'm starting off with 4 of her roles in RK Films.

Aag (1948) / Barsaat (1949) / Awara (1951) / Shree 420 (1955)
To a certain extent, Nargis was as responsible for the success of the RK banner as the auteur. Certainly, she had an office at RK Studios and sat in on story sessions and script discussions. Of the six RK films (the other two being Aah and Jagte Raho) they co-starred in, these 4 films provided Nargis with some of the best-defined roles for a heroine.
In Aag, Nargis played an unnamed character, a refugee, who’s named ‘Nimmi’ by Kewal (Raj Kapoor). Besotted by her blue-eyed Pygmalion, she fails to see that their sponsor, Rajan (Premnath), is obsessed by her. However, Kewal is beholden to Rajan and suspects that ‘Nimmi’ is only attracted to his looks. When he’s disfigured, she is repulsed. Her guilt at his condemnation, her despair and finally, her grasping a better opportunity – the conflict was eloquently expressed through her expressive eyes.
Barsaat, the next year, saw the duo unite as lovers again – this time, she’s Reshma to his Pran, a rustic village belle who runs into the suave city gentleman and falls in love with him and his music. When her father, and circumstances, play spoilsport, Reshma’s constancy found its anchor in Nargis’s innocence and frailty. One could believe she was an innocent; one certainly believed they were in love. 
Awara was mostly about nature vs. nurture, the clash between a father of unbending principles and a son who’s mired in crime. The father is a judge, the son a criminal. Nargis is Rita, one man’s ward and the other’s lover. She is also a lawyer, defending one and questioning the other. And in one of the finest courtroom scenes filmed, her ‘Kab, kyun aur kis haalat mein…?’ is a master class in dialogue delivery.
Not to mention the oft-abused word ‘chemistry’ between the charismatic leads – just watch the scene before and after Dum bhar jo udhar munh phero, if you don’t believe me.

Shree 420 saw her cast as the self-respecting Vidya, the voice of a conman’s conscience. From her instinctive distrust of Raj to her shame at being leered at by drunken men at the club to her heartbreak as she pleads with Raj to eschew the path of easy lucre, Nargis’s Vidya trod a fine line between being morally upright and being rigid. 
The conflict between loving him and not wanting to have anything to do with him as he is, is brought out brilliantly in the O jaanewaale mudke zara dekhte jaana. In the end, Raj’s redemption lies in her forgiving arms.
It is no wonder, then, that Raj Kapoor cast her in Jagte Raho as the giver of life – she was his life.

Andaz (1949)
Mehboob Khan and his wife Sardar Akhtar had groomed a gawky 14-year-old to play the heroine in Taqdeer. In Andaz, Khan achieved the impossible – he cast two bright, upcoming young men in a morality tale with his protégé at its apex. Nargis was no longer gauche – here, she played Nina, the western-educated sophisticated daughter of a wealthy businessman, with a touching vulnerability. Brought up with complete freedom by her adoring father, Nina refuses to accept the societal rule that she cannot be friends with a man. She’s thoughtless, not malicious. Brushing aside her father’s cautionary advice, she proceeds on a path, where the ripple effects end in tragedy for all three concerned. Nargis was elegant and poised, and her downfall, when it occurs, leaves one aching for her.

Nargis underplayed Nina’s inner turmoil, and her control over her craft stood her in good stead as her eyes depict her anguish. The young woman who laughs easily changes in the flash of an eye into a troubled young wife who cannot confide in her husband.

While I hated the regressive ending, the performances were brilliant.

Babul (1950)
The melodramatic love-triangle saw Nargis playing Bela, a role with grey shades. She’s a young girl who takes care of the domestic needs of the newly-arrived postmaster, Ashok (Dilip Kumar). Ashok is friendly, and this gives Bela, who’s already half-in-love with him, the idea that he loves her too. Unfortunately for her, Ashok’s interest in her is avuncular. His attentions are caught by Usha (Munawar Sultana), the local landowner’s daughter, who shares much of his interests. Jealous of their growing relationship, Bela plots to make Usha believe that Ashok is betraying both of them. Showing a rare sisterly understanding, Usha (without clarifying matters with Ashok) agrees to another marriage proposal – leaving Ashok both perplexed and depressed. Unfortunately for Bela’s machinations, things don’t end well.
Nargis expressed both the vulnerability of a young girl who mistakes friendship for love, and the jealousy of a woman scorned – while the contrived tragedy makes you want to pull your hair out in despair, the film is worth watching for Nargis’s performance – and the music.

Jogan (1950)
What happens when an avowed atheist falls in love (lust?) with a devout nun? What happens when his increased attentions begin to undermine her hard-won discipline? Nargis stars as the eponymous jogan who is forced to face her hidden demons when she’s unwillingly attracted to the young man who questions the reasons for her piety. As Surabhi, she’s mischievous, vivacious and a dreamer. As someone who prefers the sanctuary of a monastery to compromising on her ideals, she’s quiet and withdrawn. Yet, her eyes express her anguish – “Aapki aankhon mein yeh jo dard hai, ghor nirasha hai, meethe sapno ki ek samadhi hai, ek sehmi hui fariyaad hai.” ('The pain in your eyes, the deep melancholy, is a memorial to your broken dreams; it's a suppressed appeal.)
If that is not the truth, why does it discomfit her so? To me, her restrained performance, ably complemented by Dilip Kumar’s intensity, is notches above her much-applauded role in and as Mother India.

Anhonee (1952)
Nargis in her first (?) double role as half-sisters caught in a web of envy and deceit. Written wholly for Nargis (she is said to have begged KA Abbas – after Awara – for a role of a similar nature), and dependent wholly on her slim shoulders to carry off the incredible tale of two different women in two different circumstances. Nargis was the epitome of dignified grace as Roop and smouldered as the jealous Mohini who manipulates events until it destroys her innocent loving half-sibling. 
Pitted against a restrained Raj Kapoor, Nargis’s duality formed the core of this psychological thriller which was a variation of Awara’s theme of ‘nature vs. nurture’.

Chori Chori (1956)
It was not just serious drama or mushy romances that were Nargis’s forte. In this film, the last of the Raj-Nargis pairing, she shows she has a fine sense of the comic as well. A faithful adaptation of ‘It Happened One Night’, the heroine-centric film depended much on the comic timing between its leads, and the rapport between them to carry off the witty repartee. Nargi’s Kammo was the perfect ‘ditzy blonde’ stereotype, and she carried it off with élan. She is entitled, if clueless, and she’s certainly no pushover. Her Kammo is also someone who wants what she wants and is quite willing to take the necessary steps to get it. She was a delight.
It says much for their professionalism that despite their fraying personal relationship off screen, Nargis and Raj Kapoor made their on-screen romance not just believable, but worthy of rooting for. 
There’s a touch of poignancy to the lyrics of both Aa ja sanam and Ye raat bheegi, with their wistfulness of what might have been.

Adalat (1958)
As Nirmal, an educated young woman, who finds herself in dire straits due to circumstances beyond her control, Nargis traversed the path from her early twenties to her mid-to-late fifties with grace. In one crucial scene in the film, where she’s being questioned by her son (who doesn’t know she’s his mother), she surreptitiously places her hand on his – the love and longing in her face as she gazes at him is a stunning example of her immense talent.
Adalat belongs to a genre I refer to as ‘the never-ending trials and tribulations of the heroine’ films. These generally end in contrived tragedy. Nargis did her fair share of such films (in fact, I would put her and Nutan ahead of Meena Kumari in the ‘tragedy queen’ stakes), and though she aced those roles, I can’t say as much about the films themselves.

Mother India (1957)
Radha was one of Nargis’s most definitive performances. Once again, she traverses an age range from her early twenties to her fifties, playing mother to male actors her own age Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar – in this Oscar-nominated feature.  
From the newly-wedded bride who’s blissfully happy to the single mother struggling to cope with her harsh circumstances after her husband abandons her, to the mother coming to terms with her beloved son’s perfidy, Nargis portrayed a range of emotions that made her performance a lodestar of future performances.
While Mother India is a film I love to hate and that I mentally filed under the ‘never-ending trials and tribulations’ genre, her Radha is no martyr. Nargis’s Radha was a strong-willed woman who fought for her place in the sun and is willing to commit the unthinkable when it crosses her stringent sense of personal ethics and morality. The film was India's first submission for the Best Foreign Film category at the Academy Awards. It won the nomination but lost the award to Fellini's Nights of Cabiria by one vote. 'Radha', however, won Nargis both a Filmfare trophy for Best Actress as well as the same award (the first for an Indian) at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. 

Raat aur Din (1967)
Nargis returned post-marriage to do the dual roles of Varuna and Peggy – a single person suffering from Multiple Personality Disorder (or as it is known today, Dissociative Identity Disorder). Having agreed to do this film for her half-brother, Anwar Hussain, Raat aur Din unfortunately took almost a decade to make, accounting for the differences in Nargis’s physical frame throughout the movie. Yet, the film rested solely on Nargis to deliver, and she did – in spades.
Her ‘Peggy’ was as believable as her Varuna was restrained – she carved out definite spaces for both characters, while ensuring they were really part of a whole. As Varuna, she’s quiet and subdued and unaware of her ‘evil twin’ persona, yet her inner demons seem to always be roiling under the surface. Peggy’s ‘party girl’ persona may be overtly fun-loving but underneath is a pathological desperation in the way she moves or dances or behaves. As always, she made the switch believable – extremely so, since unlike a lot of double roles, she had to switch back and forth within the same physical person in this film. Nargis won a well-deserved National Award (the inaugural award for Best Actress) for this performance. 

It would be difficult to talk about Hindi cinema without mentioning her contribution to it. Here's to the endearing, talented, gorgeous actress – her shoes are hard to fill.

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