Nargis: An enduring legend

Venkat Parsa

Hazaron Saal Nargis
apni benoori pe roti hai
Badi mushkil se hota hai
Chaman mein deedavar paida

May 3, 2021, marks the 40th death anniversary of the renowned actress of Hindi Cinema, Nargis. No other film personality had so much overawed her admirers and adversaries alike, as much as Nargis did. In a short span of 52 years (June 1, 1929, to May 3, 1981), she emerged as a dynamic personality, whose appeal transcended the frontiers of time.

Nargis, the Lady in White, who was hailed as the First Lady of Indian Cinema, had several firsts to her credit. She was the first actress, while still at the peak of her career, to be honoured with Padma Shri; the first Indian actress to win an international award at Karlovy Vary for Best Actress; and the first Indian actress, again, who went on to become a cult figure not only at home but abroad, as well, especially in the former Soviet Union.

Indeed, Nargis had the unique and unrivalled distinction of becoming a legend in her own lifetime.

Former Indian Ambassador to erstwhile Soviet Union K P S Menon records in his memoirs that in the wake of the runaway success of Raj Kapoor’s Aawara in Russia, if a new-born boy there was named Raj Kapoor, for the new-born girl, the obvious choice of name was Nargis.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru sent a 14-member Indian delegation to Moscow Film Festival in 1954 that comprised of Nargis, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand and Balraj Sahni, among others.

Courting Controversy

Nargis was not, however, spared of her share of controversies. In her case, perhaps controversies staked greater claim than the share that is normally due in the life of a great personality.

An enigmatic personality, her career was as colourful as it was controversial. Inasmuch as that controversy dogged her literally to her grave, with a row erupting on whether the last rites should be performed the Hindu way, or the Muslim way. Her husband Sunil Dutt interred her mortal remains as per the Islamic custom, which sparked a huge controversy. During her own lifetime, Nargis visited a Mandir and a Dargah with equal devotion.

Controversy was attached to her since her birth. Her mother, Jaddan Bai, was a courtesan and her detractors never missed a chance to take a jibe at her parentage, in their bid to deride her and run her down.

Controversies ranged from her political associations, to her professional and personal life. Nargis was never afraid of anything she said or did. Her association with Indira Gandhi and her support for the Emergency imposed between 1975-1977 that helped bring the nation back from the brink of disaster: her magical teaming up with Raj Kapoor and later her marriage to Sunil Dutt; her maiden speech in the Rajya Sabha, following the Presidential Nomination in 1980, when she made bold to make a scathing attack on Satyajit Ray for portraying India in an abject and groveling way, which, she argued, was not a true picture of India — all of it kicked off a storm.

But Nargis faced it all with exemplary courage and all through remained unfazed by the spate of controversies galore or the enormity of criticism it accompanied.

Ernest Hemingway describes courage as “grace under stress.” In the case of Nargis, the situation demanded something more, grace in a vacuum, where she had little or nothing to cling to. Known for her integrity and honesty, Nargis never ducked or backed out of a controversy. With a rare strength of character, she always stood her ground.


Attacking Satyajit Ray

Following her Presidential Nomination to the Rajya Sabha, on April 3, 1980, Nargis virtually kicked off a storm of controversy in her very maiden speech, by dubbing Satyajit Ray as a “peddler of India’s poverty.”

Her contention was that Satyajit Ray’s Appu Trilogy portrayed a region in, and not even the whole, of Bengal, and that, too, in such an abject manner that it does not represent poverty in India in a correct perspective.

She believed Satyajit Ray’s films became popular in the West, simply because people there liked to see India in a grovelling condition. She did not hesitate to criticize him, saying he was only ray, not the sun.

Nargis felt sore that the image of India portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s films was accepted abroad as authentic, which was, in fact, so far removed from the reality obtaining in India. She was convinced that this was nothing short of exporting the images of poverty in India, while ignoring the strides and advancements made by Modern India. If he showed poverty, then he should also show Modern India, she argued.

Nargis said as a proud Indian, how ashamed she felt when people abroad often asked whether there were schools and automobiles in India. “If a foreigner asks me what kind of houses we live in, I feel like answering that we live on tree-tops,” she quipped.

Shyam Benegal, and a host of his ilk, came out with a vicious attack on Nargis. Unable to counter her well-reasoned argument, they stooped so low, as to target her parentage, taunting her as daughter of Kothewali (a reference to Jaddan Bai, who was a courtesan).

Parallel Cinema

These arty films, which were never commercially viable, were mostly made to win awards abroad, by peddling the poverty in India.

There was already an ongoing art-versus-commercial cinema debate. It is by now universally acknowledged and accepted that these arty lots look to the West for inspiration. There are 10 noted film directors like Victoria de Sica and 10 noted films like Bicycles Thief, which they seek to replicate. When there is an original, why a copy? The alienation of the arty lots from the Indian audiences was so complete that their films were never commercially viable.

On the other hand, the mainstream Indian Cinema, made in the same period as Ray’s films, were fired by the Nehruvian idealism. Films like Aawara and Shree 420, or even Sujata and Naya Daur, lent a degree of social relevance to the mainstream Indian Cinema.

The forward-looking enthusiasm generated by this genre of Hindi films reflected the popular mood, even as these films provided the much-needed escapist entertainment to the less privileged.

To that extent, it was typical Indian Cinema, rooted in Indian idiom and in the Indian social and cultural milieu, reflecting the familiar social ambience and the aspirations of the common man. Nargis gave articulation to this Ideal.

Symbol of Composite Culture

Nargis, with her mixed parentage (father was Hindu and mother was Muslim) and marriage (to Sunil Dutt, who was a Hindu), her convent education, her culture and outlook, attained the best in the Indian traditions, emerging as an epitome of the Composite Indian Culture.

Eminent journalist T J S George, in his book, Nargis: Her Life’s Times, pays a handsome tribute to her, saying, “Nargis was a metaphor for her age, with a depth beneath her gloss.”

Nargis assisted her husband Sunil Dutt in setting up the Ajanta Arts, which produced films like Mujhe Jeene Do and Yaadein.
She was associated with Ajanta Arts Stage Troupe, which organized entertainment for the Army Jawans in forward areas. She President of the Indian Motion Pictures Producers Association.

Her zeal for social work came to the fore with her involvement with service organizations like Spastic Society of India, Meena Kumari Memorial for the Blind. Her association with Ikebana International, Children’s Film Society of India and the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society (ISCUS) were among the diverse fields for which she devoted time. At a function in the Indira Priyadarshini Auditorium in the Public Gardens in Hyderabad, she had come to receive the ISCUS Honourary Life Membership, after which she time off to shop in Lepakshi Emporium in Gunfoundry area.

With such diverse arena of activity and later as parliamentarian, Nargis took upon a wider role than her contemporaries did and, in the process, she grew in stature.

Tribute to Lata

Nargis was a great admirer of India’s Nightingale Lata Mangeshkar. At the Royal Albert Hall Concert in London, Nargis was present on the dais to welcome Lata on to the stage in the most glowing terms, which serves to bring out the innate worth in Nargis. In her short welcome, Nargis said: “Moazziz Khawateen-o-Hazraat, Lata kisi taareef ke nahi, balke parastish ke qaabil hai. Unki aawaaz sunne ke baad kuch aisa alam-taari ho jaata hai, jis ko bayaan karna bohut mushkil hai. Uhn samjhiye, jaise koyee Dargah ya Mandir mein jaayen, to wahaan pahunch kar, ibaadat ke liye khud-ba-khud sar jhukh jata hai aur aankhon se besaaqta assoon behne lagte hain. Lata ek bahut hi chhota Naam hai. Lata. Lekin unki shaksiyat bahut hi unchi hai, Himalay se bhi unchi. Ab main dar-khwaast karungi ke ek martaba Lata Mangeskar phir aap ke saamne aayen aur yeh Gana pesh karen: Saathi re, tujh bin jiya udaas re, yeh kaisi anbhuj pyaas re, aja.”

Proud of Her Heritage

As an actress, Nargis soon made a mark and left behind her indelible imprint. In the then theatrical times, Nargis exuded spontaneity, naturalness and a rare innocence in her roles, which enhanced her screen appeal. Nargis brought to bear a peculiar intensity and splendor of spirit, which enlivened her performances.

Born Fatima Rashid, unlike her contemporaries Madhubala and Meena Kumari, she took the screen name of Nargis, proud of her Muslim heritage. She made her first screen appearance as child artiste in the film, Talaash-e-Haq, in 1935.

With Tamanna in 1942 and Taqdeer in 1943, she became the leading lady. Films like Anban and Himayun in 1944, Beesvi Sadi in 1945 and Nargis in 1946 established her as a star. Recognition came her way with Mela with Dilip Kumar and Aag with Raj Kapoor in 1947.

Her big break came with Andaaz, the first multi-starrer of Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and Barsaat, launching the great Nargis team up with Raj Kapoor that went on to create a great sensation. The 16 films they acted together included 9 made under RK Films banner by Raj Kapoor, where Nargis was part of the emblem.

After Andaaz and Barsaat, there was no looking back. She gave memorable films like Deedaar and Aawara in 1951, Aah in 1953, Shri 420 in 1954, Jaagte Raho and Chori-Chori in 1956.

The greatest ever, a lifetime performance of Nargis came in Mother India. Nominated for the Academy Award, the film earned for her the Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. After films like Ghar Sansar, Laajwanti and Adaalat in 1958, she married her Mother India co-star Sunil Dutt the same year, taking voluntary retirement from Films.

The only exception she made was for Sunil Dutt’s experimental film Yaadein in 1964, where her shadow appears in the audience recognizes Nargis and again for Raat Aur Din in 1967, for which she won the Filmfare Best Actress Award and the National Award for Best Actress. After that she bade farewell to the world of cinema.

However, to say merely that Nargis was an actress par excellence is a gross understatement. More than an actress, Nargis was a great representative of her generation, a stirring symbol of the national social and cultural ethos and an icon of her times.

After prolonged suffering from pancreatic cancer, detected in August, 1980, for which she was treated at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, she returned home. She wanted to be present at the premier of her son Sanjay Dutt debut film Rocky. But fate had willed otherwise. Three days ahead of Rocky premier, with her condition worsening, the tragic end came at the Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai on May 3, 1981.

Venkat Parsa is a senior journalist and writer based in New Delhi.