The Quintessential Woman
Fatima Rashid was a rare creature, the kind God stopped making a long time ago. Forced to become an actress at the tender age of 6 by an ambitious mother, Jaddanbai, who had no hesitation when filmmaker Mehboob Khan entered her threshold with the offer to cast her as a child artist in Talash-E-Haq in 1935, though she made her debut as a leading lady with Tamanna, in 1942. She was, however, named Nargis by Mehboob Khan when he cast her, at the age of 14, opposite debonair actor Motilal in Taqdeer in 1943. She worked in a record 45 films (notwithstanding the ones in which she worked as a child) during the next 15 years. She married co-star Sunil Dutt in 1957.
While she was successfully trying to woo the audiences with her performances, Baburao Patel, the most-feared film journalist ever, and publisher of Filmindia called her “horse-faced woman”, while commenting on one of her early performances. There had just been one blot on her professional ethics. She summarily walked out of producer ML Anand’s Ek Tha Raja Ek Thi Rani opposite Kishore Kumar, based on a script by Inder Raj Anand, in which both had double roles citing pregnancy as the reason even though it had made considerable headway, including a major outdoor schedule in Simla. According to Shashikant Kinkar, who much later put together a miserable book on her: “She was so much engrossed with her pregnancy and delivery that she lost interest in the film. Moreover, her looks underwent changes. So she decided to quit the film half way through, expressing her inability to work in films any more …Her retirement from films was, perhaps, not acceptable to destiny. Her brother Akhtar Husain met her with a brilliant story … and seeing the punch in the story Nargis promised to act in the film. But it took long to arrange for finance and other requirements. So rolling of the film was delayed for quite some time.”
Even though she had promised she would retire from films, she was willing to bail out her elder brother once again. She wanted Guru Dutt as the hero. He was willing, provided she worked in Chaudvian ka Chand (1960). It was also rumoured that Satyajit Ray had offered her Abhijan (1962), Bimal Roy wanted her in Bandini (1963) and Gulzar approached her for Aandhi, but none seem to be true. But for Raat aur Din (for which she won the inaugural National Best Actress Award, 1967) she was contend to be a housewife and a mother, though her commitment to social causes led her to win a Rajya Sabha nomination in 1980. It was short lived, as she died of pancreatic cancer on May 3, 1981. She was just 52.
Nargis had already worked in nine films as the leading lady, before Raj Kapoor approached her for his maiden directorial venture, Aag. Her mother gave her consent only because he was iconic Prithviraj Kapoor’s son. The rest is history as they had not just been in love, and Nargis had become an inseparable part of RK Films, but also because they went on to star together in 16 films, including six made under the banner. And while the relationship endured for almost seven years, without any signs of reaching the lived-happily-ever-after age, Nargis sensing a cooling off, and Kapoor’s roving eye resting on Padmini, decided to walk out. Her co-star, playing her rebel son in Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (the film that made her immortal in the annals of Indian cinema), saving her from raging fire seemingly convinced her she had found her man. Mother India got her the Filmfare Best Actress Award as well as the Best Actress trophy at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Nargis was a quintessential Indian woman. An obedient daughter who diminished her own dreams of becoming a doctor because her mother chose a career for her; a dedicated committed artist who gave every character she essayed a distinct identity; a giving lover; a devoted housewife who literally manned the household, while her husband was achieving newer goals professionally; a dotting mother (perhaps over-dotting so far as growing up son Sanjay was concerned); and an enthusiastic social worker and activist who launched a major initiative for spastic children, apart from other activities. She was amongst the earliest Bollywood personalities to be honoured with Padma Shri, way back in 1958.
It is generally argued that she blossomed both as a woman and an artist when she was with Raj Kapoor who was capable of drawing out the best from anyone, including Dara Singh. But to believe that is to diminish her talent, for apart from Mother India she gave sterling performances in films she did with Dilip Kumar: Mela, Andaz, Jogan, Babul, Deedar and opposite Pradeep Kumar in Adalat and Balraj Sahni in Lajwanti. The grapevine had it that she stopped working with Dilip Kumar because of the influence of the tragedy king’s arch rival, Raj Kapoor.
During her brief stint in Rajya Sabha, Nargis had to face brickbats for her unsavoury (though not altogether ill-founded) comments dubbing the filmmaker for “exporting images of India’s poverty” and further added that “the kind of projection he (Ray) does in the West of Indian poverty is not correct.” She was upset that not many, apart from close friends of the couple, from the industry endorsed her views.
As a person and a human being she was a gem. She loved using cuss words in select company (her closest friends were actresses Shammi and Nadira) and gobbled down street food at the first opportunity. She was addicted to James Headley Chase novels. She loved colourful clothes and jewellery in her hay days but loved to be called “the lady in white” in later years. She was once accused of “shoplifting” in London and had to be rescued by officials of Indian High Commission. But for these—the shoplifting bit and accusing Ray of peddling Indian poverty abroad, she had an above-board life, not even once retaliating to the million accusations that Raj Kapoor threw at her. May her soul rest in peace.
By Suresh Kohli