1950's Nargis her aspirations and her inherent dignity lives on in our hearts

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The world was different in the 1950s. Idealism energised talent and talent inspired idealism. Technology had not become a substitute for ability

There was no �special effects� department that could make a terminator out of Schwarzenegger, no morphological tricks that could convert a Kamal Hasan into an instant hydra. An actor had to act. It was part of the folk wisdom of the time that dramatic actors like Dilip Kumar and Balraj Sahni, as well as character artistes like Lalita Pawar and Achla Sachdev, would spend hours studying their parts and perfecting the nuances of their performance.

Not surprisingly a thousand flowers bloomed in the years that immediately followed independence. Directors like Bimal Roy and K.A. Abbas pioneered the romantic-neorealist genre of cinema, directly influenced by European masters in general and Vittorio De Sica in particular. Composers like Naushad endowed music with classical dimensions. Lyricists like Sahir Ludhianwi and Shakeel Badayuni were not just film lyricists, but poets of considerable worth. The erratic Kishore Kumar�s simultaneous brilliance in different departments was something of a marvel. For that matter, where has there been a comedian who could rival the versatility and finesse of Johny Walker?

If this sounds like a throwback to the old-is-gold cliche, so be it. The 1950s were indeed a Golden Age, described as such and compared to the Golden Age of the 1930s when New Theatres, Bombay Talkies and Prabhat lit up the skies and filled them with stars of the calibre of Devika Rani and K.L. Saigal. Those decades attained a measure of significance because cinema then recognised its social responsibility. Pictures like Shantaram�s Amrita Manthan (1934), Bombay Talkies� Acchut Kanya (1936) and Mehboob Khan�s Ek Hi Rasta (1939) found worthy successors in the second Golden Age with Zia Sarhadi�s Humlog (1951), Bimal Roy�s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Mehboob�s Mother India (1957). A good deal of trash came out of those years, but the thinkers made up for the titillators

The stars kept pace. On the female side as well as the male. It took a dedicated producer-director-bureaucrat named Mohan Bhavnani to help break the social taboo that kept �respectable women� out of cinema. In Vasant Sena which he produced in 1931, he scored a triumph for which he is yet to be fully recognised; he persuaded the socially prominent Kamaladevi Chattopadhyaya and Enakshi Rama Rau to appear before the camera. But that was not enough for him. He wanted an educated lady to take to films as a profession and thereby set an example. This he achieved when Durga Khote, the Cathedral School-educated wife of the upper-crust lawyer Viswas Khote, agreed to star in Bhavnani�s Trapped (1931).

That debut led to an opening of the floodgates. Devika Rani, who had teamed up with Himanshu Rai two years earlier in Germany, became the queen of the first Golden Age not only because of her histrionic capabilities, but also her aristocratic pedigree. She was the daughter of Col. M.N. Chowdury, Surgeon-General, who had sent her off to England at the age of nine in order to bring her up as a proper English lady. Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and later in Germany, she was as educated as anyone could be. She was now joined by a galaxy of stars � Shanta Apte, Leela Chitnis, Shobhana Samarth, Kannanbala, Sadhana Bose. The 1950s saw a lineup just as glittering � Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Kamini Kaushal, Geeta Bali, Waheeda Rahman, Nutan.

And Nargis. How did this progeny of the kothewali class of professional singers transcend her custom-ordained destiny, rise above her extraordinarily gifted fellow artistes, rise even above the aristocratic Devika Rani and become the First Lady of the second Golden Age? K.A. Abbas had noted that she was not a great actress to start with. Yet she became not only �the greatest star of our film industry,� as Balraj Sahni described her, but also an icon of her times with an assured place among the Great Women of India.

Genes certainly had something to do with it, genes and a natural ambition for excellence that grew out of them. Her mother Jaddan Bai, imperious and colourful, was the one who sensed early on that life ought to be more than singing and dancing for the entertainment of northern India�s zamindars. She became so proficient in singing, especially thumri, that when she was on a visit to Calcutta K.L. Saigal listened to her and told friends about the classical character of her music.

Another Punjabi who attended that soiree was smitten by the singer as well as the song. Uttamchand Mohanchand (Mohan Babu) from Rawalpindi was on his way to England to study medicine. He cancelled all plans and persuaded Jaddan Bai, already a mother of two boys, to marry him. From him, daughter Nargis inherited a capacity to both love profoundly and develop a sensitive attachment to books and education. These traits, combined with an ability to dream which she imbibed from her mother, formed the foundations of Nargis�s personality.

It was of course the aesthetic side of that personality that made her a star. But there were other aspects to her life that made her unlike any other star. She made contributions of her own as a woman, as a mother and wife, as a citizen and as a committed social worker. Her multiple involvements gave her a sense of direction which several of her talented contemporaries missed. Waheeda Rahman was one of the few who found fulfilment in her career and went into graceful retirement. Madhubala and Nutan were overtaken by illnesses while Meena Kumari fell prey to excesses with the bottle. Nargis always had worthy causes to pursue. That was why, even though cancer brought her life to a painful end, she filled the 52 years of her life with accomplishments of a lasting kind.

First and foremost she was an artiste. Her appearance in her mother�s production Talashe Haq in 1935 at the age of six may be considered no more than a matter of record. (Her name appeared in the credits as Baby Rani. Among family and close friends she was always known by the pet name of Baby.) At 14 she was dreaming of joining college and becoming a doctor. It took a full day for Mehboob to persuade her to accept the role of heroine in his Taqdeer (1943). Mehboob also gave her a new screen name. She obviously could not be featured as Baby Rani. Nor was her official name, Fatima Abdul Rashid, attractive enough for cinema. Her father had named her Tejeswari Mohan. That too was considered unsuitable. Mehboob finally chose the one-word name, Nargis. Half a dozen indifferent films followed. Then came milestones in the history of Hindi cinema, beginning with Aag in 1948 and Andaz and Barsaat in 1949. The magic had begun.

Any consideration of Nargis�s film career should take two of its essential ingredients into account � the temper of India in the 1950s and the creativity of her association with Raj Kapoor. The euphoria of a newly independent country had a salutary impact on cinema. As a dramatic art that blends myriad skills into a single compendium of experience, cinema needs a confluence of talents and a commitment of the talented.

The artists, technicians and the visionaries who converged in cinema in the years immediately following independence could not have asked for a more propitious moment in terms of opportunities. Despite Gandhian leaders who saw cinema as sinful, optimism was the prevailing mood and everyone was a reformist. Liberal themes, imaginative treatment and creative virtuosity could expect instant acceptance. There was a great coming together of mood and man. There was an all-round striving towards fresh goals, an urge to venture into new areas. Cinema became inspirational

It was in such an atmosphere that destiny brought Nargis and Raj Kapoor together. No hero-heroine team has given more electric moments to Indian cinema than this pair. There were other pairings like Dev Anand and Suraiya, Dilip Kumar and Kamini Kaushal. But Nargis and Raj Kapoor complemented each other, brought out the best in each other as no other star team did. Nargis told an interviewer in 1954: �Before I started work with Raj, my ideas were bottled up. There was no one with whom I could discuss them freely. With Raj it is different. We seem to have practically the same views and ideas, the same outlook on all subjects.�

Raj Kapoor for his part was too conscious of his prerogatives as a man to concede much to a woman. But there can be no doubt that Nargis was the finest artistic asset he had under his R.K. Films banner. This became clear after the two broke up around 1957. Nargis went on to make Mother India that year, considered by many as the zenith of her career. By contrast, not a single film of note came out of R.K. Studios after Nargis left it. Indeed, Ab Dilli Dur Nahi which came out in the year of the break-up, is generally considered the poorest of R.K. Films offerings. Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) had the usual formula ingredients but without the easy spontaneity that made the earlier movies so heart-warming. Actually, this film pointed to a fundamental shift in Raj Kapoor�s very approach to cinema. He now found a tawdry resort to sex appeal necessary. Padmini�s assets were used with a blatancy never seen during the Nargis phase.

Clearly the Nargis-Raj Kapoor combination was good for cinema just as their break-up was bad for Raj Kapoor�s cinema. While it lasted, it was the most celebrated love affair of the time. So perfect was the chemistry between them that even ordinary poses struck instinctively by them became classic images of India�s entertainment lore. One became the famous logo of R.K. Films with Nargis flowing over the arm of a violin-bearing Raj. Another, a simple shot from Shree 420 showing the two of them sheltering under an umbrella in heavy rain, tugs at hearts for completely inexplicable reasons.

What is undeniable is that Nargis and Raj Kapoor brought to screen romance an unprecedented openness. Meena Kumari, the prototype of the romantic heroine, was forever sacrificing and suffering. She was aptly described as the tragedy queen because romance was inseparable from tragedy.

Nargis and Raj Kapoor revolutionised the concept of romance by boldly projecting love as a prerogative of the young. They looked as though they were made for the part. She was vulnerably feminine if also happily submissive. He was impishly masculine if also happily submissive. Adoring each other unabashedly, they turned romance into a joyous celebration. Instead of feeling guilty, they revelled in it. They did retain the concept of pain as part of the ecstasy of love; it would not be Indian otherwise. But the Nargis heroine was proud of her emotions, full of self-esteem and ready to fight for her right to love and be loved.

In Barsaat an entirely new idiom of screen romance was at work. His fingers tenderly probing around her mouth, her head tilting in a gesture of total submission, his hands fondly rustling her hair, her eyes catching fire as she looked at him � this was intuitive romancing, honest and unpremeditated. In the sixteen pictures in which they starred together, love was not always the central theme. Yet the wondrous aura surrounding the pair gave the films an extraordinary pitch and panache.

Raj Kapoor�s place in Indian cinema is historical, entrenched and unique. It may therefore seem invidious to suggest that his artistic wellsprings were not as deep as Nargis�s. Yet that conclusion is inevitable when their contrasting trajectories after the break-up are taken into consideration. Mother India is proof of Nargis�s unmatched ability to summon up inner reserves of inspiration and propel herself to new levels of excellence, Raj Kapoor or no Raj Kapoor. Her role covered the entire span of life, from a young wife to an old woman. It called for a complete range of emotions, from romance and rustic toughness to a manifestation of womanly resolve that would prompt her to shoot her own son when he tried to abduct a girl. She brought a raw power to bear on her performance. It was a Nargis who had attained the fullness of artistic maturity.

That Nargis scaled the summit of achievement with her performance in Mother India was acknowledged by all. Abroad, she won an award at the Karlovy Vary festival. At home, Dilip Kumar said: �Her best picture is Mother India. Her second best picture is Mother India. Her third best picture is Mother India.� Thirty years after the picture was released, a reviewer wrote: �Mother India is to Nargis what The Godfather is to Marlon Brando and The Sound of Music to Julie Andrews. The role and the film are inextricably entwined in the mind of the public so much so that the two are almost one.�

When Mother India was made, Nargis was two years short of 30. The woman in her had been yearning for fulfilment of a different kind and it was not forthcoming from Raj Kapoor. She knew he was married and had children of his own, yet she hoped to marry him and raise a family. She never looked upon her relationship with him as an affair because she was always serious about it. Her intentions were honourable. She wanted to raise a family the right and proper way. Arrangements of convenience such as the Hema Malinis of a later generation would accept were not good enough for her. She had to go about it without compromising her dignity as a woman. But by 1956 it was clear that nothing of the sort was possible with Raj Kapoor. When his attention was openly diverted to �variety from the south�, she decided to end the relationship.

Initially the parting must have wrenched her emotionally. But the challenge of Mother India gave her something to concentrate on. Her own strength of character shored her up. Work and personal resoluteness helped her emerge rapidly as a complete woman. She went through a renewal. On the sets of Mother India she met Sunil Dutt. His genuineness and simplicity made an impression on her. Her compassion for his sick sister moved him. In early 1958 they got married according to Arya Samaj rites.

From Nargis�s point of view, the importance of that union cannot be overstated. There was nothing in life she wanted more than marriage and children. As a teenager, she was a tomboy but she used to spend every spare moment with the children of her two brothers in their Marine Drive flat. When she began acting in the early films, she took charge of the children, financing and supervising their education, choosing their clothes and toys, organising their outings. Her sense of family was as strong as her maternal instincts. With Sunil Dutt now as husband, she could at last realise her lifelong ambition. As her friend and co-star K.N. Singh put it: �With marriage, it was like she had reached home. She thought God had come to earth in the form of Sunil Dutt. So much did she worship him.� Nargis, the heart-throb of a generation, would glow with excitement if someone called her �Mrs Dutt�.

She did make a film or two after marriage. This was to help her brothers. These exceptions apart, her retirement from the film industry was real. Sunil Dutt would not have it any other way for he was conventional enough to insist that, as husband, it was his duty to be the family�s provider. Nargis�s own resolve to remain a wife and mother was beautifully underlined by her when the great S.S. Vasan of Gemini Studios in Madras approached her with a film offer. Vasan was a kind of King Emperor of cinema. He never approached a star directly. He flew to Bombay to make an exception of Nargis, hoping that the gesture alone would clinch the matter. He gave her a blank cheque leaf as well. Nargis teased him for a while and then said: �Vasan Saab, I am completely tied up with three films right now. They are called Sanju, Anju and Priya. I just cannot do another film now.� Vasan was speechless for a moment.

The award of Padma Shri to her in 1958 kindled a latent desire in husband and wife to play an active role in public life. In separate and different ways, both had already come under the influence of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Sunil Dutt was inspired by what he perceived as idealism in Nehru. Nargis became close to Indira so much so that she and her husband remained steadfast supporters of the Emergency and of Indira when she was out in the wilderness after the electoral defeat that followed it. In time Nargis would become a nominated member of the Rajya Sabha and Sunil Dutt an elected member of the Lok Sabha. But both essentially were political innocents, motivated only by their friendship with Indira on the one hand and their desire to be of some service to the country on the other.

Eventually it was not in politics but in work for the handicapped that they found their forte. There was a strong instinct in Nargis to acquire medical qualifications. Perhaps it was a continuation of her father�s aborted ambitions to become a doctor. Even after marriage, Sunil Dutt recalled, she had expressed a desire to go abroad and become a qualified nurse so that she could attend to the sick and needy.

In the event, she found herself involved in social work focused on underprivileged children and the handicapped. She discovered that it was an interest that absorbed her husband as well. Together they set up a school for poor children in a plot of land they bought in Bandra. They also set up the Centre for Special Education for Spastics. When the Spastics Society of India was established in Bombay, she was nominated as one of the promoters. Neither she nor Sunil Dutt took this work as mere social feathers in their caps. They were seriously committed to it. Nargis conducted herself as a nurse when she was involved in the care of spastic children. She was, in the opinion of colleagues, �professional� in her approach. Never missing a committee meeting, she always studied the files, understood the details and was ready with ideas on how to expand and improve the Spastics Society�s work.

She also immersed herself in the activities of the Bharat Scouts and Guides, the War Widows Association and the Meena Kumari Memorial for the Blind. This kind of social service was rare then, rarer today. Among the busiest stars of the time, Nargis and Sunil Dutt found the time to work for the less privileged, often spending their own money to see the programmes through. It was an approach to life that contrasted with the approach of today�s stars, be they of film or cricket, who make more money but have less interest in the suffering of their fellow humans.

For Nargis life was incomplete without her social work. The way she threw herself into it was indicative of the transformation of her persona after marriage. Only now did she seem to have come into her own. It was a new Nargis, a complete Nargis, happy and satisfied in a way she never was when she was at the pinnacle of filmic glamour. The film star had metamorphosed into an independent woman with clearcut views about life, people and priorities. Nargis had found herself.

But the sense of fullness was short-lived. Tragedy struck in 1979 when Nargis was diagnosed as having, first, obstructive jaundice and then, cancer of the pancreas. The best of treatment in New York brought only temporary relief. Nargis was in prolonged pain necessitating sedation. Her plight turned pitiable with her beloved son, Sanjay Dutt, sinking into the half-life of hallucinogens. In time he would bounce back and become a health freak and a macho screen hero. But Nargis was denied the pleasure of witnessing her son�s triumph. All she had in her last days was the feeling that the idyll of her family life was crumbling around her even as she lay fighting for her life. It was a fight she could not win. She slipped into the silence of her final sleep on 3 May 1981.

Arundhati Roy has said that thirty-one is a viable die-able age. Maybe it is. But fifty-two certainly was not a die-able age. Not when the life that death snatched belonged to someone like Nargis who was still brimming with promise and plans. When it did happen, it seemed to highlight not so much the majesty of human suffering as its pointlessness. But in a poignant kind of way, even the shadow of death brought out the uniqueness of Nargis�s mind.

After weeks of despair in the cancer ward in New York, with kidney and heart complications adding to the hopelessness of the situation, with five surgical operations shattering her mentally as well as physically, the Dutts could only think of going home where she could at least die in the bosom of her family. When the doctors allowed them to travel, they spent a few days preparing for the long flight home. On one of their outings, she surprised her husband with the remark, �You never did the right thing in bringing me here.� Pressed to explain, she said: �There must be millions of sufferers in our country who must be as important to their families as I am to you. But they don�t get medical facilities like I got... If I live, I must take this up with the government and with Madam Gandhi. Such facilities must become available in India.�

The human qualities that added value to Nargis�s work as a film personality were emphasised by all the public figures, film industry leaders and editorial writers who assessed her career after her passing. No star of her time � indeed, no star of any time � devoted time and attention to public and social causes as Nargis did. Compassion came naturally to her. At one level, she was famous for getting from home oversize food containers so that light boys and stage hands on the set could get a hearty meal during lunch breaks. At another, news that a colleague�s wife or child was sick would see Nargis taking charge of the patient until recovery was assured. If a child was handicapped in any way, she would drop everything and make arrangements for the child�s care and treatment. This was a humanist who happened to become a star.

That the connections and resources she garnered as a star were used for her humanitarian programmes was the key to Nargis�s success as a social worker. That was also part of the importance she achieved in the context of her time. But of course the main plank of that importance was her contribution as an artiste. She embodied the period in which Indian cinema grew out of its staginess and took its place on the world scene. The romantic-neorealist genre of cinema reached its apotheosis through the authenticity imparted to its portrayal by stars like Nargis.

Substance in cinema is considered to be the natural domain of directors, not actors. Yet, stars who give wing to new concepts in their metier exert influence not inferior to that of directors. It would be difficult, for example, to look upon Marlon Brando as just another actor who did well in his time. This is more so in Indian cinema because stars often participate in the conceptualisation of story development. Nargis�s contribution to the making of the R.K. Films classics was by no means inconsequential. The achievements of Raj Kapoor were, without exception, the achievements of the Raj-Nargis team. Without her, the R.K. banner simply lost its wind.

The significance of stars who go beyond their immediate career demands and become part of a larger artistic current, be they Greta Garbo or Humphrey Bogart, Devika Rani or Nargis, needs to be examined in a context that transcends the exigencies of popular taste and the particular years of their action. Nargis�s effectiveness as an artiste was related to, and enhanced by, her integrity as an individual. By embracing a wider domain than her contemporaries did, she became larger than the sum of her parts. The best actors embody the characteristics of their own cultures. Nargis epitomised the Indian woman in both her strengths and her weaknesses, her aspirations and her inherent dignity. Inasmuch as these are deathless values, her representative status is unrestricted by time. She lives.