Everything About Nargis was a Serve

A love letter to the actor who was so much more than her relationship with Raj Kapoor

The most prosaic of the great Hindi movie heroines of the twentieth century did not die of heart disease or of alcoholism. When the characters of her peers were being forged in the fires of Partition, she grew up on Bombay’s Marine Drive in a large and happily multi-religious family. When her male leads were paid Rs. 5000, she made ten times as much. 

When the starlets who are now legends of Hindi cinema were struggling for recognition, she became, at 28, the first actor to receive a Padma Shri. Of all the efforts to memorialise her in literature, the most famous appears in the pages of Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh. It is not lyrical rapture, but brutal mockery of her silly campaign to stop Satyajit Ray from besmirching the name of this glorious nation with his depictions of Indian poverty. 

History has produced no great love letters to her because, unusually for a woman, it has simply been unable to find anything about her to apologise for. The court of public opinion simply doesn’t admit arguments for what was called “glamour” in her time, and what we now call “a serve.”

Milord, everything about Nargis was a serve. 

Your honour, the cod-legalese of movie courts was just one of her languages, because, as it happens, Nargis was one of the great movie lawyers, both in Awaara (1951) and elsewhere. She played vakeel-sahibas time and again, in an era when lady lawyers were to audiences what spandex-clad muscle boys are to teenagers now –– boundary-pushing, boundary-drawing fantasies. 

Her career blossomed in a time of crossover, when the movies were growing simultaneously less cosmopolitan and more respectable. Her awe-inspiring mother, Jaddan Bai, defied every weepy and fragile stereotype of the feminine condition. But Jaddan Bai was not ready for the crossover, and never quite made it as a movie star. It was her urbane, English-speaking daughter, doted on by her shareef father, backed by Jaddan Bai’s enormous success as an early film producer, for whom the time was right. 

Nargis in Awaara
Nargis in Awaara

Shareef, well-born: The word appears time and again in the movies of Nargis’s heyday, the mid-1940s to the mid-1950s. She was the original baby of “Baby ko juice!”, the now-familiar dig at Hindi cinema’s long tradition of precocious starlets controlled by their scary mothers. To everyone from family to the press to the director of Mother India (1957), she was not Fatima or Tejeshwari, her given names at birth, but “Baby.” 

When Meghnad Desai writes of her as “‘The Woman in White,’ dignified, glamorous, fashionable and talented,” it seems clear that the draw was aspirational. She was the daughter and granddaughter of courtesans, but Jaddan Bai refused to teach her to sing or to dance and sent her to convent school instead. The contradiction almost never shows up in her persona on-screen. Whether a plucky poor schoolteacher, a harried village virgin, or Miss Rita, Esq., she is all hauteur, all mannered charm, almost all refinement. Oddly enough, this is what makes Nargis’s rich-girl characters –– I think of them as her ‘uffo, daddy!’ roles –– such a delight. The polish really sticks to them. 

In the age of nepo baby anxiety, it may sound like these were the reasons Nargis succeeded, and if you’ve never watched her on screen you might convince yourself that she was simply the first Bombay girl to succeed in the movies because she was born to succeed in the movies. But, inconveniently for class analysis, she was also a spellbinding actor. And as anyone who catches a glimpse of her on-screen can tell you, she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

It’s true that not everyone thought so. Filmindia once called her “papaya face”. Saadat Hasan Manto, in a funny little neg published in the 1950s, described her as “a thin-legged girl with an unattractive long face and two unlit eyes.” (He assures us that later, in time for stardom, “her body had filled out in all the right places.” The essay is translated by Khalid Hassan in the collection Stars From Another Sky, and is electrifying to read today mostly because of how it collapses our distance from Manto’s extinguished universe. He reveals that Nargis’s now-immortal sniffy tic in Barsaat (1949) was based on her perpetual nose-blowing as a child prone to colds — and you can look up the movie on YouTube to see for yourself.)

The critics were wrong. Every woman who survived the Bombay studios was stunning in distinct ways. The magic of the movies is inescapably the magic of appearance, and Nargis had a very personal brand of that magic. When I think of Madhubala’s beauty, I think of the imperious arch of her eyebrows in “Aaiye Meherbaan” from Howrah Bridge (1958). When I think of Waheeda Rehman, I think of the mudras of her hands, opening and closing like lotuses, in “Kahin Pe Nigahen” from C.I.D. (1956). When I think of what makes Nargis inimitable, I think not of a song, but of dialogue. She could not dance and she was often visibly bored by playing slapstick: But watch her in conversation with another character, listening as they speak, full of a grave, sparkling sharpness. It can make you believe that the act of paying attention is the most beautiful thing in the world. The most memorable movie stars collapse the distance between what is iconic and what is real. Hindi cinema is full of talented women who effected that collapse with the help of gestures and expressions from the dancing and theatrical traditions that midwifed the movies. But Nargis is the only one I can think of who makes me feel like I would pay to watch her watching somebody else.

That leads us, inevitably, to the co-stars. Of her most famous leading men, only Ashok Kumar really outdid her in popularity, and only Dilip Kumar rivalled her for looks. Audiences were clamouring for Nargis long before they turned up for the golden boys of post-independence Hindi films, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. Kishwar Desai reveals in her biography Darlingji that years later, Nargis’s beloved fiancé Sunil Dutt snippily addressed a letter to her as “My Dear Padma Shri” and signed off, “A Jr Artiste”.

Nargis in Anhonee
Nargis in Anhonee

Being a Nargis fan in the 1950s must have been like rooting for Sachin Tendulkar. She dominated the scene. She was K. Asif’s first choice for Mughal-e-Azam (1960) and Mehboob Khan’s first choice for Aan (1952). When the writer Khwaja Ahmed Abbas brought her Awaara, she refused, saying the role was too small, and accepted it only after he promised to write her the film that became Anhonee (1952). It is an unsettling little exploration of the same question that Awaara is about — are human beings born shareef, or is sharafat something they learn? 

Abbas made Anhonee himself, in a style that doesn’t equal Raj Kapoor’s realisation of Awaara. But Nargis, who shot for both films together, moves between their funhouse mirrors with ease. As Rita in Awaara she is the vibrant centre between the careening extremes of the shareef played by Prithviraj Kapoor and the awaara, the vagabond, played by Raj. In Anhonee she became possibly the first woman to play a double in Hindi cinema. She portrayed both a shareef ladki, and an awaara. In other words, she pulled off being both Prithviraj and Raj. Anhonee is nowhere as good as Awaara, but Nargis is better than Raj — and Asif really ought to have cast her as the emperor of Hindustan.

I’m sorry to say that she was always better than Raj Kapoor, but she brought out the best in him. I haven’t seen a pair of Hindi movie actors who can rival their sexy, spirited chemistry on-screen, even if the RK idea of romance required Nargis to grovel at Raj’s feet, endure his slaps, and make it look like love hurt. They had tremendous fun on film, something that can’t be conveyed in the freeze-frame of her hanging off his arm in Barsaat, trapped forever in the amber of the RK Studios logo. 

Nargis historians often regret that her relationship with Raj Kapoor shrank her career as she turned down other offers to work exclusively with him. But those decisions were private, and while her archive has empty spaces where there might have been more and better work with some of the era’s heartthrobs, we have only fantasy to go on. The deeper regret may be that the times did not permit her to assert herself or be recognised as a producer in her own right, or as a co-founder of RK, into which she invested her own labour, imagination, hope, and, reportedly, money. 

Nargis in Barsaat
Nargis in Barsaat

Nargis is at her most sparkling and memorable in the RK movies. But she is also subservient to the Kapoor legend in them, which is why Kapoor could only ever be her second-best director. It was Mehboob Khan who really saw her as his champion and his hero, as someone who could mediate all the contradictions that popular films tried to hold within themselves as they consoled their inconsolable public. Before she was Mother India, she was his brave, tragic muse in Andaz (1949) (“Uffo, daddy!” but in a twisted and irresistible way), and before that his Hamida Bano in Humayun (1945); and before that, his star ingénue in Taqdeer (1943), her first leading role. She plays — did I mention this? — an awaara ladki who challenges the society of the shareef. 

There is something about all great movie stars that defies description. Nargis was not the Barbara Stanwyck of her place, or the Devika Rani of her time. She did not look like an angel or a gamine or an alabaster statue, but simply herself, and, if we must, a little like Indira Gandhi. It must have added to the impression she gave to contemporary audiences as a woman of importance. (Jaddan Bai knew the Nehrus from Allahabad – a funny thing not to have turned up in a cooked-up WhatsApp fulmination, if you think about it.) She returned to cinemas one last time in Satyen Bose’s Raat Aur Din (1967), a role about a divided self that I find most interesting as a commentary on her previous work: The film took six years to make, and her presence on screen is much more remote than before. 

But that was in 1967, long after she had quit being a star. Her life after Mother India and marriage to Sunil Dutt belonged primarily to herself. Rushdie jokes aside, she made one other contribution to literature. It is the electrifying line, “Meena, maut mubarak ho,” in the magazine eulogy she wrote for actor Meena Kumari — “congratulations, Meena, you’re dead”. It was a love letter to her colleague, but also a morbid castigation of a predatory industry. By all accounts, quitting the movies was Nargis’s greatest joy. Seen in this light, it’s not particularly funny when a grand adventure seems to end in stuffy respectability. Even this may be too harsh. By all historical accounts, it appears that Mr Dutt was the partner Mrs Dutt really wanted for the person she desired to be: Not shareef, but qaabil. Not respectable, but deserving; worthy, capable of being something more than Baby. 

Manisha Koirala in Sanju (2018)
Manisha Koirala in Sanju (2018)

Perhaps that is why, 40 years after her death, every conceivable hatchet seems buried, and history continues to be kind to her. Rajkumar Hirani’s Sanju (2018) is a festival of stunt casting. It includes Raj Kapoor’s grandson playing Nargis’s son, and a right-wing former Member of Parliament playing Sunil Dutt, whose political values were diametrically opposed to his own. Its true miracle is its small, ghostly role for Sanjay’s dead mother. For the first time in decades, Nargis flickers to life on screen here. She is played by Manisha Koirala, among the most luminous and unusual actors of her own generation, herself touched by the tragedy of long illness and public absence. When she appears on screen the film achieves its only honest effect. You look at her and think, in the prosiest of prose: We missed you.

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