When Sholay became a money spinner, and changed the fortune of Amjad Khan, he confessed that a role like Gabbar Singh comes once in a lifetime to an actor. From a nobody, he became an overnight sensation, and though he went on to do many remarkable films in his short career, Gabbar never left him. Not only our films, human history too is replete with such examples in all streams of art where a famous work holds someone’s illustrious career at ransom.
Gunter Grass could never evade the echoes of The Tin Drum, Peter O’Toole never managed to get off the robe of Lawrence of Arabia, and even Francis Ford Coppola is still known as the maker of The Godfather.
That brings us to our girl, Nargis Dutt. The name is enough to bring back the memories of the face, an elegant wreck with a plough on her shoulders, shaped by the mythical mother figure who can create and nurture, but if need arises, slays the demons to bring order in chaos.
Nargis playing Radha became the embodiment of a nation going through the transformative phase, of being born anew and asserting her identity. And Mother India became the instant classic of movie lore that resonated with the length and breadth of the country, a rare instance of a film garnering critical plaudits and setting the cash register ringing non-stop. It also brought home the honour of the first Indian film to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards.
Mother India not only gave Nargis Dutt her greatest role, her greatest success, it also gifted her Sunil Dutt, the love of her life, the impetus to a family, and a reason for retirement.
It would be a travesty indeed if we remember her only as Mother India. Baby Rani who made baby steps into the world of cinema with her mother Jaddanbai’s film, Talaash e Haq in 1935 was no ordinary girl. She bloomed into a powerhouse of talent in a short span of time, building a distinguished career along with her leading men, Raj Kapoor and Dilip Kumar.
If she was the pampered daughter of abusiness baron in Andaz, she gave up all her material engagement in Jogan. If Barsaat saw her as a vulnerable village belle, Awara witnessed her as the confident city bred lawyer. Mother India was all righteous, Raat Aur Din had the right amount of grey in her multiple personality disorder.
Directors admired her idea of adding a specific trait to her screen characters, in an attempt to make them distinct, and different from the rest. By today’s parameters, her acting might seem a bit melodramatic, but in the sea of her contemporaries, she brought a considerable sense of naturalism in her roles.
Not only one of the most important oeuvre of Hindi film cinema, she also had an inimitable career off screen. Along with her husband Sunil Dutt, Nargis formed the Ajanta Arts Cultural Troupe, performing at remote frontiers bringing a cheer to the war torn hearts. She was the first patron of The Spastics Society of India and her tireless work for social change was quite commendable.
On her birthday, she should be remembered as a woman who did everything on her own terms, never losing sight of reality, while being desired and emulated by millions.
PS: For those rejoicing the recent stupendous success of women oriented films, here’s a little reminder; Mother India still ranks as one of the greatest box office successes of all time.
(The writer is a journalist, screenwriter and content developer who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise.)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished to mark Nargis’ birth anniversary.)