There is a scene in Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 where Nargis’ Vidya, a humble school teacher, gives up after trying for long to steer Raj’s character towards the right path. She believes in the power of good over evil, and truth over dishonesty and in that pivotal scene, even without saying much, Nargis has you in her corner. Her physical stance, her welled-up eyes and her visible effort in trying to suppress her will, adds to her dilemma and the viewers know, without being told, that Nargis’ Vidya won’t give up on her morals for her love. Of the 50 or so films that Nargis did in her career, there are innumerable examples where her on-screen ability to command a scene is distinctly visible and it will remain so until movies exist. But what the future generations might never learn, is that Nargis was a distinguished woman in her real life as well.
Nargis made her debut on screen as a child artist in Mehboob Khan’s Talashe Haq but it was in Andaz, where she co-starred alongside Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor that Nargis stepped into the mainstream spotlight. With subsequent films like Jogan, Awaara, Shree 420 and her most famous role to date Mother India, Nargis came to be known as the actor who did not need the crutches of glamour to command the attention of her audience. In a radio interview in 1970, Nargis had explained that while acting was not her chosen profession, she was completely immersed in it. She explained that while playing the lead role in Jogan, she had gone so deep in her character that she had contemplated retiring from society. And when she was playing a double role in Anhonee, she could not stop smoking, even when she was not playing the role in front of the camera.
Her effortless performance in front of the camera had Dilip Kumar in complete awe of her. The two starred together in many of their earlier films and came up together in showbiz. In a 1991 documentary named Nargis, directed by Priya Dutt, Dilip Kumar spoke fondly of her. “She was an extraordinary woman, and as an artiste, I don’t think I have ever seen that kind of versatility in anyone. On the other side of the camera too, she was just extraordinary. We were very young when we worked together in Mela. She was a delightful person, very easy to work with. You would never feel the pressure that you were working with a star,” he recalled.
Many of Nargis’ contemporaries spoke about her down-to-earth, non-star-like persona where she would care for the entire unit like a mother. In a rather funny anecdote from the set of Mother India, Rajendra Kumar, who played her son Ramu in the film, recalled that Nargis would sometimes wake up everyone in the unit with toothbrushes in her hand, with some toothpaste on top. The actor recalled that it was at that moment that he realised that her motherly nature extended beyond her character in the film. Dilip Kumar also remembered that Nargis would often cook for the entire unit after the workday was over.
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Raj Kapoor, who had a long association with her on-screen, spoke highly of her craft, but he also highlighted that it was Nargis’ empathetic nature that made her an extraordinary human. “As a person, she was a very noble lady. She could feel the pain, sorrow, and anxiety of somebody who came to her, talked to her. She could generate, in a person, a certain amount of spiritual power which would vitalise that person,” he said in the documentary made by Nargis’ daughter. And it was this empathetic nature of the actor that got her involved in The Spastics Society of India as she became their first patron in 1973. Ashok Kumar recalled that for many years before that, she would often write letters to Indira Gandhi, seeking her guidance as to how she could be of service to the nation.
Her kind and giving nature also played a role in her eventual love story with Sunil Dutt. It is well known that Sunil Dutt saved Nargis from a fire on the set of Mother India but that was not the incident that had them falling in love with each other. Sunil recalled that he was once sitting on the lawn of Mehboob Studios when Nargis came up to him. He shared that she would call him Birju in those days as they were shooting for Mother India, and asked why he looked so worried. Sunil shared in the documentary that his sister was suffering from TB at the time and when he told Nargis about the same, she listened to him intently. Later in the evening, when he returned home, he learnt from his sister that Nargis had visited, taken her to the doctor an made an appointment for her surgery. When Sunil’s sister was hospitalised, she took care of her infant for a few days. Watching her be a selfless woman for anyone in need had Sunil fall in love with her, and he knew that she was the woman he wanted to be with. “I knew she was the one I wanted to be with. She could be with my family. They have been through a lot and she could put a smile on their face,” he recalled.
In her later years, Nargis was a member of the Rajya Sabha and it was during those years that her health started deteriorating. Priya Dutt, in one of her interviews, had mentioned that for a while, the family thought it was probably the exhaustion from the travel between Delhi and Bombay that had made her weak. In the documentary, one of Nargis’ best friends, actor Shammi said that Nargis was excited about her Rajya Sabha nomination. When her health started declining visibly, as she was losing a lot of weight, Nargis put it off saying she was dieting but Shammi mentioned that the family suspected that something was not alright.
After Nargis’ death due to cancer in 1981, her family has kept her memory alive in the form of the many trusts that are run in her name. Nargis stepped away from the spotlight after she had her kids, but she did not step away from her social responsibilities and carried them out until the very end.