BOOK EXCERPT

‘Not very beautiful but vivacious’: How Nargis was cast in her breakthrough movie ‘Taqdeer’

The 1943 Mehboob Khan production sealed the 14-year-old actress’s fate.

June 1 marks the birth anniversary of Nargis, one of Indian cinema’s greatest actresses. Born Fatima Rashid in 1929, Nargis was groomed for the movies by her mother, the pioneering musician and producer Jaddanbai. Nargis had appeared in a few films in small roles before Taqdeer, which was directed by Mehboob Khan. She was 14 at the time, and was paired with Motilal.

It was billed as ‘An artistic picturisation of the will of Providence bursting with mirth and music.’ The film, ironically, was called Taqdeer and it changed Fatima’s life completely.

Cinema, strangely enough, had never seemed an attractive option to the young girl. She was to say later, with unconcealed regret, ‘It all started way back when as a child I acted in my mother’s films. I was a happy carefree girl with lots of friends. Suddenly I noticed that my classmates had begun to avoid me. ‘One day, I cried to my teacher, “Nobody wants to play with me!” The Principal of the school called me in and gave me a lecture on the evil influence of films. She said she hoped I would not besmirch the name of the school and that she would pray for me.

‘Pray for me? But what was wrong with me? I was not in any trouble and I had not committed any sin. Why then, should anyone pray for me? I could not understand until I learnt that my best friend—we were neighbours—was not allowed to play with me. ‘And then I knew. It had something to do with my working in films. It was something bad. And I cried till I could cry no more. But when the tears were exhausted, I began to think. I thought, my mother works in films. But she is not bad. She is the most wonderful woman in the world…’ (Filmfare, 1 January 1960)

Nargis and Jaddanbai.
Nargis and Jaddanbai.

For a brief period of five years, between the ages of seven and twelve, Fatima could concentrate on school and carry on being a tomboy, swimming, cycling and playing cricket. She had acted as Baby Rani in her mother’s films, such as Talash-e-Haq and Hridaya Manthan, but now she could slam the make-up box shut because she was too old for ‘baby’ roles and too young to be a heroine.

In 1942 she reportedly acted in Tamanna and Pardanasheen, but clearly, neither film made much of an impact, because little information survives about them. But it was only a matter of time before one of the many visitors to her mother’s house, always on the lookout for fresh faces, spotted Fatima, ending her carefree childhood forever.

Mehboob Khan, one of India’s most successful directors, and the man who gave Nargis her iconic role in Mother India fourteen years later, was a good friend of Jaddanbai’s. He was one of those who often dropped in at Château Marine to sit around discussing various dreams and projects. As a teenager with the less romantic name of Ramjan Khan, he had run away from his home in Billimora (Gujarat) to join the film industry. Not disheartened by his early experiences as an extra, he learnt the trade and eventually set up his own company, Mehboob Productions, in 1942. Earlier, in 1935, he had acted with Jaddanbai in Naachwali.

Play
Nargis in Taqdeer (1943).

By the time he decided to cast Fatima, Mehboob had directed close to a dozen films, some of which, like Ek Hi Raasta and Aurat, presented heroic women trying to outwit their gender-driven destiny. Aurat, starring Sardar Akhtar, was the precursor to Mother India. It was the story of Radha (Sardar Akhtar), a simple villager and single mother struggling to pay off her debts, ward off natural disasters and bring up two sons, one of whom is a serial delinquent. The ‘impressively languid’ (as she is described in the Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema) Sardar Akhtar was an Urdu stage actress who later married Mehboob.

Ali Raza, a screenplay writer who worked with Mehboob on some of his best films, including Andaaz and Mother India, remembers how Fatima was persuaded to act in Taqdeer: ‘Mehboob sahib was looking for a new actress for his film. In those days there was a beautiful partnership between Mehboob sahib and Aga Jaani Kashmiri (the legendary screenplay writer). He had a great role in establishing Mehboob Productions. The first film that Mehboob produced, Najma, and later Taqdeer and Humayun, he wrote them all. He was an ustad (master), my mamu (mother’s brother).

‘So Mehboob was looking for a girl. It was the monsoon season. Mehboob and my mamu were passing by Marine Drive, the roads were flooded with water, and so was the car. They wanted shelter from the rain and ran into Jaddanbai’s house. There they spotted Nargis. And they decided this was the girl… I didn’t ever regard her as very beautiful, but they may have noticed her vivacity. It was more eye judgement than a screen test.’

Courtesy Mehboob Studios.
Courtesy Mehboob Studios.

Fatima was persuaded by her family to go to the studio with Mehboob. Casually, he asked her if she would like to see herself on screen. She agreed, and was told to sit on a sofa, given a piece of paper and asked to say the lines. To her surprise, when she finished, everyone started clapping and said, ‘Pede lao. New heroine mil gayee. (Bring some sweets to celebrate. We’ve found the new heroine.)’ Then Mehboob took the young girl aside and said there would be a huge financial loss if she refused the role. Tricked into submission, she tearfully agreed. (Interview in Filmfare, February 1978)

When they returned to the house in the evening, Mehboob announced that he had found his heroine for Taqdeer. The fourteen-year-old would act opposite Motilal, a suave 33-year-old actor. Akhtar was thrilled: there was going to be a new star on the Jaddanbai firmament. Also another source of income for the family whose fortunes were always fluctuating dramatically. There were often more than 30 dependants (including the domestic staff) in the house and usually only one earning member. Now the young Fatima would become part provider too.

Mehboob was not very happy with Fatima’s name, however. He thought names beginning with ‘n’ were lucky; it may have been because his first film under his own banner was called Najma. He finally chose the name Nargis, and it did suit her, especially in her later, more elegant, white-sari-clad years.

Excerpted with permission from Darlingji The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, Kishwar Desai, HarperCollins India.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.