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)
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.
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.’
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.