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 

“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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.