Nargis: A secret marriage, a deep heartbreak, a life cut short

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·9-min read
1980, Portrait of Indian film actress Nargis. (Photo by Dinodia Photos/Getty Images)

Main na rahoongi, tum na rahoge

Phir bhi rahengi nishaaniyaan…

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In the black and white era their films were a kaleidoscopic celebration of music, message and magic. Raj Kapoor’s cinema resonated neo-independent India with its ideals of socialism. Muse Nargis matched his vision of the new-age woman, someone in sync with her sense and sensuality.

The RK Films logo has immortalised this yin and yang. The dreamy onscreen equation, however, could never find any definition, any destination… in the personal domain.

But as they say, nothing consumed by fire remains the same. When Nargis met with a fire accident on the set of Mother India, she changed forever. She found her saviour in young co-star Sunil Dutt. As Mrs Dutt, she enjoyed deference and dignity.

Through their two-decade plus marriage, she partnered both his passion and pain, his dreams and debacles. Cancer could not crush her dreams – one of them was to attend the premiere of beloved son Sanjay Dutt’s debut Rocky on 7 May 1981.

Sadly, it remained unfulfilled… But Nargis lives on… in the unconditional love ‘Baba’ continues to enjoy through the vicissitudes of his own life…

THE MUSE

Nargis was the daughter of professional singer Jaddan Bai and Mohan Babu. A student of Queen Mary’s, she was keen to pursue medicine. But acting was her destiny. Six-year-old Baby Nargis featured in Talashe Haq (1935). At 14, she featured in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943), followed by Humayun (1945).

Her significant films with Dilip Kumar were Mela (1948), Jogan and Babul (both in 1950). But it was her association with Raj Kapoor's cinema that brought her super stardom.

Raj Kapoor first met Nargis when he dropped by at Jaddan Bai’s home in Marine Drive. Nargis was frying bhajias in the kitchen. Caught unawares with the sight of Raj, she distractedly smeared the flour across her forehead. 

Years later, Raj used this photographic memory in Bobby (1973). Reportedly, Raj’s first meeting with Nargis was just four months after his marriage to Krishna Raj Kapoor.

Next, 24-year-old Raj wanted to sign Nargis for Aag (1948), his directorial debut. Raj revamped Nargis’ image for the film. Short hair and understated make-up gave an edge to her character of the hi-flying actress, Nimmi, and a new avatar to the Hindi heroine.

Barsaat and the RK Films logo
Barsaat and the RK Films logo

RK’s Barsaat (1949) gave a free rein to passion and intimacy. The celebrated still of Raj holding Nargis in one hand and a violin in the other crystallised as the legendary logo of R K Films. Rumours of a romance between the young pair also gathered momentum.

Awara (1951) thrust the Raj-Nargis pair onto the worldwide platform. Their popularity spread across Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Turkey, Greece, Egypt, Latin America and Soviet Union and China… Awara’s socialist theme striking a chord in these nations. Aah (1953) and Shree 420 (1955) sustained their global glory.

Melodies from their films like Pyar hua ikraar hua hai, Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum, Ghar aaya mera pardesi, Dum bhar jo udhar moonh phere, Raja ki aayegi baraat joined in the chorus of their fame.

By Chori Chori (1955), the cracks in the rudderless relationship were beginning to show. Nargis’ appearance in the final scene – Jaago, Mohan pyare jaago – in Jagte Raho (1956) was a kind of parting shot. 

After nine years of seeking validation, and even reportedly approaching Morarji Desai to make provisions in the Hindu Marriage Act, Nargis moved away from Raj Kapoor and RK Films.

THE WIFE

Mother India
Mother India

Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) was the turning point for Nargis. At 27, it required her to traverse a lifetime – from a young bride to an ageing mother. Her woman-of-the-soil Radha won global recognition. 

“She became a symbol of change, an icon of her times. Her Padma Shri (1958) and her membership of Parliament (Rajya Sabha, 1980) made her the first working actress to get these nominations. She was also the first woman to win an international award (Best Actress, Karlovy Vary, 1956),” wrote biographer TJS George of the First Lady of Cinema.

On the personal front too, there was resurrection… literally from the ashes. During the final sequence, Nargis was supposed to run into blazing haystacks. And she actually got ensnared in the hayrick. On impulse, Sunil, her young co-star, jumped in and carried her out…

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While Sunil recuperated from his injuries, Nargis too began to heal from a hurtful past. “If it were not for him, perhaps I’d have ended my life... ‘I want you to live,’ he said,” Kishwar Desai quoted Nargis from her personal diary in her book Darlingji - The True Love Story Of Nargis And Sunil Dutt

It was in a long time that someone had sacrificed anything for Nargis “She was ‘shameless’ in discussing every detail of her life… she knew ‘that his shoulders were always there to cry on’,” the book reportedly quoted her diary.

Sunil too had fallen in love with her ‘strength and sensitivity’. “Dad appreciated the fact that mom was caring towards his family... His sister was suffering from TB. So, without letting Dad know, she went out of her way to look after her and arranged for the medical facilities,” shared daughter/politician Priya Dutt with Filmfare.

When asked about the Raj-Nargis equation, Sunil was once quoted saying, “I was not concerned about her past… I am concerned about the person who comes in my life; what matters from that day on is how true the person is to me.”

Nargis and Sunil were cast as mother and son in Mother India. The news of their relationship would be disastrous for the film. So, they secretly got married in an Arya Samaj wedding on March 11, 1958. They declared it in 1959.

Raj Kapoor, said reports, was devastated on hearing about Nargis’ marriage to Sunil. It’s said he’d break down often and sought refuge in alcohol. He’d burn himself with cigarette butts to ascertain the altered reality.

MRS DUTT

Post her marriage to Sunil Dutt, Nargis gave up films (Raat Aur Din in 1967 was an exception). The couple had three children – Sanjay, Namrata and Priya. She enjoyed her new identity as ‘Mrs Dutt’. She got involved in her husband’s production company Ajanta Arts. Nargis also became the first patron of Spastics Society of India. 

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Older daughter Namrata Dutt cherishes memories of her childhood. “January 1 was celebrated as the Ajanta Arts’ anniversary. The entire industry would turn up. Mom would cook matka gosht on sigdi and seal it with flour. Our foreign guests would be fascinated when the matka was opened,” shared Namrata to Filmfare.

She added that her father was a family man. “Once he couldn’t accompany us for a holiday. He felt so lonely staying at home that he checked into a hotel.”

In the 70s, Sunil ran into career issues as his productions failed. There were some problems at home too. Son Sanjay was a born rebel. “He’d pick up my father’s stubs and take puffs,” said Namrata however adding that she didn’t approve of her parents sending a young Sanjay to boarding school at Sanawar.

Sanjay, who was traumatised initially, later began enjoying his independence. On returning, he joined Elphinstone College. But by then he’d lost interest in academics and had fallen into bad company. “Mom had a feeling that something was wrong. Sanju had started smoking marijuana,” shared Namrata (Filmfare).

Around the same time, in the late ’70s, Nargis herself fell seriously ill. It first began with obstructive jaundice, which developed into cancer of the pancreas. She underwent surgery to remove the pancreas (at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York). 

“Dad was ecstatic that it was a super success. But within 24 hours she started haemorrhaging. From then on it was downhill. She slipped into coma for four months. Dad would feed her, clean her, brush her teeth... He never shared his feelings with us. But sometimes I’d hear him crying in his room,” recalled Namrata (Filmfare).

The family faced a financial crunch and Sunil even borrowed money for the treatment. Eventually, Nargis emerged from the coma and earned the title of the Miracle Lady in the hospital. She returned home in April 1981.

Nargis and Sunil Dutt's last wedding anniversary
Nargis and Sunil Dutt's last wedding anniversary

In a throwback interview, Sanjay recalled his parents 23rd wedding anniversary on 11 March 1981 saying, “We dressed mom up in her green and red wedding saree... She was a little sad that day and told Dad, ‘I think this is my last wedding anniversary, Jio’. She had tears in her eyes. Dad sat next to her and we looked on in silence.”

Around the same time Sanjay was set to make his Bollywood debut with Rocky. Nargis was keen to attend the premiere on May 7. “She told me, ‘Whatever it is, even if you have to carry me on a stretcher or in a wheelchair, I want to attend the premiere. I made all the arrangements and had an ambulance, stretcher and wheelchair. We kept a seat for her next to Sanjay,” revealed Sunil in an interview. 

But Nargis slipped into a coma once again and passed away on May 3, 1981. She was 52. A seat was left empty between father and son during the premiere of Rocky in her memory.

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“When my mother died, I didn’t cry, I had no emotions. It was after two years; I heard my mother’s voice (on a tape) advising me and telling me… how much she loved me and how much she expected from me… I burst out and cried for about four-five hours… I was a changed man,” Sanjay was quoted saying.

In the past decades, the Dutts underwent a series of calamities including Sanjay’s first wife Richa Sharma’s terminal illness, his brush with the law and incarcerations, his recent health scare… 

But Nargis’ blessings remain with the family… as the light at the end of every tunnel.

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