Indian cinema is, or at least ought to be, a national monument on par with the Taj Mahal and the
Qutab Minar. It is older than Hollywood and bigger in terms of the films made. It is commercially
successful not just in India, but around the globe, and not only among the Indian diaspora but
across many countries in the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and lately in the developed world
as well. It uses imported equipment to this day, yet it is not the hardware but the software – the
story, dialogue, songs and dance – that Indian talent brings to cinema, which gives it is unique
position. It is not the oldest but definitely one of the most successful modern industries India
has created for itself.
Of course I can only speak of Hindi commercial cinema, Bollywood, as it is misleadingly though
unavoidably called now. But Hindi cinema – and even this is problematic because the language it
uses is not Hindi but what used to be called Hindustani, an amalgam of Hindi and non – Hindi
speaking areas. This cinema in its talkies phase is now more than 75 years old.
When I was growing up, films were at the heart of all conversations with friends and relations. We
saw as many films as our parents would let us and often more. We talked about the stories,
remembered large chunks of dialogue and worshipped the stars. Among men there were the great three
– Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand. But among the women there was only Nargis. None could
match her star status. Kamini Kaushal got married and retired from films. Suraiya feel by the
wayside by the early 50s since playback singing devalued a singing star and Madhubala, though very
beautiful, got lousy parts until Guru Dutt discovered her talent for light comedy in Mr and Mrs
until the mid – 1950s when Bimal Roy gave her a break with Parineeta.
From 1947 to the day she retired from films after her marriage, Nargis was at the top. She was the
‘Woman in White’, dignified glamorous, fashionable and talented. She her in Andaaz as a spoilt
Westernized femme fatale, and in Jogan as an austere yet beautiful sadhvi, two films made just a
year apart, and you see the range of her acting. Her films with Dilip Kumar – Mela, Babul, Deedar
and of course Andaaz and Jogan – made us all cry since one or the other, or both (Mela), had to
die or be blinded (Deedar). Tragedy was Dilip Kumar’s forte in those days and she matched him
frame by frame. Like many of my generation, I watched each of these films several times.
She was paired with Raj Kapoor, and they became the idols of the young. In their films Barsaat and
especially Awara, they portrayed romantic young love to the limit that the film censors would
permit. They also made many indifferent films together, as well as some that count as memorable
for various reasons, like Anhonee where she played a double role and Chori Chori for the Shankar –
Jaikishen score. By the time they made Shree 420, her roles were shrinking, but even there we have
the unforgettable duet ‘Pyar hua ikrar hua’ with the two standing in the rain under an umbrella.
Our romantic sensibilities were shaped by Nargis’s films. When she was awarded the Padma Shri, I
recall the headlines in the Bombay newspapers. She after all belonged to India but even more so to
Bombay, we though. Then one day we read to our surprise that she had married Sunil Dutt.
The young actor Sunil Dutt was so shy that he blushed on screen in is romantic scenes with Meena
Kumari in Ek Hi Raasta where I first saw him. He was a gentle and handsome Bengali bhadralok hero
in Suata, and then there is my favourite Sunil Dutt film Ek Phool Char Kaante with Waheeda Rehman,
which displays his talent for light comedy. When Mehboob cast him as Birju, he saw in Sunil Dutt
what no other director had seen so far. This was the other Sunil Dutt, the smouldering, wronged
man fighting against all forces for justice or simply revenge. This was after all the role Mehboob
had first offered Dilip Kumar, who wanted to play the father as well since otherwise Nargis had
the bigger role. (Dilip Kumar’s version of Mother India is Ganga Jamuna, with two brothers, one
good and one bad, but with the mother’s part scaled down.) Sunil Dutt fulfilled his promise in
that film and, of course, won the heroine’s heart.
Kishwar Desai has been assiduous in gathering primary material – diaries, letters, interviews,
archival material – to construct this account of their lives. It will surprise many and dispel
some myths. Nargis is romantically associated in popular imagination with Raj Kappor. Yet it is
her love Sunil Dutt and her tenacity in convincing him of her love which will replace the older
myth once you have read this book.
Kishwar and I met when I was writing my book on Dilip Kumar and she was my managing editor. I also
feel in love and was lucky to win her love and we got married. Our plan was to write a book on
Nargis together and we met Sunil Dutt who promised to read and contribute towards this promised
biography of Mrs Dutt, as he always insisted on calling her. Yet, within six months of our
meeting, he too was gone on a day when, as it happened, Kishwar and I were watching Mother India
in our London home. It eventually became Kishwar’s solo effort, but it is one which I have watched
grow with fascination and read with delight. I hope you do the same.
The young man bent over the notepad was tall and good looking. His dark eyes were thoughtful and
he was frowning as he wrote. The quiet village of Umra lay outside his room, where a few months
earlier a blazing fire had raged during a film shoot. Bu his thoughts were elsewhere, with a woman
whose face and name were known to almost everyone.
Her fame was the problem he was struggling with. He wished she were an ordinary woman, and not a
star; for him, she was simply the woman he loved. But he could not talk about their love, for
there were many who would be against their relationship. The press would create a scandal.
In secret, they wrote to each other in his letters he called her ‘Pia’, not Nargis. And with her
irrepressible sense of humour, she called him not Sunil Dutt but ‘Hey There!’ from the first line
of a song they liked: ‘Hey there…you with the stars in your eyes…’ At other times he called her
Marilyn Monroe, and she called him Elvis Presley.
Now he sat by himself, putting together memories of the months just past. He wanted to collect in
one notebook all the letters they had written to each other, all the notes, all the special
moments they had shared. He was sentimental about every little thing, quite unlike most men in his
I dedicate this book in memory of that fire;
Which purified our bodies and souls and
Enabled us to find each other.
He wrote on the next page:
It was Friday the 1st March 1957,
Umra 35 miles a way from billimora,
At the bank of the ambika river…we
Embraced red flames
Today 9 A.M. at the same place
Same surroundings…It is Friday also
But I am alone to day…No flames…
The person, Who has lit the undying fire
In my heart, Is not by my side. I start this book and the words in it will keep the fire
In my heart burning till eternity
Their relationship began with an accidental fire during the shooting of Mother India. It was a
scene in which Radha (Nargis) had to search for her son Birju (Sunil Dutt0 in the midst of burning
haystacks. Nargis had rejected he use of a double. All precautions had been taken to ensure her
safety, when suddenly the direction of the wind changed, and the fire raced towards her. While the
cast and crew looked on aghast, only Sunil had the presence of mind to rush to her rescue. He
pulled her out, but they were both badly burnt by the fire.
Her hand was burnt, while hi whole face, chest and hands were charred. That an actor would risk
losing his good looks, his ticket to fortune, was unusual. But the Sunil Dutt was an unusual man,
as Nargis was to find out.
As they recuperated together in the quieter precincts of Billimora, 35 km from the film sets, he
found she had ‘lit the undying fire in his heart.’ She was the only woman he would ever love – and
surprishingly for some – he was the only man she ever truly cared about.
Strangely, very few believe the story of their love. People said, and still say, that she didn’t
really care for him, that she had no choice but to marry him after her affair with Raj Kapoor went
wrong. Others thought he was marrying her for star status.
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