In the Late nineteenth century, in the small village of Baliya in northern India, a
thirteen-year-old Brahmin widow meets a Muslim sarangi player and elopes with him. Many
years later, their daughter Jaddanbai moves to Bombay and becomes a start of the early
talkies. Chateau Marine, her home on Marine Drive, is famous for its evening mehfils and for
the dreams it nurtures: regular visitors include Dilip Kumar Mehboob and Kamal Amrohi. It is
also the home of Baby Rani, Jaddanbai's daughter, who will set the screen ablaze as Nargis,
the most accomplished actress of her time.
Far removed from this world of glamour, a young boy named Balraj Dutt spends his
teenage years attempting to rehabilitate himself and his family after the trauma of
Partition. In 1950, at the age of twenty, he arrives in Bombay. And there his life takes an
unexpected turn: he is given the lead role in a new film, Railway Platform, and is soon on
his way to becoming Sunil Dutt, the film star.
Then comes the moment that transforms both their lives: on 1 March 1957, during the
making of Mother India, Nargis is trapped in a circle of flames and Sunil risks his life to
save her. They recuperate together, and fall in love. Nargis has been in a long but futile
relationship with the mercurial Raj Kapoor, and in Sunil she finally finds an anchor. Their
relationship is stormy and secretive to start with, but it survives every crisis to
culminate in a quiet wedding on 11 March 1958. What follows are years of togetherness,
including the joys of caring for their three children, Sanjay, Namrata and Priya, but also
days of pain and heartbreak: financial trouble, Nargis's illness, Sanjay's addiction to
Based on the diaries and letters of Nargis, Sunil and Priya, as well as on
conversations and interviews with family and friends, Darlingji-as they often addressed each
other-is a probing yet affectionate biography of two extraordinary people. At the same time,
traveling as it does from the nineteenth century to the present, the book tells the larger
story of the evolution of Hindi cinema, and of a society and a nation in the process of
About the Author
Kishwar Desai has been a television anchor and producer for over twenty years. She
has worked with NDTV, TV Today and Doordarshan. Her last job in television was as
Vice-President, Zee Telefilms. She has written an award-winning play, Manto! And scripts for
various documentaries. She has just completed the script for a feature film to be directed
by Shyam Benegal. She is currently working on a biography of Saadat Hasan Manto.
Indian cinema is, or at least ought to be, a national monument ion 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 dances-that Indian talent
brings to cinema, which gives it its 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 Urdu-is the most widely watched across India in Hindi and non-Hindi speaking
areas. This cinema in its talkies phasse 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 films. Suraiya fell 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 55. Meena Kumari
was a starlet in Wadia's mythological films 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. See 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 Anbonee 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 thought. 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 his romantic
scenes with Meena Kumari in Ek Hi Raasta where I first saw him. He was a gentle and handsome
Bengali bhadralok hero in Sujata, 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.
This is the story that Kishwar Desai tells us. India is ill-served in terms of the
biographies of its cinema greats. What passed for biographies for years were often
collections of unverifiable gossip and vignettes sans attribute, with film stills their
selling point and often an inadequate filmography of the subject, or worse, none at all.
Stars were lucky to have some biographies; directors, producers, cameramen, music directors,
art directors and the rest hardly ever figured on the bookshelves.
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 Kapoor. Yet it is her love for 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 fell 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.
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