[Did a shorter version of this for the Sunday Business Standard]
The first thing I see on entering Kishwar Desai’s Safdarjung Enclave house is a Mother India poster on the wall facing the door: the still of Nargis carrying a plough, the weight of the world seemingly on her shoulders. (Apropos of nothing, I suddenly remember that Mother India was released in the year – 1957 – that Atlas Shrugged was published.) Kishwar herself is sitting at a table, signing copies of her book Darlingji: The True Love Story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt – copies that are to be sent to Mumbai for Namrata, Priya and Sanjay Dutt, the children of this book’s subjects – and her expression suggests that a massive weight has been lifted off her back. “Signing copies is such a relief,” she smiles, “it’s a constant reminder that the hard work is behind me – that the book is out and I don’t have to think about it any more.”
Kishwar had long thought about doing a Nargis biography but began seriously discussing the project with her husband, the economist-politician Lord Meghnad Desai (also a film buff, author of Nehru’s Hero: Dilip Kumar in the Life of India), only a couple of years ago. During her research, she realised that the most gripping parts of the story didn’t belong to Nargis alone: this had to be a book about the actress’s relationship with Sunil Dutt, whom she famously fell in love with after he rescued her from a fire on the Mother India sets and whom she was married to for over 20 years, until cancer ended her life in 1981.
In the movie buff’s imagination, Nargis remains inextricably linked with Raj Kapoor, being the leading lady and Muse in his seminal early films, involved with him in real life, even immortalised in the “RK Studios” logo, which was based on their famous clinch for a publicity still for Barsaat. But in Kishwar’s view, the real love story, the one that got short shrift, was the one between Nargis and Dutt. “Nobody played their story up, which was so unfair – I felt people hadn’t appreciated Sunil Dutt enough, because he was such a low-key, unassuming man. I wanted to show that this was the real couple.”
She was helped immeasurably by all the written material left behind by the Dutts, which Namrata and Priya allowed her to access after Sunil’s death in 2005. “Nargis used to write every day, and very eloquently too,” says Kishwar. “Her journals were a treasure-house for any biographer – there was just so much in there.” Darlingji is full of transcriptions of this material: from the letters written by Nargis and Sunil to each other (with the use of endearments such as “Pia” and “Hey There”, “Elvis Presley” and “Marilyn Monroe” and, of course, “Darlingji”) to a diary maintained by Nargis for the one-year-old Sanjay, written as if in his own hand (“Today I traveled with my mother to Madras in an aeroplane – I was crawling all over the place and the hostess took me into the cockpit but I was soon sent back as I was becoming inquisitive and wanted to operate the plane myself”).
And Kishwar’s favourite, a short piece Nargis wrote for Filmfare, speaking of the Mother India fire as a cleansing rite of sorts, where she was reborn and became a different person. “Little wonder too,” says Kishwar, “She was in front of the camera since the age of 5 – she didn’t really have a childhood – and was playing adult roles at 14, when she wanted to study. It’s understandable that she was tired of this life by the late 1950s, and wanted some stability. It was also why she didn’t want her children to visit film studios while they were growing up.”
What emerges from this wealth of primary material is the portrait of a relationship that began on shaky ground but eventually became a standard for love, respect and stability. “To my mind, the Nargis-Sunil Dutt story is in many ways a template for two people getting into a relationship, especially if they are from different backgrounds,” Kishwar says, pointing out that the year before they got married was an extremely difficult time. For starters, they had to keep their relationship under wraps until after Mother India released, because they had played mother and son in the film. Dutt was from a relatively conservative background while Nargis was a liberated, cosmopolitan woman who “swore like a trooper” (it’s possible to liken her to Katharine Hepburn in 1930s Hollywood), and he felt insecure because she was a much bigger star than him: “Though a very decent man, and progressive in his own way, he was after all from a patriarchal background and it must have pinched.” The widely circulated gossip about her affair with Kapoor caused further tension during this delicate phase – and yet, as Kishwar points out, “Despite all the difficulties, the two of them never stopped communicating with each other, never stopped talking. Instead of problems surfacing after they got married, they resolved all their differences beforehand. As a result, by the time they settled down, they were completely secure.”
Traces still remain in Darlingji of the Nargis biography that was originally planned: some of the book’s most involving sections are the early chapters that deal with the lives of her grandmother Dilipa Devi (widowed at thirteen, she defied her orthodox Brahmin community by eloping with a Muslim sarangi player) and mother Jaddanbai (a fine singer, a practitioner of the Benarsi thumri, who also had a controversial personal life before settling down in Bombay and producing/acting in some of the early “talking pictures”). The trajectories of these lives and how they led to Jaddanbai’s little daughter joining Hindi films as Baby Rani (years before she attained stardom) tell us a lot about what made Nargis the person she was, but they also provide glimpses into Hindi cinema’s early years. “Women like Jaddanbai were true pioneers who paved the way for other women to enter this profession,” says Kishwar, “I also think it was such a dynamic time. So many of the early women artistes were Muslim – there were many Anglo-Indians working in the industry, there was a German-Italian co-production, Himanshu Rai was releasing films in London. Many different communities worked together; it was only once Partition took place that people became chary about identities.”
Her fascination with the period reflects in the projects she is currently working on: a biography of writer Saadat Hasan Manto, the script for Shyam Benegal’s film about the life of British spy Noor Inayat Khan, another book about Devika Rani and Himanshu Rai. “I don’t know why I’m so obsessed with the 1930s and 1940s,” she laughs. “Maybe because my husband is a 1950s fan, I’ve decided to go back even earlier in time!”
"We haven’t taken cinema seriously,” she says, reflecting on the lack of high-quality biographies and film books in India, “and this will become a real problem as we go along. We need to archive more – every copy of every film ever made should go to the National Archives. And we need books. A filmmaker like Raj Kapoor, for instance, should have had so many good books written on him, from different perspectives. Yet there’s almost nothing of worth. I hope that changes soon.” Darlingji, an elegantly written, well-researched memoir, is a small step in the right direction.