In her Acknowledgements, Desai mentions that Darlingji was originally intended to be a Nargis biography but that it grew into a book about the actress’s relationship with Dutt, whom she famously fell in love with after he rescued her from a fire on the sets of Mother India in 1957. This shift in focus is apparent in the book’s somewhat whimsical structure: it begins with Nargis’s back-story, then brings Balraj (later known as Sunil) Dutt into the picture, hurriedly tracing his early life and advent into the Bombay film industry before rushing back to Nargis and her conflicted years as Raj Kapoor’s Muse and, possibly, lover – a time that paved the way for her wanting to settle down into a more secure life.
But the book becomes smoother once Nargis and Sunil get married. Though it's still episodic, Desai manages to convey the love and mutual respect in their relationship (her thesis is that the very deep bond between Nargis and Sunil Dutt tends to get short shrift because in the public imagination Nargis is so closely linked with Raj Kapoor). There are extracts from and photocopies of letters written by the principals, and towards the end one gets a very immediate sense of the family’s struggle during the painful bout with cancer that ended Nargis’s life at 52 – there’s also a moving pen-portrait of the young Sanjay Dutt as an insecure boy never quite able to cope with being sent to boarding school; his years of drug-addiction (which tragically coincided with his mother’s last days, so that he was too spaced out to appreciate what was happening to her at the time, and could come to terms with his loss only years after her death); and his ambivalent relationship with his father.
Will review Darlingji soon, but for now a mention of some passages I enjoyed, the ones that deal with the critical reception given to films of the 1940s and 1950s by journals/magazines such as Filmindia and Filmfare. It’s a window into what movie-reviewing used to be like at the time (the art of film-appreciation wasn’t particularly well-developed; have things really changed in 60 years?) and it’s especially amusing to see how personal and homely some of the criticism got. Here are some samples.
From a review of the film Nargis (1946), which in its headline referred to Nargis as the “Girl with Papaya Face”:
She is, in addition, photographed so unsympathetically that her papaya face looks exceptionally long in this picture, giving her an odd appearance.Poor taste, anyone? This from a slamming of a film written by Nargis’s mother who had recently passed away:
The story of this picture was written by Bai Jaddanbai, who died recently of heart failure. This picture is disappointing enough to give anyone a heart attack...From the review of the Dilip Kumar-Nargis starrer Mela:
...Nargis plays her part well, especially in pathetic scenes, though she looks unconvincing in scenes of her synthetic motherhood... (sic)Review of Aah, in which Raj Kapoor plays a Devdas-like character dying of tuberculosis:
For a young man weighed down by a frustrated love affair, two infected lungs and a sensitive tortured poetic mind, he looks surprisingly well and plump.And the much-too-candid headline of Filmindia’s review of Ashiana:
“Raj and Nargis Give Stupid Portrayals!”Baburao Patel, the cantankerous editor of Filmindia, on Nargis’s performance in Raj Kapoor’s Aag:
...she acts well only above the shoulders, especially in pathetic situations. But in the dance sequences her deformed back and squeezed up figure without any grace or contours become repulsive...(I like the recurring use of “pathetic situations” and “pathetic scenes”!)
After all this, maybe we shouldn’t complain about Khalid Mohammed’s personal attack on Anurag Kashyap in his No Smoking review - it's clearly part of a long tradition. (By the way, here's an old post mentioning the tone of film reviews that appeared in the New Yorker in the 1930s. Given how young cinema is and how suspicious people were for the longest time about whether it could be taken seriously, such writing is always fascinating to look at decades later.)
P.S. Darlingji also supplies the valuable information that the song “Jia Bekaraar Hai” from Barsaat inspired a ditty that was popular on the streets of Bombay around the time gossip magazines were going on about the Dev Anand-Suraiya relationship. I think I’d also heard about this from my grandmother once. The ditty went:
Jia bekarar hai,
Suraiya bimar hai,
Aaja Doctor Dev Anand,
Tera intezar hai
Surprising that Dev saab didn’t mention this in his autobiography.