Sunday, November 04, 2007

Notes on Darlingji, and reviews from the 1940s

Kishwar Desai’s Darlingji, about the love story of Nargis and Sunil Dutt, is one of the better film-related memoirs I’ve read in recent times. Despite being episodic and dry in places, it’s elegantly written, well-edited and produced (basic though these things are, one has learnt not to take them for granted when it comes to books about Indian cinema or film personalities. Typical example here). As a movie buff I have a natural interest in Nargis and Sunil Dutt’s acting years, but some of the most involving sections of this book for me were the early chapters that dealt with the lives of Nargis’s grandmother Dilipa Devi (widowed at thirteen, she defied her orthodox Brahmin community by eloping with a Muslim sarangi player) and mother Jaddanbai (an accomplished singer, a practitioner of the Benarsi thumri, who also had a turbulent personal life before she settled down in Bombay and produced/acted in some of the early “talking pictures”). The trajectories of these lives, and how they led to Jaddanbai’s little daughter Fatima joining Hindi films as Baby Rani (years before she became Nargis, the big star), makes for solid reading.

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.


  1. Looking forward to your review, Jai. Interesting that there should be two biographical versions of the Dutts - have you taken a look at Mr and Mrs Dutt by the Dutt sisters?

  2. Khalid Mohammed's review was repulsive and in extremely bad taste. After that the response of Kashyap on his blog was aptly justified and I was in splits when I read his retort.

    One wonders, if mediocre film reviewers bring it upon themselves by being so bloated that when somebody like Kashyap shows them a needle, the deflating is accompanied by a lot of muck and stink.

  3. majid majidi is in town, why not interview him

  4. book seems like a must read after reading your post. must get it. wanted to recommend manto's 'stars from another sky' which has a very evocative and revealing chapter on nargis.

  5. The Aphrodisiac is a free serialized blog novel. Kindly read and review Jai.



  7. Sudha: no, haven't seen it yet, but spoke to Kishwar Desai about it - she helped Namrata and Priya Dutt put it together.

    A Monro: an email would be nicer, instead of this off-topic commenting.

    Anuj: have read that. Interestingly Kishwar is currently working on a Manto biography.

  8. Hi...according to the IMDB stub on Nargis, she's the granddaughter of Motilal Nehru. Is that true, do you know?

  9. Anon: no telling, really. According to the book her grandmother Dilipa Devi knew Motilal Nehru well - they lived in the same building in Allahabad at one point, and there was gossip, and the two families continued to be close decades later. But Kishwar Desai seems to think the rumours were unsubstantiated.

  10. Jai, do you know that the Anurag Kashyap- Khalid Mohamed war is a "hisorical" one.

    Here is he sequence of this ongoing spat.

    1) Anurag Kashyap makes a yet-unreleased film called Paanch. He holds a private screening of his film and invites KM free-mindedly.

    2)KM gives a good review of the film.

    Everything okay?

    3)KM gives 2.5 stars to the film, Haasil, by debutante director Tigmanshu Dhulia who happens to be the best friend of AK.

    4)The review miffs AK

    5)AK writes an open letter to KM on the newspaper. He also animadverts some of KM's earlier reviews.

    6)KM replies to his letter.

    Here is the link.

    7)KM offers a film to John. But he rejects. John works with AK. Acc. to Anurag this is the reason he gives a bad review to Kabul Express.

    8)Anurag Says, "KM sh*ts in his pants"

    9)Khalid gives 4 stars to Black Friday.

    10) Acc. to AK, Khalid "allegedly" spreads false news about No Smoking trailers pulled off.

    11)AK exhausts another set of expletives against Khalid in his blog.

    12)Now Khalid is miffed (naturally). He does a personal review of Anurag and trashes No Smoking.

    13)Anurag says, "Chut**e, ab tu retire ho ja"

    Now who's the real culprit? It's quite hard to decide.

  11. Too many typos in the above comment. Sorry! Writing in hurry.

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