Getting into the fun romantic part of it in this section, woo-hoo! Read on if you like exciting real life romantic drama.
Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no idea if anything I am saying is true or not, but this is the generally accepted version of events, and if you are new to the films, or somehow missed this part of film history, here is what you need to know.
In my last section, I covered Nargis’ childhood and early years of stardom. Which were pretty great! Her mother was successful and respected in the industry, Nargis got to have a childhood and go to school, and then when she was 14 she got a good launch in a good movie with a good director, and then got a nice series of more good roles with good directors, and by 18 she was a successful happy confident working woman, taking meetings with producers and directors and controlling her own career.
At which point, enter Raj!!! I already covered this back in the Kapoor section, so go back there if you want to read the Raj side of things details. From the Nargis side of things, the facts are the same of course. Raj came to her house as a 22 year old aspiring producer, and barely launched movie star. Nargis didn’t take the meeting seriously, because she had plenty of producers knocking on her door and answered the door in a housedress with flour on her nose, and he feel in love at first sight. Nargis thought he was young and chubby and wasn’t that interested but agreed to do the movie. And then by the end of the shoot, they were passionately in love and stayed passionately in love for ten years.
(Passionately in love!)
But let’s turn this around a little and give some context and emotion to Nargis’ side of things. Nargis was a strong smart confident and super successful career woman. But she was also only 18. And Raj was only 22. Their coming together was this odd combination of two people at their peak career and creative period, who weren’t at their peak emotional maturity.
And the thing is about 18 year olds and 22 year olds, they don’t realize they aren’t emotionally mature yet. Because they are too young to even know what emotional maturity and a healthy relationship looks like. And so Nargis and Raj fell into this passionate partnership and probably thought it would be wonderful and perfect and have no problems ever and last forever and ever.
And for a while, it was perfect! Nargis was the new Indian woman, career in place, love on the side, traveling the world in gorgeous clothes both western and Indian style. She was free and easy and throwing her head back with happiness in every photo. And, for a while, the fact that Raj was married to someone else probably worked to her advantage. She got have the kind of relationship that Deepika is enjoying with Ranveer now, or Anushka with Virat. Sex (I assume), partnership, support, but she still had permission to put herself first. No kids, no mother-in-law, no pressure to stop working and focus on taking care of her husband. No pressure to get married either, because everyone knew about her and Raj, the fans, the media, the people she knew in real life, everyone! And no one controlling her life either. She could take the scripts she wanted, cut her hair, change her clothes, hire a maid, fire a maid, do all those things that, for instance, Meena Kumari was never able to decide for herself.
(Golf! What could be more modern?)
Well, sort of. This is one of those “you don’t even realise the problem until you are old enough and smart enough to be aware that it can be a problem” things. At some point around the time they did their world tour for Awara, Nargis started to notice that she wasn’t actually that free. And she wasn’t all that powerful. Somehow, without realizing it, and without marriage, she had ended up being “the woman behind the man”. Even if she still had her own household and her own career, and was triumphantly single, she had somehow ended up thinking of someone else before herself in all important decisions.
Again, in the Raj Kapoor side, I gave all the little details, how from his side of things she had left him for another man, there were all these dramatic moments right at the end. But from the Nargis side, I suspect it was less big dramatic decisions, and more long thoughtful moments having imaginary conversations with her mother (who died two years after Nargis and Raj got together, and that is TOTALLY part of the reason it took Nargis so long to extricate herself! Her mother sounds like a woman who would have said “Oh honey, the boy’s no good for you” as soon as she started turning down roles she wanted because Raj needed her). I think Nargis probably had years of slowly debating whether all of this career success and creative fulfillment and great sex (I assume) was enough for her. If she could live with this uncertainty, going day to day and film to film but no security for the future.
Since I wrote the Raj part, I’ve also read Rishi’s biography, where he is remarkably honest about what it was like to be Raj’s child during this period. Lots of hiding in bedrooms when Raj came home drunk and miserable and angry at 3am. And not seeing him during daylight hours ever.
Flipping to the other side, what does that mean about the 20 hours a day when Raj wasn’t home terrifying his children? It means he was high on creativity, working mad hours at the studio, shooting and reshooting and re-writing and re-conceiving and driving his collaborators crazy (also from Rishi’s bio, talking about how he finally started to understand his father’s life after working with him). And then getting super drunk and maudlin and guilty and angry about his life, and finally stumbling home to sleep for a few hours, before escaping back to the studio.
This would have been about 5-7 years into his relationship with Nargis. Can you imagine spending all day with your boyfriend as your demanding boss? And then all night watching him get drunk because of sublimated guilt over cheating with you on his wife? That sounds terrible! And at some point, the thought of “I could just leave. There’s nothing keeping me with him, no kids, no legal ties, no social ties, why not?” would have to start working away at your brain.
But on the other hand, there’s the love. The passionate crazy love that she had given up a third of her life to. And of course the creativity, Raj and Nargis didn’t have any kids together, but they did have a studio together, and they gave birth to a whole series of films that essentially invented Indian film. Should she just seize the moment and keep seizing it as long as this magical time could last? Or was the moment already gone and she had to leave?
(Their last real movie together. And the magic was still there, it could have lasted years longer, who knows? And is that worth Nargis giving up her youth?)
The first sign that it was over wasn’t something that Raj even seemed to notice in his version. Nargis went ahead and signed a film role with Mehboob Khan, her original mentor. A film role which would keep her off the RK Studio lot and out of Raj Kapoor’s life for months and months. And which had the possibility of giving her a career outside of the RK collaboration.
According to everybody’s version, she was not looking for a lover outside of Raj at this point. Which is part of what I find so fascinating. Their creative and romantic partnership was so entwined, she made the first move to leave not because of issues in the romance, but because of issues feeling stifled creatively. But I feel like, even if she didn’t consciously think she was walking out of the relationship, she really was. If the creativity was over, the romance was going too.
The thing is, going back to the creativity part of it, this was the greatest female role possibly ever. She would have been crazy to turn down this script. And her ability to play the role once and for all proved that she was a great actress with or without Raj. Truly, if this script hadn’t landed in her lap, I wouldn’t be surprised if she stayed with Raj forever. She needed something this dramatically undenialably good to force her out.
And, love triangle alert!!!!! BOOP BOOP BOOP!!!!! Mother India was an incredibly complicated shoot, and for most of it Nargis was high on the greatest creative experience of her life. There are stories of her during certain sequences obsessively reaching down and packing more and more mud on her face, of the crew being stunned into silence by her scenes, of her losing all sense of vanity of self-consciousness, playing a woman who goes from a shy young bride to a grey-haired and frail grandmother.
(Still beautiful, but with a strong kind of beauty)
And this is what Sunil Dutt fell in love with! Sunil was a year younger than Nargis (almost to the day). And while she was 29 and 15 years into a career, he was just starting out in film. After surviving Partition at 18, going through college, then getting an office job in Bombay, and finally working in Radio and becoming a popular VJ, he landed in films. I find this fascinating, Nargis and Raj came together because they had so much in common. But Sunil and Nargis came together with almost nothing in common. And they came together fully formed, a man with a variety of experiences and a fascinating background, and a woman at the peak of her professional and creative life.
(Not this woman. This is what Raj fell in love with, gorgeous and young and bright, but this was not the Nargis that Sunil met)
And he didn’t fall in love with her because she was beautiful and glamorous and passionately in love with him, he fell in love with her because she was unselfconscious and brilliant and dedicated to her art. And Nargis didn’t even notice him! The consistent part of this story is that Sunil was the young man playing her son, the second or third lead of the film, far below her, and she didn’t care what he thought about her, or even thought about him at all. And yet, Sunil apparently thought about her and thought a lot of her.
Dun dun dun, dramatic action scene! Towards the end of filming, they were shooting the finale action sequence. Nargis, weighed down with old age make-up and padding, and a stumbling walk, was supposed to run into a field of haystacks set on fire, chasing after her “bad son” Sunil Dutt. And then her character was supposed to get trapped in the haystacks, and Sunil’s character would prove his essential nobility by running back and rescuing her. Only, the stunt went wrong. Nargis really was trapped in a field of haystacks on fire and no one was sure what to do. And, without hesitation, Sunil ran right in after her and carried her out. And that’s when she finally “saw” him for the first time.
It was after that that the part Raj tells came. Nargis started wearing heels, she received and threw away a love letter that Raj later found. Raj saw it as her “cheating” on him, breaking his heart, and so on and so on.
But she had already left, he just didn’t realize it. She left as soon as she signed Mother India, I think. If Sunil hadn’t come along, it would have been another script and then another until finally she wasn’t living on the RK Studios lot any more and Raj was left drunk and alone. Raj was diminishing her by turning this all into just a “love triangle”. It wasn’t that, it was about Nargis choosing herself over what was better for Raj.
And eventually, she realized that Sunil Dutt was better for her than Raj. He loved her, he wanted to marry her, he wanted to share a life with her. And he didn’t make her wear flats and white saris all the time, or run every film script past him, or force her to give uncredited input into all his creative products. They never had that intoxicating creative partnership and all encompassing love that she had with Raj, but maybe that is a good thing. Maybe that kind of crazy love is only something you can do when you are 18, not something that lasts into your 30s.
(This is what Raj was never going to give her)