Roshmila Bhattacharya (MUMBAI MIRROR; May 31, 2018)

Every year, as the world gears up for the Academy Awards, at least one movie aficionado will remind you that an Indian film almost brought home the Oscar for India in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Many will immediately remember Aamir Khan’s Lagaan and sigh over the fact that the 2001 release was outpaced by No Man’s Land, a Bosnian drama. Few will recall that 44 years before Lagaan, Mehboob Khan’s epic drama Mother India lost out by a solitary vote in the third round to the Italian film, Nights Of Cabiria. However, it’s leading lady Nargis bagged not only the Filmfare Best Actress Award but was also feted at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival for perhaps the most defining performance of her career.

With make-up and the power of histrionics, the 26-year-old actress had brought to life the trials and tribulations of a blushing bride who weathers every adversity imaginable, from floods and famine to drought and desertion, starvation and alienation. Suddenly a single parent and the family’s sole breadwinner after her weak-willed husband steals out of home never to return, she metamorphoses into Mother Earth, picking up the plough to feed her children. When life gets tougher, she transforms into the Mother Goddess, moving from a virtuous Sati-Savitri to a fiery Durga- Kali who shoots dead her rebellious younger son Birju to save the honour of the daughter of the village money lender, who had once offered her food in return for her body.

With plenty of drama and melodrama, Nargis turned into the archetypal screen mother even though in real life she was still unmarried and two years away from becoming a mother to son Sanjay, born on July 29, 1959, who was not unlike Birju, given his battle with drugs and his brushes with the law. Interestingly, her son’s real father, Sunil Dutt, played Birju in reel life.

On March 11, 1958, close to midnight, Nargis became Mrs Dutt. The wedding may not have happened had the nervous groom, who had arrived on the dot of 7 pm, got tired of waiting for the bride and driven away thinking he had been stood up. Caught in a traffic jam, Nargis reportedly turned up three hours late and the first person she saw outside Mumbai’s Arya Samaj Hall was Sunil Dutt who hadn’t moved an inch from his designated spot in all the time.

It’s strange how destiny charts the course of many a journey. Had Mehboob Khan not listened to his writers and stuck to his original casting, Dilip Kumar would have played both father and son in the film or maybe Hollywood’s Elephant Boy Sabu stepped into Burju’s shoes. Had Nargis not broken an almost-exclusive contract with RK, she might not have played Radha. And had these two roads not crisscrossed, maybe the love story of Mr and Mrs Dutt may never have even been written.

Or maybe it may have been plotted, anyway. Radio announcer Balraj (Sunil) Dutt had been roped in to play the good older son, Ramu (later enacted by Rajendra Kumar) and only landed this part after Sabu’s exit and then won Nargis’s lifelong gratitude and love by saving her from a fire.

It sparked off in a haystack on the afternoon of March 1, 1957, in the village of Umra, trapping her in a ring of flames. As everyone watched in horror, Sunil jumped into the blazing inferno, swept Nargis up in his arms and dashed back for safety, ensuring that though bruised and slightly burnt, they both lived to see another dawn.

From that day he was a real hero in Nargis’s eyes. Yet, when news of their marriage leaked, many were convinced it wouldn’t last beyond six months. It lasted for 23 years and only ended with Nargis’s death on May 3, 1981. By then, she had mothered not just Sanjay, but two daughters, Namrata and Priya, too.

Mother India was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s 1940 black-and-white film, Aurat, with his wife Sardar Akhtar in the lead. That film had its genesis in Maxim Gorky and Pearl S Buck’s novels, Mother and The Good Earth, and over the next half a century, many actresses have aspired to mould their own Mother India but the original remains an icon. Was it just a coincidence that Nargis and Sunil Dutt were born in the same month, just days apart, she on June 1, he on June 6. And like his beloved Mrs Dutt, he too quietly said goodbye to the world in May — May 25, 2005 — and so did their mentor–director Mehboob Khan on May 28, 1964. Maybe this was another of destiny’s designs.