‘She broke down after seeing her reflection in the mirror post chemotherapy’, Namrata Dutt misses mom Nargis

It’s said, “Nothing consumed by fire remains the same.” The fire that broke out on the set of Mehboob Khan’s epic Mother India is metaphoric of the same. During the final sequence, Nargis, as an old woman, was supposed to run into the blazing haystacks. While doing so, she actually got enveloped by the flames. Sunil Dutt, her young co-star, leaped into the fire and carried her out of the inferno. That was the turning point in Nargis’ life. It spelt a consecration of sorts. While she literally helped heal Sunil’s wounds, her lonely heart found its mooring in his magnanimity.

Nargis, once the muse and mascot of RK Films with a blitzkrieg of blockbusters Aag, Barsaat, Awara, Aah, Shree 420, Chori Chori and Jagte Raho (between 1948-1956) with Raj Kapoor, was happiest to slip into the role of ‘Mrs Dutt’. Sunil and Nargis went on to partner a life, which was replete with challenges but never devoid of devotion. The ultimate test was when Sunil walked away from everything to spend days and nights looking after an ailing Nargis as she battled cancer. The Nargis-Sunil Dutt love story is one that derives its poetry from pain, its romance from reality, its sanctity from sacrifice.

On Nargis’ 41st death anniversary, daughter Namrata Dutt shares an emotional note on her mother, the legendary Nargis.

In Namrata Dutt’s own words:

Namrata dutt

Fire and fervour

They first met on the sets of Mother India. As is well-documented, he rescued her from the fire that broke on the set and she nursed him to good health. But it was not because of this reason that Dad married Mom. It took some time for them to draw close. Mom was a huge star, while Dad was an upcoming actor. Basically, Dad found her to be a caring human being. He appreciated her strength and sensitivity. Those days, Dad was concerned about his sister Rani, who had contracted tuberculosis. Without letting him know, Mom went out of her way and arranged for the appropriate medical help for Rani Aunty.

Mom and Dad had a quiet Arya Samaj wedding (March 11, 1958) in the presence of family and friends, including producer Amarjeet, cinematographer Faredoon Irani, my aunt Rani. She may have been a superstar but Mom was a homemaker at heart. All she wanted was a home and children. Having said that she had her own distinct personality. Dad too didn’t like the thought of people doing nothing. He urged her to keep herself engaged in worthwhile pursuits. After marriage, Mom got involved with Dad’s production company Ajanta Arts. She became the first patron of Spastics Society of India. She also worked for the education of the girl child. Through time, she got a Rajya Sabha nomination.

Mom never missed her life as an actor, though she kept getting offers. She never watched her films. Raat Aur Din (1967) was produced by my maternal uncles (Anwar and Akhtar Hussain). It took 10 years to complete. In that time span, Mom had got married and had three children – the oldest being Sanjay, Priya being the youngest and I being the middle child. In fact, in the song Dil ki girah khol do with Feroz Khan, she looked plump as she was carrying Priya.

Earthy and easy-going

Mom had a penchant for white and off-white sarees with delicate embroidery and prints. That earned her the title Lady In White. She was not interested in jewellery. All that she wore was a pair of pearl earrings and two golden bangles. But yes, she wore a rudraksh mala given to her by her Guruji. She even prayed on it.

As a person, she was full of laughter and joy. She had no qualms about having pani puri from the roadside stall. She’d go to watch films wearing a burqa and later fling it off saying, “Garmi lag rahi hai!”. Her closest friends were not from the industry. They were working women in Delhi. She would insist we stay with them when we visited Delhi. I wanted to stay in a hotel because of the air-conditioning facilities. But Mom wanted us to adjust to every situation.

One day her friend said, “Fatty (Nargis’ original name was Fatema Rashid) let’s go shopping.” Palika Bazaar at Connaught Place had just been launched. While doing the rounds of the shopping centre, one of her friends got lost. She went to every shopkeeper asking, “Nargis ko kahin dekha?” Soon, the buzz went around that Nargis was around. Crowds started gathering. Before a stampede could ensue, we all huddled in a car and zipped away.

Her best friend from the industry was Shammi Aunty. They shared some hilarious moments together. Once both of them landed at a wrong wedding in Delhi. They happily greeted the bride and groom, presented them with bouquets only to realise that they had entered the wrong event. But by that time, people had recognised her.

The telephone was Mom’s favourite possession and the library with her countless books her favourite spot. She’d be both working and chatting on the phone there. Imagine how much she would have enjoyed the mobile phone, Kindle and the digital platforms today!

Sunil Dutt Nargis

Parenting partners

Dad supported Mom equally in our upbringing. Both of them attended every school function. Sanjay was a brat though. When Mom got angry, she’d use colourful language and expletives in Hindi for him – terms like ullu, gadha… She’d even throw objects at him. Her emotions were spontaneous. She was short-tempered but her anger didn’t last long. She loved all of us deeply. On the other hand, just one look from Dad was enough to discipline us.

However, like most boys, Sanjay was a naughty kid. He’d pick up Dad’s cigarette stubs and take puffs. Dad feared he was getting spoilt. He believed that sending him off to the boarding would do him good. That it would make him independent and tough. Being a bit too young, initially Sanjay was traumatised. Mom wrote him beautiful letters and visited his boarding, The Lawrence School, Sanawar (Himachal Pradesh) on the slightest pretext. Finally, Sanjay returned to continue his college education in Mumbai.

Tryst with cancer

Our lives changed overnight when Mom was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 1980. Dr Udwadia at Breach Candy suggested we take her to the US. Dad, Priya and I accompanied Mom to the Memorial Sloan–Kettering Cancer Center in New York. We hired an apartment two blocks away from the hospital and were put up there. I took leave from college for a year, while Priya stayed away from school.

Dad was with her every single day from morning to night. He would feed her, clean her. We sisters too would take turns in looking after her. I’m sure he cried secretly but Dad never let us know what he was going through. When he would return to the apartment, he’d watch her with binoculars, Mom’s room being on the opposite side. I was around 16. Priya was 10. We didn’t know how to cook. So, we’d call Mom on the landline in her room and ask her how to prepare simple dishes for my father. That’s how Priya and I picked up Indian cooking.

Coming to Mom’s treatment, at first her pancreas was removed. Soon after the surgery she began haemorrhaging internally. They reopened her five to six times, because the bleeding just wouldn’t stop. When they couldn’t stitch her, they stapled her. The body went through so much trauma that she slipped into coma. We were told by doctors that we should keep talking to her. Coma patients can’t react but they apparently register everything. So, we would read out the news to her, talk to her about what’s happening in Bombay, as though she was very much there. There was a little chapel in the hospital where we lit candles every day.

Then one day she moved her hand. Doctors had cautioned that her brain may not work as effectively. Thankfully, it wasn’t damaged. But the three-four months of coma had resulted in muscle atrophy. She had to undergo physiotherapy, which was excruciating. Even the baby steps were difficult. The day she walked with the walker all the relatives of the patients in the adjoining rooms came out and clapped for her as a gesture of encouragement. It was truly a touching moment. She was dubbed the Miracle Lady.

When she was a bit better, we wanted to take her out shopping. While getting ready, she happened to see her reflection in the mirror after months. Her skin had turned dark with chemotherapy. She had lost hair. She couldn’t believe what she saw and broke down.

Premature end 

Mom was cancer free when she returned to India in April 1981. We stayed in the US for one year. But in her mind, it was only three months. Priya and I travelled back to India earlier. We redid her room. We sterilised it as her immunity was low. All those who visited her had to wear a mask. We flew down a nurse from America to be with her. Unfortunately, she developed a urinary infection. She was admitted in the Breach Candy Hospital. Dad had a small van parked in the hospital compound. He would sleep in it. We never left her alone at any given time. A couple of weeks before she passed away, Mom was reading a newspaper on her hospital bed. I was sitting beside her. 

Suddenly, she turned emotional saying, “I want to see you getting married Anju! I should see at least one child of mine getting settled.” She was not that worried about her health as she was about leaving her children. I reassured her saying, “Mom, you’re not going anywhere.” Later as complications increased, they did a tracheotomy and put her on a ventilator. I remember Dad saying it was not a good sign. She slipped into coma once again.

That fateful day (3 May, 1981) dad had gone to pay his respects at the Sai Baba Temple in Shirdi. He returned in the evening. He came to the hospital and asked Priya and me to go home. Barely, had we reached home when we got a call asking us to return. We drove back immediately. By the time, we reached Breach Candy, Mom was no more. She was only 52.

Mom had a fear of fire after the Mother India accident. Her last wish was that she be buried. Dad fulfilled that. For the final farewell, she was dressed in her wedding attire – a red and green gota saree. The premiere of Sanjay’s debut film Rocky was held on 7 May 1981. As a mark of respect for Mom, who was so keen to watch the film, a chair was left vacant between Dad and Sanjay.

Superman Dad

Gradually, we got to know the intensity of Sanjay’s drug addiction. Dad’s efforts brought Sanjay on track. For me, Dad was a Superman, who was capable of doing anything and everything. Even later, as a family we faced so many adversities- Sanjay’s first wife Richa’s (Sharma) terminal illness, his incarcerations and his recent health scare.

Touchwood, Sanjay has also proved to be a strong man, physically and mentally surviving challenges, particularly his jail term. Anyone else would have fallen apart. He would have had to consult doctors, shrinks, counsellors. In a split second, Sanjay underwent a life switch. Be it sleeping on the jail floor without a fan, poor sanitation facilities and food, he braved it all. You can go insane with solitary confinement. But Sanjay proved that he’s indeed a real-life hero.

Though we’ve had our fair share of ups and downs, we three siblings remain closely bonded. We will always be there for each other. The way Priya looked after Sanjay during his recent cancer scare is remarkable. He’s now free. I guess a therapy will be carried out for a year or so. If you’re mentally strong half the battle is won. He continued to exercise and doing the normal things he did. I am sure my mother’s prayers are with him.

Having said that, the void left behind by Mom will always remain. She would have thoroughly enjoyed her grandchildren and they would have been equally crazy about her. She would have made for the best grandma in the world. Miss you Ma! You left too soon.

Also Read: Namrata Dutt on Ram Gopal Varma’s Sanju: The Real Story – Why is he putting us through so much pain again?

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