Nargis enriched several Hindi films with her indomitable talent, including the iconic Mother India, but her last film Raat Aur Din hinges solely on her fiery and mutable screen presence. The narrative of Raat aur Din made it an ideal swan song for Nargis, affording her the opportunity to showcase the wide range of her acting talent.
Although the shooting for Raat aur Din commenced in 1960, paucity of funds caused Nargis’s brother, producer Akhtar Hussain, to shelve the film. Nargis had gone into semi-retirement after her marriage to Sunil Dutt, but was persuaded to complete the shooting for Raat aur Din as a favour to her brother. The film was eventually released in 1967. Nargis was awarded the inaugural National Film Award for Best Actress for her portrayal of a traumatised patient of mental illness.
In a radio interview shortly after the film’s release, Nargis confessed that she was distracted by a persistent maternal worry for her son Sanjay while she was on the sets of the Raat Aur Din. The experience cemented her belief that married life was incompatible with a career in cinema. Nevertheless, she regarded Raat aur Din, along with films such Awara, Jogan and Mother India, as one of her most memorable experiences.
Raat aur Din opens with a noir-style sequence. A woman (Nargis) clad in a chic dress and casually wielding a cigarette, hails a cab with sophisticated ease. A visibly agitated man grabs a gun from his wardrobe and sets off in hot pursuit. When he tracks her down and claims to be her husband, she refuses to recognise him.
It is soon revealed that the stylish sophisticate, who calls herself Peggy, is an alter ego of the married and traditional Varuna. The normally reticent Varuna not only drinks and smokes when she slips into her alternate personality, but also dances to loud music with abandon. Since they married impulsively, her husband Pratap (Pradeep Kumar) knows very little of Varuna’s past and is plagued with doubts about her identity and character even after she is diagnosed with multiple personality disorder. A group of psychiatrists eventually helps Varuna understand the cause of her malady – a controlling mother, repressed urges and unfounded guilt.
Despite its unconvincingly glib resolution and uneven handling of mental illness, Raat aur Din is consistently entertaining, especially because Nargis brilliantly alternates between soft-spoken Varuna and irreverent Peggy. The narrative drops subliminal hints to establish the contradictions in Varuna’s personality even before she develops her alter ego. When Pratap first meets her, the otherwise timid Varuna is perfectly at ease living in the middle of a jungle. She even croons a haunting melody while she makes her lonely way across fog and foliage.
Shankar-Jaikishan’s songs play an important role in differentiating, and then stitching together, the two sides of Varuna’s personality. Since Varuna has been prevented from singing and dancing as a child, her musical musings are consistently troubled, ranging from the sweetly melancholic Raat Aur Din Diya Jale to the desperately sad Jeena Hamko Raas Na Aaya. Westernised Peggy, on the other hand, sings with seductive ease. Dil Ki Girah Khol Do, set in triple time and depicting a waltzing Peggy, is an apt reflection of her peculiar brand of joie de vivre. Aawara Ae Mere Dil, with its happy and sad versions, acts as a bridge between Varuna’s angst and Peggy’s determined good cheer.
It is likely that the delay in the production prevented Raat Aur Din from being shot in colour. But director Satyen Bose turns this into an advantage, using the contrast afforded by black-and-white visuals to highlight the sharp duality in Varuna’s personality.
The symbolism behind Varuna’s duality in Raat aur Din is easy to recognise. While the docile wife is equated with goodness and light, the unabashedly sexual woman is regarded as sinful and dark. Varuna’s split personality is the manifestation of a strange fantasy – a woman who is subservient by day, but transforms into wanton at night.
Although Varuna’s split personality is more obvious, Pratap is also caught between tradition and modernity. He is furious when he finds out that his wife has absconded to sing and dance at a club, but he freely serenades her while he is in company with his friends. He protects Varuna from his mother’s dogmatic beliefs, but abandons her when he feels she has overstepped traditional boundaries. Pratap’s vacillation and the censure heaped on Peggy are relevant even today, considering that we are still locked in a cultural struggle to reconcile traditional norms with western influences.