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A handful of films make up the Bollywood canon of
the most revered and influential. Among them
are P.C. Baruas Devdas (1935), K. Asifs Mughal-e-Azam (1960),
and Ramesh Sippys Sholay (1975). Towering
along with them is Mehboob Khans Mother India.
The most prominent film to come out of Indian cinemas Golden Age
of the 1950s, Mother India follows a peasant woman through the trials and
tribulations of poverty, debt, and starvation. While
the subject matter sounds apropos for Italian Neorealism in the hands of Vittorio
De Sica or Luchino Visconti the style of Mother India is anything but. Mehboob incorporates Bollywoods usual modus
operandi heavy doses of melodrama interspersed with musical and comedic interludes. The movie enshrined the lead, Nargis, as one of
the great actresses of the Bollywood silver screen, and Mother India has regular
runs in Indian theaters even today.
Mother India opens with old Radha (Nargis) asked to lead the
village in celebrating the finishing of a new dam. This
is a community in the throes of modernization shortly after Indias independence from
the British. Radhas story, entirely
told in flashback, is a metaphor for the struggle of India rising as an independent
nation. A young Radha marries handsome Shyamu
(Raaj Kumar), but in order to pay for an elaborate wedding, Radhas new
mother-in-law, Auntie Sunder (the spry Jilloo Maa) mortgages her land. She is finagled into this deal by the better
educated Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal), and Radhas family expends all their resources
trying to pay off their debt to him. After
driving his oxen to death while plowing the land, Shyamu loses his arms in an accident. Radha takes up the reins to support him and their
three young sons. Shameful of his status,
Shyamu runs off in the night leaving the once humble Radha to find the strength to
overcome a devastating flood, the lecherous Sukhilala who lusts after her, and tragic
deaths in the family.
One of Radhas sons, Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), grows up responsible and
obedient; another, Birju (Sunil Dutt), is mischievous and hotheaded. Having seen his parents debased at the hands of
Sukhilala, Birju seethes with hatred for the old man and constantly taunts his daughter,
Rupa (Chanchal). While Ramu courts a village
girl, Champa (Kumkum), Birju develops a tender relationship with a quiet school teacher,
Chandra (the elegant Azra). Despite
Radhas attempts to control him, Birju turns from petty thief to violent bandit and
wages war on his own village. When Birju
tries to abduct Rupa on her wedding day, he forces Radha into a climatic confrontation
with her own son.
That Mehboobs epic has moved and inspired hundreds of millions of
Indians is indisputable. Yet with so much
tribute to patriotism and tradition, not to mention sentiment for the underdog latched
onto its back, Mother India at times feels heavy-handed and over-determined. When Radha pursues her fleeing husband, her
children chase after her to the overwrought dramatic score.
Suffering comes close to being romanticized and misery mistakenly equated
with truth. Still, while deeply conservative
in its resolute adherence to tradition, the movie also displays a strong concern with
class conflict and is nonconformist in depicting Radhas progression as a woman. Starting off tame and shy, Radha transforms into
an unfettered force of will by the end. Singlehandedly,
Nargis, who was only 28 years old at the time, elevates the entire movie to another level. There is not a moment when her performance feels
false and she is equally at home playing Radha very young or very old. In the movie, Mehboob, a socialist, ultimately
comes down on the side of society when forced to choose between that and the individual. Throughout Mother India, he presents the
landscape, the crops, the herds of livestock practically as characters in themselves.
The songs in Mother India tend to the folksy side hymns
to surviving in a cruel world with perseverance and honor.
The musical sequences show the villagers harvesting crops or Radha plowing the land
with her children. Although featuring some of
Indias all-time great playback singers like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, and
Mohammed Rafi, the music by Naushad is just adequate, not inspired. Only late in the movie do the sequences turn to
the more characteristic and lively Bollywood subject of romantic love. Near the end there is finally a scene set
during the Festival of Colors that includes a much-needed dance number helping to
alleviate some of the gloom and doom.
Aside from Nargis, the other most notable performance comes from Sunil
Dutt playing the grown-up Birju. Dutt seems
to be channeling Toshiro Mifune and manages to get the same force-of-nature effect. Interestingly, in an amazing haystack fire
sequence, Dutt saved Nargis life on the set, and later they married.