Gayatri Chatterjee’s history and analysis of the film
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.