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Mother India (1957)

Celebrating the Indian Womanhood


Mother India 1957

This magnum opus from Mehboob Khan was a remake of his earlier movie Aurat released in 1940. Mother India is an all time classic and is what defines Indian cinema. It describes the village life in the backdrop of agriculture, which at that time was very much dependent on rainfall with 70% of the Indian population living in the villages and also dependent on agriculture. It was released on 25 October 1957.

Mother India captures the Indian ethos of the time. A woman has a prime place in Indian culture and are revered as goddesses. Mother has a special place in every child’s life especially in India and this movie celebrates that. The title was deliberately chosen so, as it was also the title of a book by an American author denigrating the Indian ethos and with this Mehboob Khan wanted to put paid to that by showing that the opposite was actually the truth and Indian women had enough grit and gumption to manage their lives on their own. Mehboob Khan was also inspired by Pearl S Buck’s stories ‘ The Good Earth’ and ‘The Mother’.

Radha (Nargis) is the village elder and is shown inaugurating a canal, she goes into flashback memories when she was married to Shamu (Rajkumar) and was a village bride. As her husband’s family had a debt with the village moneylender Sukhilal (Kanhaiyalal- superb villianny without being menacing) a meagre amount but for which they have to pay him 3/4ths of their farm produce, to this end Shamu tries to cultivate more of their rocky land and loses his hands under a boulder. Unable to take care of his family, out of shame he abandons his family. This leaves Radha to take care of all the children, and due to limited resources she is unable to make the ends meet does losing her mother in law and one child.

As things take turn for worse and the village is hit by floods she loses one more of her child leaving behind only two children Ramu and Birju whom she is fiercely protective about though following idealistic values to the core. In the meantime unable to pay the lecherous Sukhilal in time she gets an indecent proposal from him, she vehemently shuns his advances, all this leaves a bitterness in the mind of her younger son Birju (Sunil Dutt) though the elder Ramu ( Rajendra Kumar) is more amiable and understands Birju. Due to the bitterness Birju becomes a village tease specially targetting Lala’s daughter Rupa. Due to some unfortunate events Birju lands up on the other side of law and becomes a dacoit. On Rupa’s marrige day comes to the village with his cronies kills Lala and abducts her. Radha has given her word to Lala that she will not let any harm come to him or his family from Birju. Thus she asks Birju to release Rupa when he does not accede to her demands she shoots her son the pie of her eye, who dies in her lap, to uphold the virtuous values. This is Mother India.

It was the first Indian film to be sent for Academy Award (Oscars) for Best Foreign Language Film and was amongst five nominated in that category.

There are many stories about the movie during its making and after its release. Though panned by the western media it fared very well in the third world and Eastern bloc countries. In the scene where haystacks are burnt Nargis actually got caught in the midst of it and was rescued by Sunil Dutt thus paving the way for their romance and subsequent marriage. Nargis was in her late twenties when this movie was released but shown as a mother of twenty something sons, considered a great career risk. Though she gave up acting after marriage.

There were special screenings for the then Indian Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and President Rajendra Prasad. It was a blockbuster and if we account for the inflation by present standards it would still be ranked in the top 5 all time grossers of our film industry. The flood scenes were shot on actual flood location even before the movie went to the floors.

Mother India remains… and will remain an all time great offering from our great film industry called Bollywood.

– A Bollywood retro gem – MOTHER INDIA is revisited by PAWAN GUPTA

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