The subliminal motif in most of his famous films was: the oppressed poor pitted against the oppressive rich — whether it was the woman (Nargis) against the zamindar (Kanhaiyalal) in Mother India, the innocent tribal (Sheikh Mukhtar) against the money-grabbing capitalist (Chandramohan) in Roti, or the commoner (Dilip Kumar) against the prince (Premnath) in Aan.
But Mehboob was able to make even such dark themes entertaining. A firm believer in box office elements (he was convinced that a heroine had to sexually arouse the male audience), Mehboob lavished on his films lush emotions that he knew would never fail with Indian viewers.
Mehboob had a perpicacious appreciation of the average Indian because he himself came from a small village in Gujarat. Born Ramjan Khan, he ran away to Bombay and spent his early youth scrounging work in the studios. From playing one of the thieves in Alibaba And Forty Thieves, he graduated to directing films for Sagar Studios in the mid-30s. He hit his full stride with two musicals, Manmohan (’36) and Jagirdar (’37) and achieved critical approbation with Aurat (’40), based on Pearl Buck’s novel, Mother. Several critics are of the opinion that this stark epic with its parched tones was much more realistic than its remake, Mother India.
Two years later, Mehboob made Roti (’42), a blistering attack on capitalism and the lust for money. The unforgettable climax was set in a surrealistic desert, used as an analogue for the aridity of monetary greed.
After Roti, Mehboob slid into a period of light romances (like the musical blockbuster, Anmol Ghadi) till Andaaz (’49). Forwarded as the first modern film, Andaaz ironically endorsed traditionalism. The film questioned the concept of a platonic relationship between the sexes. When Nargis finds that her friend, Dilip Kumar, is in love with her even after she has married Raj Kapoor, she recoils. In an electrifying climax, she shoots down Dilip, negating all liberal thought. Despite its anachronisms, Mehboob Khan had made a near classic. His conception of the scene where Nargis confronts her mirror image and questions the ambivalence of her own feelings for Dilip is remarkable.
With the successful Aan (’52), Mehboob’s films went technicolour and he even successfully released this lengthy melodrama in London (when a critic saw the film, he is reported to have quipped: “It goes aan and aan and aan”). Though Nargis had walked out of his Aan because of the Raj Kapoor connection, Mehboob magnanimously cast her in his magnum opus, Mother India (’57). The only Hindi film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, Mother India set into motion many a cycle — the mother-son obsession, the good brother-bad brother conflict. In other hands, MotherIndia could have easily become melodramatic. Mehboob made it the defining rural epic on India.