Mother India (1957), the Indian Gone with the Wind, is Mehboob’s most famous film and has achieved the status of an Indian cinematic epic. Mother India took three years to make, and is actually a remake of one of Mehboob’s first films, Aurat (Woman, 1940), starring the wonderful actress Sardar Akhtar (who had already worked in Urdu theatre). She went on to marry the director in 1942.
Mother India was about the struggle for survival of a peasant woman abandoned by her husband, left with 2 children and pursued by an avaricious moneylender. She finally kills one of her sons, who has turned out bad (including the sin of seducing the daughter of the moneylender). This film convincingly paints the conflicts of an agrarian society and the role that the Indian woman plays in the survival of the entire family. Mother India was made after the director had made a minute study of a village in Gujarat (near Baroda), and with a completely new perspective of the aesthetic language of cinema.
The context in which Aurat was made was considerably amplified in this film, one of the ways being the idealization in technicolour of the woman and the mother, as an almost sacred concept—a central theme of Indian cinema until today. According to Sumita Chakravarty, in the context of the mutations of modern India, the film purports to be an illustration of women’s fight against male oppression and the oppression of nature, as well as a celebration of the Indian farmer’s will to save his land from domination by external forces.
At that time, and even today, India is a country with a rural majority and in the film, Radha, the ‘Mother Courage’ character (played by Nargis) takes on the symbolism of the ‘national mother’, India, as well as that of the mythical ‘mother-goddess’. In the beginning of the film, Radha, the Mother India, has already become the mother of her rural community, and done her duty by her husband (the athletic Raj Kumar) by giving him many sons whom she is ready to protect with her life. She is persuaded by her good son (Rajendra Kumar, another common theme in popular Indian cinema, that of the virtuous son and the bad son) to inaugurate a dam which has been built to facilitate mechanical irrigation (a frequently used symbol at that time of faith in Independent India’s technical progress).
In some of these scenes, critics have perceived the influence of the agrarian epics of the Soviet director Dovjhenko. After various incidents, her husband who has become handicapped in an accident, leaves her. When her bad son (the actor Sunil Dutt, who later married Nargis), in order to take revenge on the moneylender who has abused his mother, seduces and runs away with his daughter, Radha is driven to kill him. The universal ‘Mother’ is thus identified with Kali, goddess of destruction. The film fully exploits all emotional possibilities and paints an almost mystical picture of the suffering of the poor and humble and even more, that of women—especially the mother figure.
In the patriarchal Indian society, the mother is more than anything an archetype of stability and continuity (as long as she doesn’t betray tradition and social mores). One can see that Mother India is one of the numerous Indian films which propagate the divine image of the woman, whose antithesis can only be the courtesan. A very great success with the public when it was released—this film still continues to be as popular whenever it is shown in theatres or on television—in India, the Middle East and the world over— especially in Asia, Africa and the countries of the former Soviet Union.
Year – 1957, Genre – Drama, Country – India, Language – Hindi, Producer – Mehboob Production, Director – Mehboob, Music Director – Naushad, Cast – Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raj Kumar, Kanhaiyalal, Jilloo Maa, Kumkum, Chanchal, Sheela Naik, Mukri, Ram Shastri