Bollywood Rewind |  Mother India: Where being a woman means sacrifices

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In this weekly column, we revisit the nuggets of the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week we revisit the 1957 release of Mother India.

A few films define the course of cinema and influence generations of filmmakers, actors and audiences. Few films achieve this accolade, but Mehboob Khan’s 1957 film Mother India may be a film that undoubtedly makes the cut.

Starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Raaj Kumar in key roles, Mother India is one of the films made almost 64 years ago that continues to be applauded for its themes. While many of these themes have a varied interpretation in 2021, the central story of Mother India is still something that would work even today.

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mother india Mother India is always celebrated for her central theme.

Mother India is the story of Radha (Nargis) who is a young bride in the village. She begins to work with her husband in the fields as the family is weighed down by the debilitating debt of the local loan shark. The loan doesn’t seem to stop and Radha goes from an energetic young woman to a tired old lady in an attempt to pay it back. Even though her entourage – her husband (Raaj Kumar), her mother-in-law, two of her children leave her, Radha has to go on and worry about the next meal for her two remaining sons – Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar ).

In one of the scenes from the film, Radha’s children are starving and she must seek help from the evil pawnshop. Sukhilala expects her to trade her body for food and as she reflects on her condition, Radha has a revelation. Looking at the statue of a god, Radha refuses to compromise his integrity. This is a defining scene for the film because at this point, she is assimilated to a deity.

The title Mother India can be interpreted in several ways. At the time, the choice of Mehboob Khan’s title sparked some controversy as a book of the same name was all the rage. Katherine Mayo’s book was seen as a defamation of Indian culture and values, and many feared Khan would make a film based on the book. Her choice came from the conviction that from then on, Mother India would be remembered as a symbol of sacrifice, love and devotion and not as what Mayo had written.

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Translated by Bharat Mata, one interpretation of this title equates mothers with goddesses. While some might say it puts women on a pedestal, but does little to help their cause. Treating them like goddesses gives men the opportunity to distance themselves from them as people.

The title also suggests that a mother who brings life to Earth is a divine figure, but she is hardly ever treated like a human who has the potential to make mistakes. As in the movie, Radha must take responsibility for her household, her children and the endless debt. When Birju is wrong, it is Radha who is responsible to the villagers. This puts women in a box where they are supposed to earn this divine respect from society only after contributing offspring.

Traditionally, Indians have always treated their land as “dharti mata” and this is where another interpretation of the title resides. The personification of “dharti mata” appears when Radha and his sons bring the village farms back to life through simple labor.

After the recent medals won at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, it was commonly accepted that sportswomen were called “Bharat ki beti”. The title of Mother India has a similar problem as here too, women’s achievements, sacrifices are only honored after being looked at through their relationships, not as an individual.

As Mother India oscillates between feminism and patriarchy, the film cannot depart from its archaic roots, probably contemporary at the time. The conflict with Birju towards the end only takes place because the woman he plans to kidnap is sacred to the village – “beti gaaon ki izzat hai”. This patriarchal setup gives way to one of the most shocking highlights of all time that has since been revisited by many filmmakers. To this day a woman shooting a gun at her son would leave you in shock so one can imagine the horror and impact of the scene when Radha de Nargis shot Birju de Dutt.

Mother India is blessed with some of the best performers of her time. After watching a lot of 1950s movies, there is no doubt in my mind that Nargis was truly an enigmatic performer and if there was one movie that had her at its best, it was Mother India. Sunil Dutt’s Birju is convincing enough in scenes where he struggles to make sense of his family’s debt while trying to find other outlets for his anger.

With music by Naushad and lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni, Mother India is also blessed in the soundtrack department. With tracks like “Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re”, “Holi Aayi Re Kanhai” among others, Mother India places her songs organically into the narrative, which was quite unusual for the 1950s.

Mother India’s storytelling and themes have spawned countless stories in Indian cinema, but as the film has aged, not all of the themes it proudly portrayed at the time do not hold up well. Nonetheless, Mother India remains one of the most famous movies of all time and just for this laurel, it deserves to be seen by generations to come.

Bollywood rewind | Anari | Chaudhvin Ka Chand | Boot Polish | Make Bigha Zamin | Devdas | Baiju Bawra | Shree 420 | Pyasa | CID | Madhumati | Naya Daur | Awara | Sharada | Do Aankhen Barah Haath | Bandini | Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam

Mother India is streaming on YouTube, MXPlayer.

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