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Remind Me

Mother India

In 1940, Mehboob Khan, one of the most prolific directors of Hindi cinema, made a film called Aurat, the story of an Indian mother who fought against the odds to raise her family under tremendous hardship on a rural farm. In 1957, Mehboob remade the film as Mother India, which became one of the most influential and recognizable Hindi films ever made, and an important milestone in the history of Bollywood cinema. It became the first ever Hindi Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and saw unprecedented international recognition. It solidified its star, Nargis, as a powerful Bollywood icon and celebrity, and the film created a sort of template for countless Bollywood films to come after its unprecedented success and acclaim. The film's music, by the celebrated Naushad, created several immediate classics in Duniya Main Hum Aaye Hain...(powerfully intoned by Radha/Nargis) and O Mere Laal Aaja, weaving the music supportively into the storyline and allowing songs to bridge important sections of the film. Often erroneously referred to as the "Gone With the Wind" of Bollywood (the film never had such aspirations), Mother India falls squarely in the tradition of rather down-beat Hindi socialist dramas, where the main characters or protagonists find themselves facing impossible challenges while their world shatters around them. The film's antecedents are more in the area of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth and films such as Renoir's The Southerner (1945) or Dovzhenko's Earth (1930), than anything made in Bollywood today, though it's clear that a film such as Madhur Bhandarkar's Chandni Bar(2001) has Mother India in its pedigree.

Mother India tells the story of a woman and her episodic life of love and sorrow in a small farming community. She marries a man who she at first resists, but then comes to love. Soon, they are forced to beg for support from a devious local villager, resulting in a monetary contract which leads her and her family toward countless tragedies that plague her entire family - her husband loses his arms and leaves the family out of shame, her ill tempered and vengeful children grow up in squalor and hunger, she must resist prostitution to keep her honor and her land, etc.

A viewer will find in Mother India what they will find in many early Bollywood films, which is often a great deal of charm intermingled with significant cinematic short-comings. Here you get cliched dialogue, histrionics, simplified characterizations and stereotypes, poor pacing (which anyone must forgive in general for these films), limited camera movement, and unwieldy narrative gaps. But mixed with this is the sheer overwhelming spirit in which these films were made and this punches through in several dramatic sequences of the film; the best is probably the song sung by Radha and her children in their transition to adulthood as they rebuild their village and their land from a devastating flood. Symbolically rich, it's a wonderful musical number to rival any previous use of a song to advance a storyline.

It's hard to imagine Western audiences embracing Mother India today as an overlooked International masterpiece, given the film's plodding narrative. But this is a film that, once placed in appropriate context, opens up the eyes to a world of Bollywood films based on history and real experiences, not pop music fantasies.

When I recently asked a gentleman in my community who sells and rents Bollywood videos (old and new) what he thought of Mother India, he told me "It's a good movie, but younger people today, they don't like to see these depressing films of long ago." Mother India cannot likely compete with the racy, fast-cutting, up-beat, MTV-influenced Bollywood films of today which young Hindis devour. But it's not hard to see why this film is important in the history of the Bollywood film and why viewers felt it was important in 1957, or why it still may have relevance today.

Producer: Mehboob Khan
Director: Mehboob Khan
Screenplay: Mehboob Khan (story), Wajahat Mirza, S. Ali Raza
Cinematography: Faredoon A. Irani
Music: Naushad
Cast: Nargis (Radha), Sunil Dutt (Biju), Raaj Kumar (Radha’s husband), Rajendra Kumar (Ramu), Kanhaiyalal (Sukhilala), Kumkum (Champa).

by Richard Steiner