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
Cast: Nargis (Radha), Sunil Dutt (Biju), Raaj Kumar (Radha’s husband), Rajendra Kumar (Ramu), Kanhaiyalal (Sukhilala), Kumkum (Champa).
by Richard Steiner