Mother India is a 1957 Hindi epic melodrama film, directed by Mehboob Khan and starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, and Raaj Kumar. A remake of Khan’s earlier film Aurat (1940), it is the story of a poverty-stricken village woman named Radha (Nargis) who, in the absence of her husband, struggles to raise her sons and survive against a cunning money-lender amidst many troubles. Despite her hardship, she sets a goddess-like moral example of an ideal Indian woman.
The title of the film was chosen to counter American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 polemical book Mother India, which vilified Indian culture. Allusions to Hindu mythology are abundant in the film, and its lead character has been seen as a metonymic representation of a Hindu woman who reflects high moral values and the concept of what it means to be a mother to society through self-sacrifice. Mother India metaphorically represents India as a nation in the aftermath of independence, and alludes to a strong sense of nationalism and nation-building. While some authors treat Radha as the symbol of women empowerment, others see her cast in female stereotypes. The Oedipal elements between Radha and her son Birju have also been discussed by authors. The film was shot in Mumbai’s Mehboob Studios and in the villages of Maharashtra, Gujarat, and Uttar Pradesh states. The music by Naushad introduced Western classical music and Hollywood-style orchestra to Hindi cinema.
The film was the most expensive Hindi cinema (Bollywood) production and earned the highest revenue for any Hindi film at that time. Adjusted for inflation, Mother India still ranks among the all-time Indian box office hits. It was released in India amid fanfare in November 1957, and had several high-profile screenings, including one at the capital New Delhi attended by the country’s president and Prime Minister. Mother India became a definitive cultural classic and is regarded as one of the best films in Indian and world cinema. It was India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958, where it got the nomination. The film won the Filmfare Best Film Award for 1957, and Nargis and Khan won the Best Actress and Best Director awards respectively.
The film is set in 1957, the present day at the time of shooting. When construction of an irrigation canal to the village is completed, Radha (Nargis), considered to be the “mother” of the village, is asked to inaugurate the canal. She remembers her past, when she was newly married.
The wedding between Radha and Shamu (Raaj Kumar) is paid for by Radha’s mother-in-law, who borrows the money from the moneylender Sukhilala. This event starts the spiral of poverty and hardship that Radha endures. The conditions of the loan are disputed, but the village elders decide in favour of the moneylender, after which Shamu and Radha are forced to pay three quarters of their crop as interest on the loan of 500 (valued at about US$105 in 1957). While Shamu works to bring more of their rocky land into use, his arms are crushed by a boulder.
Ashamed of his helplessness and humiliated by his fellow villagers, Shamu decides that he is of no use to his family and permanently leaves Radha and their three sons. Soon after, Radha’s mother-in-law dies. Radha continues to work in the fields with her two elder sons and gives birth again. Sukhilala offers to help alleviate her poverty if she marries him, but she refuses. A severe storm and the resulting flood destroys houses in the village and ruins the harvest; Radha’s youngest son dies. Although the villagers begin initially to evacuate the village, they decide to stay and rebuild it, persuaded by Radha.
The film skips forward several years to when Radha’s two surviving children, Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), are young men. Birju, embittered since childhood by the demands of Sukhilala, takes out his frustrations by pestering the village girls, especially Sukhilala’s daughter, Rupa. Ramu, by contrast, has a calmer temperament and is married soon after. Birju’s anger finally becomes dangerous and, after being provoked, he attacks Sukhilala and his daughter and steals Radha’s kangan (marriage bracelets) that were pawned with Sukhilala. He is chased out of the village and becomes a bandit. Radha promises Sukhilala that she will not let Birju cause harm to Sukhilala’s family. On Rupa’s wedding day, Birju returns with his gang of bandits to enact his revenge. He kills Sukhilala and kidnaps Rupa. When he tries to flee the village on his horse, Radha, his mother, shoots him. He dies in her arms. The film returns to 1957; Radha opens the gate of the canal and its reddish water flows into the fields.
Read More…Mother India Trivia (Part 2)