Slumdog Millionaire has swept the Oscars and India has finally (though not technically) won an Oscar for The Best Feature film. 51 years ago during the Academy awards, a movie lost the honour by a solitary vote in the final poll to The Nights of Caberria. The actors and the director returned with a heavy heart. But the film was enshrined forever in the hearts of the moviegoers in India as the ultimate tribute to Indian womanhood. It’s been years but Mother India’s sheen has refused to fade away.
Mother India’s story is the story of the peasant India, an India now relegated to the pages of Edits and Columns of ‘serious’ newspapers and out of public memory. Radha (Nargis) is married to Shyamu (Raj Kumar), whose mother Sundar Chachi has borrowed Rs.500 from a lecherous money lendor Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal). One year down, Lala cheats them and manipulates the accounts, forcing them to part away with a huge chunk of their yearly harvest as interest. Radha gives birth to three children, who fill their otherwise dark lives with laughter and gaiety. But all this is shortlived as Shyamu loses his arms in a farming accident. Unable to bear the taunts of Sukhilala, he leaves his home one night, leaving Radha to grapple with the family and the ton load of problems awaiting her.
Radha loses her mother-in-law, her home and her cattle. She ploughs the field with the hoe on her shoulders (metamorphosing into mother-earth like persona). The year-long efforts are mercilessly washed away in the deadly floods which ravage the village and her life. She loses her third son and is exposed to the sexual advances of Sukhilala. Overpowering them, she puts the entire village to work to resettle themselves after the flood.
Years roll by. Her two sons Ramu (Rajendra Kumar)and Birju (Sunil Dutt) grow into handsome young lads, completely contrasting characters. While Ramu becomes the obedient Ram-like son, Birju fritters away time gambling and teasing Rupa, Sukhilala’s daughter. Avenging the insults heaped on his mother is the sole motive of Birju. But he silently worships Chandra, the village school teacher, before whom he is tamed down like a child. But a fisticuff on a Holi day ends up Birju becoming an outlaw. On the day of Rupa’s wedding, he sees his love Chandra being married off. Mad with rage, Birju kills Lala and abducts Rupa. Radha, who had sworn to kill Birju lest he laid his hands on any girl stands before him, armed like Goddess Durga. Her moment of truth has arrived. She shoots down her son, who violated all the rules of Mother Earth and rushes to grasp his dying self in her arms as he takes out the bangles she had pawned years before with Sukhilala. A unique mother-son chemistry
Nargis got the role of a lifetime in Mother India. As Radha, she lived each and every moment to such impeccable perfection that even Radha herself could not have done what Nargis had done with her magical wand of expressions and dialouge delivery. She almost carried the entire movie on her narrow shoulders, evoking praise generation after generation. Little known actors like Raj Kumar, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar got onto the bandagon of stardom with the Mehboob Khan blockbuster. Kanhaiyalal as the usurious moneylendor evoked applause from the viewers and Sukhilala soon entered the pages of cinema’s folklore as the stereotype of money lendors. But it was the young artist Master Sajid who outwitted the best of performing artists with his performance. Mehboob Khan spotted this talent while shooting for the movie and felt that he would simply suite the bill of the young Birju. He even went on to do a sequel ‘Son of India’ with Master Sajid in the lead. The film bombed at the box office and Mehboob Khan later succumbed to a heart attack
Nargis had stepped out of R.K.Studios after Jagte Raho and found Mehboob Khan’s offer on her table. Her much touted affair with Raj Kapoor had just ended. In the famous fire-scene, Nargis was trapped in a destructive fire. Sunil Dutt, in a film-hero like stunt jumped in and saved her, surviving serious burns in the process. Nargis won her life and Dutt her heart. They soon tied the nuptial knot after the film’s release.
The film was released in 1957 and was hailed internationally as a classic. The film grossed over Rs. 40 million, a record that was broken three years later by K.Asif’s Mughal-e-azam. To quote Filmfare in its review in the issue of November 22, 1957, “Every once in a while comes a motion picture which helps the the industry to cover the mile to the milestone. Mehboob’s magnum opus, Mother India, which was released in the fortnight is one such film.” India, with its epic dimensions swept across the imaginations of generations of artists and continued to be the muse of the thinking man. It went on to inspire a zillion Hindi blockbusters like Ganga Jamuna, Deewar, Ram Lakhan and Karan Arjun. The movie belongs the dramas of the Nehruvian era which conveyed the idea of ‘struggle today for a better tomorrow’, with strong undertones of optimism. Critics eulogized Mother India as India’s answer to Gone with the Wind.
Radha never meets her husband till the end of the movie; this aspect enunciating her tragedy further. In the heavy drama of Mother India, Mehboob Khan has added frivolus moments through the daily mother-son squabbles between Radha, Birju and Ramu. Some scenes stand out for their sheer brilliance. Watch out for the scene where Radha fights the fury of nature to save her children from the floods; the scene where she has a monologue with Mother Goddess or the song O Jaane Walon, where her clarion call to the villagers is answered. They are more than enough to give one goosebumps.
The year 1957 saw many other releases, which went on to mark their names in golden letters in the pages of cinema. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa, B.R.Chopra’s Luddite drama Naya Daur, V.Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Baraah Haath and Dev Anand’s Nau Do Gyarah made the public go gaga side by side.
Mother India tells the tale of what a woman stands for – her family, her children, her honour, grit, determination and optimismShe builds the family, the society and the nation. It is for this very reason that this land of ours is called a Mother. Mother India salutes the spirit of Indian motherhood, the essence of which has captivated the whole thought process of our society. Films may come and films may go. But Mother India will tower over them like the Mother Earth, which bears all burden to come out victorious becomes worthy of veneration.