Mother India is a 1957 Hindi epic film, written and directed by Mehboob Khan and starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Raaj Kumar. The film, a melodrama, is a remake of Mehboob Khan’s earlier film, Aurat (1940). It is the story of a poverty-stricken village woman named Radha who, amid many other trials and tribulations, struggles to raise her sons and survive against an evil money-lender. Despite her hardship, she sets a goddess-like moral example of an ideal Indian woman, yet kills her own criminal son at the end for the greater moral good.
The title of the film was chosen to counter American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 polemical book Mother India, in which she vilified Indian society, religion and culture. The director took inspiration from another American author, Pearl S. Buck and her books The Good Earth and The Mother. The interplay of various themes in the film have been the subject of scholarly discourses. Allusion to Hindu mythologies were abundant in it, and the lead character was a metonymic representation of a Hindu woman, reflecting 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 nationalism and nation-building.
The film had the highest budget and also earned the highest revenue for any Hindi film at that time. It was released in India among fanfare in October–November 1958, and had several high-profile special screenings, including one at New Delhi attended by the president and prime minister of the country. It ranks among the all-time Indian box office hits and has been described as “perhaps India’s most revered film”. Mother India belongs to a small collection of films, including Kismet (1943), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Sholay (1975) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) which continue to be watched repeatedly throughout India and are considered to be definitive Hindi cultural film classics. The film was India’s first submission for theAcademy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 and was chosen as one of the five nominations for the category.
The film begins with construction completion of a water canal to the village, set in the present. Radha (Nargis), as the ‘mother’ of the village, is asked to open the canal and remembers back to her past when she was newly married.
The wedding between Radha and Shamu (Raaj Kumar) was paid for by Radha’s mother-in-law who raised a loan from the moneylender, Sukhilala. This event starts the spiral of poverty and hardship which 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 rupees. While trying to bring more of their land into use, Shamu’s arms are crushed by a boulder. He is ashamed of his helplessness and is humiliated by others in the village; deciding that he is no use to his family, he leaves and does not return. Soon after, Radha’s mother-in-law dies. Radha continues to work in the fields with her two sons and gives birth again. Sukhilala offers to help alleviate her poverty in return for Radha marrying him, but she refuses to “sell herself”. A storm and a resultant flood sweeps through the village, destroys the harvest, and kills Radha’s youngest child. Though at first the villagers begin to migrate, they decide to stay and rebuild on the urging of Radha.
The film then skips forward several years to when Radha’s two surviving children, Birju (Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), are young men. Birju, embittered by the exactions of Sukhilala since he was a child, takes out his frustrations by pestering the village girls, especially Sukhilala’s daughter. Ramu, by contrast, has a calmer temper and is married soon after. Though he becomes a father, his wife is soon absorbed into the cycle of poverty in the family. Birju’s anger finally becomes dangerous and, after being provoked, attacks Sukhilala and his daughter, lashing out at his family. He is chased out of the village and becomes a bandit. On the day of the wedding of Sukhilala’s daughter, Birju returns to take his revenge. He kills Sukhilala and takes his daughter. Radha, who had promised that Birju would not do harm, shoots Birju, who dies in her arms. The film ends in the present day with her opening of the canal and reddish water flowing into the fields.
Nargis as Radha, the heroine and archetypal Indian woman
Sunil Dutt as Birju, Radha’s younger rebellious son, who turns into a dacoit.
Rajendra Kumar as Ramu, Radha’s elder son, who paths his mother’s path of virtuousness
Raaj Kumar as Shamu, Radha’s husband
Kanhaiyalal as Sukhilala “Lala”, the evil and cunning money-lender
Kumkum as Champa
Sheela Naik as Kamla
Mukri as Shambu
Azra as Chandra
Master Sajid Khan as a young Birju
Master Surendra as a young Ramu
Origin and Inspiration
The title of the film is inspired by American author Katherine Mayo’s 1927 polemical book Mother India, in which she attacked Indian society, religion and culture. Written against the Indian demands for self-rule and independence from the British rule, the book pointed to the treatment of India’s women, the untouchables, the animals, the dirt, and the character of its nationalistic politicians. Mayo singled out the “rampant” and fatally weakening sexuality of its males to be at the core of all problems, leading to masturbation, rape, homosexuality, prostitution, venereal diseases, and, most importantly, too early sexual intercourse and premature maternity. Mayo created an outrage across India, and the book was burned along with her effigy. It was criticised by Mahatma Gandhi as a “report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon”. The book prompted over fifty angry books and pamphlets to be published to highlight Mayo’s errors and false perception of Indian society which had become a powerful influence on the American people’s view of India.
Mehboob Khan had the idea for the film and the title as early as 1952, five years after the independence; in October that year, he approached the import authorities of Indian government on a matter related to producing the film.[In 1955, the Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting learned of the title of the forthcoming film and demanded that the director send them the script for review, suspicious that the film was based on the book and a possible threat to national interest.
There has been considerable confusion and misunderstanding in regard to our film producing Mother India and Mayo’s book. Not only are the two incompatible but totally different and indeed opposite. We have intentionally called our film Mother India, as a challenge to this book, in an attempt to evict from the minds of the people the scurrilous work that is Miss Mayo’s book.
Khan took inspiration from another American author, Pearl S. Buck and her books The Good Earth (1931) and The Mother (1934), which were made into feature films by Sidney Franklin in 1937 and 1940, respectively. Khan originally drew upon these influences in making his 1940 film Aurat, the original version of Mother India. Some of the stylistic elements of Mother India show similarities with the 1926 Vsevolod Pudovkin Soviet silent movie Mother (based on a novel by Maxim Gorky) and Our Daily Bread (1934), directed by King Vidor. An unrelated Indian film named Mother India was released in 1938.
The story of Aurat, Mehboob Khan’s 1940 film on which Mother India was based, was developed by Babubhai Mehta who drew inspiration from Pearl S. Buck’s novel The Mother. The book chronicled the life of a Chinese woman, her married life as well as her lonely struggle when she was abandoned by her husband. Moneylenders, toiling on land, rearing children through hardship were part of the story. The script for Aurat was developed by Wajahat Mirza. The old script by Mirza had to be reworked to create the new script of Mother India. S. Ali Raza, a young screenwriter at that time, was appointed alongside the veteran Mirza for the effort. Apart from Mehboob Khan, Mirza and Raza, prominent screenwriters Aghajani Kashmeri, Zia Sarhadi, Akhtar Mirza, music director Naushad, assistant director of the film, and many others were consulted to formulate the script. The dialogues of the film was completely reworked by Mirza and Raza. The dialogue was a mix of vernacular Hindi dialect and its literary counterpart. The script was intentionally written in a way which promoted the empowerment of women in Indian society, the power to resist the sexual advances of men, and the maintenance of a sense of moral dignity and purpose as individuals, contrary to what Katherine Mayo had claimed in her book Mother India. Alongside the similarity with its precursor Aurat in portraying women empowerment and morality, the script of Mother India weaved in strong sense nationalism and nation-building, utilising characters personifying abstract qualities such as “…beauty and goodness, wealth and power, poverty and exploitation, community spirit…”
Nargis was the directors’ first choice for the role, and despite only being aged 26 at the time, she plays the role of the new wife, young single mother and an aged mother of two young sons. Khan had wanted to cast Sabu Dastagir, a Hollywood star of Indian origin, as Birju. Dastagir travelled from Los Angeles, stayed in a hotel in Bombay and received a retainer. However, delays and obstacles in starting the shooting and getting a work permit for Dastagir led to his dismissal from the project. Dilip Kumar, an established Bollywood actor, had originally expressed a keen interest in playing Birju, something advocated by Khan. In fact, he agreed to play the husband too. However, Nargis objected that the public will not accept their casting as mother-son as she has done several romantic films as heroine with Kumar. The role finally ended up with Sunil Dutt. Master Sajid, the actor who portrayed the young Birju, was an unknown at the time, and was reportedly selected from a lorry packed with poor children.
Before the principal photography began, Nargis and Raaj Kumar familiarised themselves with farming practices such as ploughing the field, reaping and sowing, cotton picking. The extras in song and dance sequences were not the usual extras used in Bombay, they were members of local dance groups of the villages where the shooting took place.
The film, Nargis, and Khan received numerous awards and nominations, and Nargis won the Filmfare Best Actress Award and became the first Indian to receive the Best Actress award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The film won the Filmfare Best Movie Award and scooped several other awards including Filmfare Best Director Award for Khan, Filmfare Best Cinematographer Award for Faredoon Irani, and Filmfare Best Sound Award for R. Kaushik. The film was India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 and was chosen as one of the five nominations for the category. However, the submitted entry was dramatically different from the original version released in India. The version sent to the Academy was edited down to 120 minutes, cutting at least 40 minutes from the film for the benefit of a foreign audience. Even the logo of Mehboob Productions, which featured the Communist Hammer and sickle was dropped to appease the Americans.[ The 120-minute version was later distributed in the US and UK by Columbia Pictures. The film came close to winning the Academy Award but lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria by a single vote. The film also won two awards at 5th National Film Awards; All India Certificate of Merit for Best Feature Film and Certificate of Merit for Best Feature Film in Hindi.
The term “Mother India” has been defined as “a common icon for the emergent Indian nation in the early 20th century in both colonialist and nationalist discourse”. The film, an archetypal nationalistic picture, was symbolic in that it demonstrated the euphoria of “Mother India” in a nation which had only been independent for 10 years, and it had a long-lasting cultural impact upon the Indian people. It also represented the agrarian poverty and hardship of the people at the time. Film scholar Saibal Chatterjee feels that Mother India was a “mirror of independent India”, highlighting problems of a nascent independent India like rural exploitation of farmers by money-lenders, in a dramatic fashion understandable to the common man. Lonely Planet described the film as “perhaps the most compelling film about the role of women in rural India, a moving tale about love, loss and the maternal bond”. The Hindustan Times identifies the “film’s pungent social references [which] are now lost in cinema’s graveyard,” images which are “too harsh to be sold at a profit today. But this heartrending tale filled Indians with hope and pride then.”
Rajeev Masand of CNN IBN notes that Mother India “didn’t just put India on the world map, it also defined Hindi cinema for decades that followed.” The film has since been described as “perhaps India’s most revered film”, a “cinematic epic”, a “flag-bearer of Hindi cinema and a legend in its own right”. It is regarded as Mehboob Khan’s magnum opus. It has been described as an “all-time blockbuster”, which ranks highly amongst India’s most successful films. A 1983 Channel 4 documentary into Bombay cinema described the film as setting a benchmark in Indian cinema for subsequent films to aspire to. The film was in continuous distribution being played in some theatre or other for more than three decades; the record ended in mid-1990s with the advent of satellite television and a change in film-viewing habit of the audience. Mother India belongs to only a small collection of films, including Kismet (1943), Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Sholay (1975) and Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994), which are repeatedly watched throughout India and are viewed as definitive Hindi films with cultural significance. It was also acclaimed across the Arab world, in the Middle East, parts of Southeast Asia and North Africa and continued to be shown in countries such as Algeria at least ten years after its release. John Abraham said of Nargis’s performance and the film, “I would rate it as the best performance by any actress. The depth of the role was so intense that today it will be difficult to find something like that. It is an epic film and everyone can watch it even today.” The Hindustan Times stated that Nargis symbolised mothers in “which all the mothers [in later films] had the same clichéd roles to play. Representing both motherhood and Mother Earth, who also nurtures and occasionally punishes, Nargis immortalised the Indian mother on celluloid.”
Mother India is ranked #80 in Empire magazines “The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema” in 2010.In 2005, Indiatimes Movies ranked the movie amongst the Top 25 Must See Bollywood Films.It was also listed among the only two Hindi films in the 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die list (the other being Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge). It was ranked third in the British Film Institute’s poll of “Top 10 Indian Films” of all time. It is one of the films on Box Office India’s list of “Biggest Blockbusters Ever In Hindi Cinema”. The film provided an inspiration for many later films. It pioneered the portrayal of two morally opposed brothers personifying good and evil, a repeated motif in Hindi films of subsequent years,including Yash Chopra’s Deewar, a breakthrough film for Amitabh Bachchan and would later be remade by the Telugu film industry as Bangaru Talli (1971) and in Tamil as Punniya Boomi (1978).