AFED #73: Bharat Mata [Mother India] (India, 1957); Dir. Mehboob Khan

While researching world cinema recently I've been reminded how films which may be held in high regard in cine-literate circles are often by no means favourites in their countries of origin.

Take Poland for example. If you know anything about its film history you might expect the work of Krzysztof Kieślowski, Andrzej Wajda or even Roman Polanski (though most his work has been produced overseas) to dominate polls. Yet some of the most popular films amongst Poles have been little-known (in the west) comedies such as Seksmisja [Sexmission] and Sami swoi [Our Folks].

Similarly in India although Satyajit Ray's work is much acclaimed internationally it's atypical of the national cinema. A far more popular work in its homeland is the epic 1957 melodrama Mother India.

It's the story of Radha (Nargis), who as an elderly woman is asked to open a new dam in the village in which she is considered the matriarch. The film then recounts her arrival there as a young bride many years earlier, and how her mother-in-law had plunged the family into debt with the local moneylender, Sukhilala, in paying for the wedding. It means no matter how hard Radha and her husband Shamu toil away working their land three quarters of what they make is given to their unscrupulous creditor.

After an accident deprives Shamu of both his arms and he disappears, Radha is compelled to raise their three children alone. When monsoons and famine ravage the region the youngest child dies, yet Radha declines Sukhilala's offer of marriage and struggles on, still saddled with an unpayable debt. The hardship and cruelty of existence is spelled out in a stirring musical number as they slave away in the fields:

Because we are born, we must live in this world
If life is a poison, we must drink it.

The story jumps forward by many years and the onset of far happier times in a distinct change of tone. Radha's two sons, Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), are now handsome young men and her pride and joy. Ramu is level-headed and Radha secures him a marriage, but Birju is something of a rogue as well as bearing a king-sized grudge towards Sukhilala.

Events finally come to a head when Birju confronts the moneylender and is driven from the village, becoming a bandit. On the occasion of the wedding of Sukhilala's daughter he makes an unwelcome return and Radha, who holds the honour of the village above all else, is compelled to make a desperate decision.

This being Indian cinema in the classic tradition there are numerous musical interludes. Like Hollywood musicals of the fifties the characters are inclined to spontaneously break into song, even when you don't expect it. The rich, colourful visuals complement this and create a sense of a heightened reality.

Nagris is unquestionably the star of the show and gives a strong performance as the proud, defiant Radha, even if the make-up as she grows older isn't entirely convincing. As Birju, Sunil Dutt nearly steals the show in the second half with his boisterous turn. 'Mother' and 'son' would marry in real life after he purportedly saved Nagris's life during production.

As the film's title suggests there's something distinctly allegorical about the heroine's struggle and unswerving adherence to her moral principles. Battling on in the face of impossible circumstances, she's the feminine idealisation of how India wishes to see itself. One could put all kinds of metaphorical interpretations on the story; from the subjugation of imperialist rule to the internecine strife between Hindus and Muslims (although it depicts a Hindu community, both star and director were Muslim), but these are perhaps superfluous projections.

Overall I found it a little too overblown and melodramatic to really capture me, and at nearly three hours it's an exercise in stamina. But it's a historically significant look at a country undergoing great change with some lovely details and touching moments.


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