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Mother India

Director: Mehboob Khan
Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Kanhaiyalal and Raaj Kumar

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Heralded as India's Gone with the Wind, Mother India is indeed a Bollywood blockbuster of epic proportions on a kin with David O'Selznick's 1939 classic. Considered by many as the cornerstone of Indian commercial cinema and described by Salman Rushdie as "all-conquering", this remarkable film became the first Indian Film to be nominated for an Academy Award and it is easy to see why it has remained in continuous distribution ever since its original release in 1957.

A passionate colour remake of director Mehboob Khan's less successful 1940 film Aurat, Mother India traces the bitter sweet lives of an Indian peasant family as it struggles to survive in a rural community coming to terms with a country newly freed of British colonial rule.

Above all a story about honour, Mother India opens with a close up of 'village mother' Radha (Nargis). Her weather-beaten features setting the tone for much of what is to come, she is immediately recognisable as a woman forged by suffering and it soon becomes clear that it is her story that Khan intends to relay.

Flashback to the days of Radha's youth…. Happily married, Radha and her husband (Raaj Kumar) toil the earth in an effort to produce enough crop to feed their family and pay back the money they owe to an unscrupulous moneylender (Kanhaiyalal). Times prove hard, but the family prevail. Soon they have enough to raise a small family and buy enough oxen to plough the land. But tragedy soon strikes when early rains destroy the villager's harvest and force the family to sell what little valuables they own to the moneylender.

The family proves strong and Radha encourages her husband to try twice as hard to make a comeback. But when a second tragedy strikes, leaving her husband horribly maimed and unable to work, Radha is left to raise her children alone, under the continual threat of starvation and the fear of sexual advances from the slimy moneylender.

Years go by and we find that whilst one of her sons has become a hard working, respected farmer, another has become the village idiot, bitter with rage and committed to vengeance. Radha, caught between her rebel son and the survival of a community she has been instrumental in building, is faced with a decision that forces her to choose honour over blood.

Raised in a small village himself, Khan is more than qualified to recreate Indian rural life, its customs and traditions and does so with immense skill and technical expertise. Peppered with more than a few references to Italian neo-realism, his command of the action throughout is assured, and is equalled only by Naushad Ali's magical and evocative score.

Moreover, for a forty-five year old Indian film the entire cast is surprising compelling. In particular though, it is fifties Bollywood starlet Nargis who gives the most powerful performance as the tragic central figure of Radha. The inner strength she is able to project is something to be admired and one is never in doubt as to whether her trauma-ridden character will forfeit her honour for anything as base as an easier life. Indeed, Mother India represented the pinnacle of Nargis's career, winning her the prestigious Karlovy Vary Festival's Best Actress Award. Other strong performances in the film come from Nargis's future husband Sunil Dutt as the nonconformist son Birju, child actor Master Sajid playing Birju as a boy and Kanhaiyalal as the immorally malicious moneylender.

Thirty minutes into the film it becomes obvious that Bollywood owes a great debt to Mother India. The spectacular Hindi dance sequences with punctuate some of the more gruelling parts of the narrative work well and offer the kind of irresistible escapism that once permeated the lavish Hollywood musicals of yesteryear and have recently become fashionable once more in western films such as Moulin Rogue and Bend it Like Beckham.

With a running time of just over three hours many may find Mother India a little too demanding, but if you can stay the course you'll be treated to what must be one of the best Indian films ever made. And, though admittedly a touch melodramatic at times, the powerful story it tells is as rich and vivid as the Indian scenery and song that frame it.

Paralleling the suffering of an Indian peasant family with that of a postcolonial country in rapid transition, Mother India is indeed Mehboob Khan's magnum opus. Making this epic saga of love, family, tradition and honour essential viewing for anyone who has even the slightest interest in South Asian cinema.

Reviewed by Simon Jones

Reader comments about Mother India

Rita Maman (curlygal@hotmail.com) writes:

As an 18 year old teenage(albeit Indian)girl in Britain I have very little if any, interest in Asian films, least of all old Bollywood 'classics'. But I must say this particular one blew me away. The great performances, musical score, and harsh realities of the impoverished but wonderfully strong Radha impressed me enormously. And to my surprise I was so captivated by the story that I sat through the whole three hours, not once losing interest. It has definitely changed my previously negative and somewhat ignorant perspective on Bollywood.

rama shankar (ramas111in@sify.com) writes:

I am student of electronic media and film production in Lucknow university, Luckow. I have seen this movie in my class. All students seen this movie very deeply sense. All students like this and apprieciate Director and other person who are related with this project.

Deepthie (Email address withheld) writes:

A great movie indeed. May be the best movie India ever produced.Really touching and the deals with the truth.

Arjun (Email address withheld) writes:

A classic of Indian cinema.....A blockbuster of Indian cinema .......a classic of motherhood....womanhood.....patriotism.....and many more. A perfect film!!!

lisa (Email address withheld) writes:

One of the greatest classics of all time! The ultimate salute to women everywhere!

Azmi (againstkizan@gmail.com) writes:

I still remember this film, I think it is one of the greatest film ever made ( not only in India) BTW I am not indian :), would you please tell me where i can download the songs from film?


edgar (edgar17_5@hotmail.com) writes:

bueno,me fascino la pelicula ,en verdad es maravillosa ,muy dramatica ,es la mejor pelicula que e visto hasta aora por el drama ,es una pena que nargis dutt ,hayga fallecido,es una exelente actris indu,gracias

Ashfaq Orakzai (a_orakzai@hotmail.com) writes:

I have seen film Mother India for more than ten times and I can say very confidently that film was a brilliant effort of Mehboob Khan. Besides that music director Naushad who is really great music director of Sub Continent has made great contribution to the film . The music composed by Naushad for film Mother India is the great experience and passion of Naushad.

Gurudev Prasad (gurudev.prasad@gmail.com) writes:

I have been asked so many times-why I like this movies so much. The answer is quite straight. I come from a school of thought which says that movies movies are the face of any society. And Mother India is a perfect potrait. It touches on all the issues that were facing the society at the given point of time. The illiteracy, poverty, our dependence on agriculture and the uncertainities related to the agriculture as an occupation. The problem of the caste, the exploitation of the poor by the rich (the money lenders), the vulnerability of the woman and the orthodox customs (marriage has to be a lavish event, and thats where the problem starts)that we follow without questioning . Though the film touches all these aspects , not even for a minute it looks like a documentary. From the begining to the end it captivates the viewer and actually makes him experience the plot. It is a masterpiece and the greatest milestone in Indian movie making. And all those who complain about the songs, their ignorance is to be blamed. In India we have a song for every occassion (birth to death).

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