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Radha (Nargis), now an old woman, remembers her past. She remembers her married life. The family has to work extremely hard to pay off the moneylender, Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal). Her husband (Raj Kumar) loses both his arms in an accident and feeling useless, abandons the family. Alone, Radha has to raise her children while fending off financial as well as sexual pressures from Sukhilala. One son dies in a flood, and in later years one son, Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), grows to be a dutiful young man while the other, Birju (Sunil Dutt), becomes a rebel committed to direct, violent action. Finally to preserve the honour of the village, Radha puts an end to Birju’s rebellious activities by shooting him down.
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Mother India is the ultimate tribute to Indian Womanhood! This epic saga of the sufferings of an Indian peasant woman has an inherent and perennial appeal, being typical of the Indian situation. So tremendous was its success that the film is a reference point in the long-suffering mother genre and is like an Indian Gone With the Wind (1939).
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The film is an opulent colour remake of Mehboob’s earlier austere black and white film, Aurat (1940). Raised in a village himself, Mehboob himself was familiar with rural life, its customs and manners, its soil, seasons, sufferings and joys and creates a totally Indian experience in milieu, detail, characters and dramatic incidents. However, Mehboob raises all these elements to make a film that is larger than life and one that admittedly takes a totally romanticized look at rural India.
The film makes heavy use of psychoanalytic and other kinds of symbolism and nationalist allegory – the peasants forming a chorus outlining a map of India, for instance In fact, everything about the film is highly charged right down to the strong, earthy central performance of Nargis. The film represents the pinnacle of her career and won her the Best Actress award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary festival. To quote a review of the film, “Remove Nargis and there is no Mother India. Nargis is both the body and soul of the picture. Never before has this girl given such a superb and dynamic performance. Nargis reaches such rare heights of emotion that it will be difficult to find another artiste in the entire film world today to compare with her. Nargis lives the role better than Radha could have lived it.”
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Other effective performances in the film come from Sunil Dutt as the wayward son Birju (though this performance has not held up as well today), Master Sajid as the young Birju and Kanhaiyalal as the creepily, evil moneylender, Sukhilala. Incidentally, Kanhaiyalal, who all but steals the film from Nargis, had played the role of Sukhilala in Aurat as well! Initially, Dilip Kumar and Hollywood star Sabu were in the running for Sunil Dutt’s role and it is said that Dilip Kumar made Gunga Jumna (1961) with himself as the wayward brother as an answer to Mother India.
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It is a well-known story that while shooting for the film, Nargis was trapped amidst lit haystacks. As the flames got higher and higher, Sunil Dutt playing her rebellious son, Birju, in the film ran through the fire and rescued her. He proposed to her and Nargis married Sunil Dutt and quit films after marriage. She did lend her voice and we do see her silhouette in Sunil Dutt’s ‘one actor movie monument’, Yaadein (1964), and she did make a comeback of sorts, expertly playing a woman with a split personality in Raat Aur Din (1967), winning the National Award for the same.
Mother India released in 1957 was greatly lauded by both the public and critics. 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 industry to cover the mile to the milestone. Mehboob’s magnum opus, Mother India, which was released in the fortnight is one such film.”
Even the hard to please Baburao Patel, who had panned some of Mehboob’s earlier films mercilessly, had to admit, “Mehboob’s Mother India is an unforgettable epic…the greatest picture produced in India during the forty and odd years of filmmaking in this country. In its epic sweep it is perhaps as great as Gone With The Wind produced by Hollywood but it is greater than the Hollywood picture in theme and spirit, for Mother India portrays the eternal story of the soil – the mother of countless millions of human beings.”
Mother India’s spectacular success was ironically noted in Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazar (1960) when Dev Anand is seen selling tickets in black for Mother India’s premier! The Film became the first Indian Film to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film Category and at the 1958 Academy Awards lost out to another masterpiece Federico Fellini’s Nights of Caberia by a solitary vote. Its influence continues to be seen in Hindi Films till today in films like Gunga Jumna, Deewaar (1975) and Waaris (1988).
Hindi, Drama, Color