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When An Italian Prostitute Pipped The Virtuosity Of Indian Womanhood!

With various International and National Awards, and rave reviews all over for Court, one of the finest Indian films in recent times, talk is already on that it should be India’s entry to the Oscars to be sent later this year.

However, with our questionable methods of selection, India has, more often than not, made a mess of the films it has chosen to compete amongst the world’s elite for Best Foreign Film.

The nearest that India did come to winning the Oscar was in the closest of ties fought at the 30th Academy Awards for the Best Foreign Film of 1957 when Mehboob Khan’s Mother India made it to the final five, the first ever Indian film to do so.  Mother India was the ultimate tribute to Indian womanhood, telling the story of a peasant woman, Radha (Nargis) and the hardships she had to suffer, in particular, at the hands of the ruthless moneylender Sukhi Lala (Kanhaiyalal). The film was highly acclaimed and a tremendous success in India and even the hard to please critic  Baburao Patel had to concede, “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.” A two hour version of the film was sent for the Oscars, which excluded amongst other things, Mehboob’s ‘leftist’ Production Company logo of the hammer and sickle.

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The other four films Mother India was up against that year were Nights Of Cabiria (Italy), The Devil Came At Night (Germany), Nine Lives (Norway) and The Gates Of Paris (France).

Finally at the Academy Awards Function on March 26, 1958, Nights Of Cabiria was declared the Best Foreign Film winning over Mother India, it is said, by a solitary vote.

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Nights of Cabiria, directed by Federico Fellini, and starring Giulietta Masina is about a prostitute in Rome and her vain search for true love.  Fellini struggled to raise finance for the film, as initially no producer was willing to produce a film centered around prostitutes. Finally Dino De Laurentiis agreed to fund the film. Fellini based the characters of the various prostitutes on a real prostitute he knew and he even got Pier Paolo Pasolini to help with the film’s dialogue. While Bosley Crowther of the New York Times gave it a mixed review, even going as far as to state, “But there are two weaknesses in Cabiria. It has a sordid atmosphere and there is something elusive and insufficient about the character of the heroine. Her get-up is weird and illogical for the milieu in which she lives and her farcical mannerisms clash with the ugly realism of the theme”, Francois Truffaut called it the greatest film Fellini had made to date.

According to Sunil Dutt, who played Radha’s rebellious younger son, Birju, in Mother India, India was not aware then of the lobbying needed to follow up such a prestigious nomination. In fact, very little was done for generating publicity for the film amongst the jury members and Mehboob Khan went to the US only for the awards function. All this weakened the film’s chances, according to Dutt, especially looking at the Italians’ savvy marketing skills to give Cabiria the push it needed.

While Mehboob was naturally disappointed with Mother India losing out, there was some consolation for him as Fellini graciously told him that he felt that Mother India was, in fact, the better film. However, history will cruelly record for posterity that there was only one winner while Mother India was an also ran.

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