A man of humble beginnings and little formal education, Mehboob Khan became one of India’s greatest Filmmakers. Like many other filmmakers of his time, Mehboob’s craft was learnt in the Film Theatre, the common motif in his films usually being the oppressed poor pitted against the oppressive rich be it the poor tribal against the money-grabbing capitalist in Roti (1942), the commoner against the prince in Aan (1952) or the poor peasant woman against the slimy zamindar in Aurat (1940) and Mother India (1957).
Born Ramjan Khan in Bilimoria, Gujarat, he ran away from home to Bombay and spent his earlier youth scrounging work in the studios. He started his career with the Imperial Film Company as a bit player in Alibaba and the Forty Thieves (1927). As one of the thieves, he was hidden inside a wooden vat! He was later considered for the lead role of India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), but lost out to reigning stunt star, Master Vithal.
He then joined Sagar Movietone and played supporting characters in several films before getting his first break as a director there with Judgement Of Allah (1935). Inspired by Cecil B DeMille’s The Sign Of The Cross (1932), Judgement Of Allah showed the Roman-Arab confrontation. Packed with action, battle scenes and natural catastrophes culminating in the Arab victory, the film was extremely popular. More importantly, it formed a lasting team with the cameraman of the film Faredoon A Irani who photographed every film Mehboob made.
Manmohan (1936), inspired by Barua’s Devdas (1935) and Jagirdar (1937) consolidated his position but with Ek hi Raasta (1939), Mehboob gave his first inclination of his social concerns and political leanings. The film is about a war veteran who having seen much death and destruction goes through a period of uneasy adjustment. Charged with killing a rapist, he is brought to trial. He mocks the system that made him a war hero yet condemns him for killing a criminal.
The beginning of World War II witnessed the collapse of Sagar. RCA with financial backing from the Tatas took it over and renamed it National Studios. Mehboob with his entire production unit joined the newly formed company for whom he directed three of his most important films –Aurat (1940), Bahen (1941) and Roti (1942).
Aurat highlights a peasant’s love for his land. The story of a resolute young woman who starts life full of hope and dreams but ends up old and careworn having survived flood, famine, starvation and a wayward son whom she shoots to protect the honour of the village was the predecessor of its more famous re-make Mother India and many critics are of the opinion that this stark epic was much more realistic and has an earthiness the latter lacks. Bahen was about a brother’s obsessive love for his little sister but Roti was unlike anything Mehboob had done earlier. A blistering attack on capitalism and the lust for money, the film is set in an imaginary country where the economy functions without currency and barter is the rule. Mehboob contrasts the life of the city people and their value system based on money with those of the supposedly uncivilized tribals who have no currency and live by barter. Towards the end the rich protagonist (Chandramohan) dies of thirst in the desert, his car full of gold ingots, the desert symbolic of the aridity of monetary greed.
Mehboob then left National to set up his own Mehboob Productions. (A hammer and sickle was chosen for the company’s emblem even though he was formally unassociated with the Communist Party). Mehboob Productions came out with a regular output of films like Najma (1943), Taqdeer (1943) and Humayun (1945) but which after Aurat and Roti were surprisingly lightweight. Anmol Ghadi (1946) did create a stir because of its casting coup of three singing stars together – Surendra, Noor Jehan and Suraiya, besides a great musical track by Naushad. (He gave music for every film that Mehboob made after Anmol Ghadi)
Following Elan (1947) and Anokhi Ada (1948), Mehboob’s next masterpiece was really perhaps Andaz (1949). The triangle to beat all triangles, Andaz remains startlingly modern even by today’s standards even though it propagates traditionalism. A film whose cult status was established right from the casting, though it has to be said that even if it is regarded as a casting coup today, then Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were establishing themselves and them coming together was not impossible. Nargis went on to became India’s top female star with the success of the film. She claims that she was just friends with Dilip Kumar and loves Raj Kapoor whom she has married. But Mehboob questions friendship between two members of the opposite sex as Raj suspects her of being unfaithful and Mehboob makes his heroine pay for it as she has to shoot Dilip Kumar to prove her fidelity. She consequently goes to jail where she tells her husband that she has had to pay for her modern lifestyle and may her daughter not make the same mistakes she did. However the film unintentionally actually goes deeper than that and as played by Nargis, looks at a woman who is genuinely torn between the two men. She has responded to both their love and is not just friends with Dilip Kumar. In fact when Dilip Kumar declares his love for her on her wedding day, her reaction is not one of shock but one that only confirms her worst fears. Consequently what comes out is a highly charged and volatile love triangle.
Mehboob followed Andaz with the spectacle Aan, his first film in colour. With colour at his disposal, Mehboob follows a sweeping narrative style for this retelling of the otherwise standard The Taming of the Shrew story, be it the stylized acting or the vast countryside with swashbuckling horsemen thundering under fiery golden skies, peasant folk in their bullock carts and the like. The film is shot handsomely by Faredoon A Irani and is one of India’s first successful experiments with colour cinematography as the film was shot in 16mm Gevacolour and was blown up in Technicolor. Aan even had a release in London and was much appreciated even though a critic there quipped – it goes aan and aan and aan!
Amar (1954) was an interesting film in that the hero (Dilip Kumar) rapes a woman (Nimmi) who fleeing from the villain has taken shelter with him. The cowardly hero now refuses to come forward and sees the woman suffer the consequences of the rape. When his fiancé (Madhubala) finds out what has happened she stands up for the girl and the hero eventually marries her. Though regarded by Mehboob as his favourite film, the film flopped, as audiences could not accept a weak and negative hero.
After producting Aawaz (1956) and Paisa Hi Paisa (1956), Mehboob returned to familiar territory remaking his earlier hit Aurat as Mother India (1957). Mother India was his magnum opus and 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 in fact a reference point in the long-suffering mother genre and is like an Indian Gone With the Wind (1939). Raised in a village himself, Mehboob himself was familiar with rural life, its customs and manners, its soil, seasons, sufferings and joys and he creates a totally Indian experience in milieu, detail, characters and dramatic incidents. Further, Mehboob raises all these elements to make a highly charged 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) 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. 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 at the third count. Its influence continues to be seen in Hindi Films till today in films like Ganga Jamuna (1961), Deewaar (1975) andWaaris (1988).
After the high of Mother India, Mehboob aimed to fly even higher with Son of India (1962) but the film was a total misfire and, in fact, his weakest film.
Mehboob Khan died on 28th May, 1964, the day after the death of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It is said Mehboob was shattered by Panditji’s passing away. At the time of his death, Mehboob Khan was harboring ambitions to make a film on the life of Habba Khatoon, the 16th century poetess-queen of Kashmir.