A man of humble beginnings with no formal education whatsoever, Mehboob Khan went on to became one of India’s greatest ever filmmakers. Like many other filmmakers of his time, Mehboob’s craft was learnt on the job and once he established himself as a filmmaker of considerable merit, he proved through many of his films his undeniable empathy for the poor and the downtrodden. Common themes that run in his films usually looked at 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 haughty princess in Aan (1952), or the poor peasant woman against the slimy, exploitative moneylender in both, Aurat (1940) and Mother India (1957).
Born in Bilimora, Gujarat, it is said in 1905 (according to his son), Mehboob ran away as a youngster from home to Bombay and spent his time scrounging for work around the film studios in India’s cinema capital. He finally started his career with the Imperial Film Company as a bit player in Alibaba and the Forty Thieves (1927), where as one of the thieves, he was hidden inside a wooden vat! He was later considered by Ardeshir Irani for the lead role of India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), but sadly, lost out to India’s reigning stunt star, Master Vithal.
Mehboob 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 is an impressive depiction of the Roman-Arab confrontation. Packed with action, rousing battle scenes and natural catastrophes culminating in the famous Arab victory, the film was extremely popular. More importantly for Mehboob, it formed a lasting team for live with the cameraman of the film, Faredoon A Irani, who went on to photograph every single film Mehboob directed.
Manmohan (1936), inspired by PC 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. 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 Movietone. RCA, with financial backing from the Tatas, took over the Production company 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 or her land. The story of the film is that of a resolute young woman, who starts life full of hope and dreams, but ends up old and careworn having survived flood, famine, and starvation. She ultimately shoots her own wayward son down to protect the honour of the village. Aurat 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. The film sees a stunning performance by Sardar Akhtar playing the central role. It has to be said she lived the role; she is Radha. Akhtar and Mehboob would marry each other in 1942.
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 hollow value system based on money with those of the supposedly uncivilized tribals, who have no currency and live by barter. Towards the end of the film, the rich protagonist (Chandramohan) dies of thirst in the desert, his car full of gold ingots, the desert being symbolic of the aridity of monetary greed.
Mehboob then left National to set up his own company, 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) – an early Muslim social, 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. The first film where he worked with Mehboob, Naushad would thereafter compose music for every film that Mehboob directed after Anmol Ghadi.
Following Elan (1947) and Anokhi Ada (1948), Mehboob’s next masterpiece was Andaz (1949). The glossy love triangle to beat all triangles, Andaz remains startlingly modern even by today’s standards even though on the surface, it propagates traditionalism. It is a film whose cult status has been established right from the casting coup of bring Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor together, the only film they’ve worked in together. Though it has to be said that at the time, both Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor were establishing themselves and them coming together was not so impossible. Nargis, who received top billing in the film and gave a brilliant performance in the film, went on to became India’s top female star with the success of Andaz.
In Andaz, Nargis is a rich, modern young girl, caught between two men, both of whom love her. However, from her side, she claims that she was just friends with Dilip Kumar and in fact, loves Raj Kapoor, whom she has married. But Mehboob questions the possibility of this ‘friendship’ between two members of the opposite sex. We see this through Raj’s suspicions of her of being unfaithful. Mehboob, finally, makes his heroine pay for her responding to Dilip Kumar’s overtures as she is forced to shoot him to prove her fidelity to her husband. She, consequently, goes to jail, where she tells Raj that she has had to pay for her modern lifestyle and may her daughter not make the same mistakes she did. While this appears straightforwardly black and white and even regressive, the film unintentionally actually goes far deeper if we look at the character as played by Nargis. Her performance – though I’m not sure that was Mehboob intended – is complex. She has responded to both the love of both men and somewhere deep in her heart knows they both love her. 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. And a masterpiece but perhaps not in the way Mehboob envisaged it.
Mehboob followed Andaz with the spectacle Aan, his first film in color. With color 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 color cinematography as the film was shot in 16mm Gevacolor and was blown up in Technicolor. Aan even had a release in London and was much appreciated even though a critic there quipped that it goes on and on! Besides the UK, Aan was also released in a shortened dubbed version in French as Mangalla Fille des Indes in 1954 and was the first Hindi Film to be dubbed in Tamil. But the biggest compliment for the film came to Mehboob, regarded as India’s Cecille B DeMille, from DeMille himself. In a letter to Mehboob after seeing the film he wrote, “I believe it is quite possible to make pictures in your great country which will be understood and enjoyed by all nations without sacrificing the culture and customs of India. We look forward to the day when you will be regular contributors to our screen fare with many fine stories bringing the romance and magic of India.”
Amar (1954) was an interesting film in that the hero (Dilip Kumar), in the heat of the moment, 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 sees to it that 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 by remaking his earlier hit Aurat as Mother India (1957). Mother India is easily his magnum opus and is the ultimate tribute to Indian Womanhood! 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 rather romanticized look at rural India. The film makes heavy use of psychoanalytic and other kinds of symbolism and nationalist allegory like the peasants standing together in a manner that outlines the 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 in then Czechoslovakia in 1958, the first Hindi actress to be awarded at a film festival internationally. The film also 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 continued to be seen in Hindi Films in films like Gunga Jumna (1961), Deewaar (1975) and Waaris (1988).
After the high of Mother India, Mehboob aimed to fly even higher with Son Of India (1962), but sadly for him, the film was a total misfire and, in fact, his weakest film. It was a sad end to the career of such a brilliant filmmaker.
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 Nehru’s passing away and lost the will to live himself. 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.