STARRING Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Kanhaiyalal
Mehboob Khan was a big film man. Not that his films came few and far between. In fact he was fairly prolific, having directed 25 films in about 27 years. Nor did his films arrive at the box office with barely a whimper. But he somehow had this unusual knack for reserving the best for a winner. He did it for “Aurat” in 1940. Then “Andaz” in 1949, “Aan” in early 1950s, followed by “Mother India” in 1957.
In fact, Mehboob knew a winner when he saw one. And in “Mother India” he clearly notched up one: the film, reflecting the odds and aspirations of an emerging nation, went on to be the biggest grosser at the box office until K. Asif's “Mughal-e-Azam” rewrote all records in 1960.
The film turned out to be more than just a box office success story. In fact, “Mother India” continues to be a benchmark for serious Hindi filmmakers to this day. Relating the story of a dogged woman faced with adversity on all fronts, including poverty and possible widowhood, the film was able to blend the colours of patriotism with romance, good old valour with the problems of development in an emerging nation. Of course, there was the evil moneylender too as the symbol of all that is wrong with rural India.
The film was nominated for the Academy Award as the best film in foreign language category besides winning five Filmfare awards. Though widely regarded as Nargis' success saga — every heroine in subsequent years wanted to do a “Mother India” — Mehboob deserves a lot of credit for giving the film a contemporary touch without making it too politically expedient.
Beginning with the banner, the director's left-of-the-centre leanings come to the fore right through. For instance, the opening sequence with the water canal reaching the village was a stunning advertisement for socialism. The State forces were all right, the private ones all wrong: the State provided the water, the rich usurped the land of the poor. The politicians were not Satan in white.
The State wanted everybody to be literate, the rapacious moneylender thrived on people's illiteracy. Early enough in the film we have this scene of young Nargis' husband — played with a mix of confidence and arrogance by Raaj Kumar — and his mother being deprived of three-fourths of their earnings from the land by the unscrupulous moneylender, whose manipulation of accounts makes sure that the borrower only pays interest, never the principal amount.
Then spare a thought for Shakeel Badayuni's lyrics. “Dukh bhare din beete re bhaiya” reflects the aspirations of a nation that had just attained Independence. Then his “Duniya mein hum aaye hain” talks of the odds confronting the individual as well as the nation. In fact, throughout the film, Mehboob was able to blend the individual with the universal, thereby enhancing the film's appeal without compromising on its sensitivity.
Interestingly, the song “Duniya mein aaye” brought the three Mangeshkar sisters together: Lata, Usha and Meena. However, the joy of “Mother India” and its music went beyond the politically sensitive numbers with Shamshad Begum providing wonderful vocals to Naushad's lilt in “O Gadiwale” and “Holi Aai re”.
Of course, “Mother India” scored on another front too: it brought Nargis, then at the peak of her career, and Sunil Dutt, then just finding a toehold in the industry together. Dutt played her rebellious son in the film.
While shooting the climax of the film, there was a fire with Nargis caught in the middle. Dutt, not caring much for personal well being, jumped right in, saving her from certain death, burning his face and chest in the process. Nargis, in turn, nursed him back to health in the confines of Billimora, director Mehboob's place. The affair had to be hush-hush because the audiences, then not always differentiating between the reel and real, would have read incest into the relationship.
Incidentally, while Nargis was the backbone of the film, Dutt proved to be the weak link with even Master Sajid who played the child Birju doing better than him. Many years before the Azhar tale of “Slumdog Millionaire” went public, Mehboob had discovered Sajid in a slum, paying his father Rs.750 for the child's effort. Later, he took care of the kid himself.
Gigantic in its canvas — the film was shot in and around Surat, Kolhapur and Nasik with some 33 bullock carts, 200 farmers and hundreds of acres of paddy fields — and masterful with its technique — Faredoon Irani's camera worked wonders in long distance shots with sound recordist R. Kaushik providing fine accompaniment — “Mother India” was able to blend the elements of Satyajit Ray's “Pather Panchali” with Mehboob's earlier “Aurat”.
He added a dash of the modern to give us a film that, more than 50 years after its production, is yet to be bettered. And to think that this Indo-Soviet co-production was almost never made with the director having run out of funds at one time, even borrowing from the heroine to keep the shooting going!