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Mother India, not Woman India

tarini sridharan
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comment A careful viewing of “Mother India” reveals there is an absence of the woman in the iconic film.

“Nargis…recognised that in Mehboob’s Mother India she had an immortal farewell vehicle to her career – a film that her millions of fans would remember her by forever. Nothing in her future could be greater than Mother India…”

(Bunny Reuben in “Follywood Flashback: A Collection of Movie Memories”)

In light of the theme of 100 Years of Indian Cinema that defines this year, the above quote stands as significant testimony to the immense, overwhelming power the iconic image of Nargis in her role as the ‘Mother’ figure holds for audiences even today, and serves as almost a template for Indian constructions of female identity within a larger cultural and social framework. Mehboob Khan’s “Mother India” (1957) is a tremendously complex film; impossible to sum up in one reading. What has been spoken of at length is its thematic portrayal of the nation as ‘mother’, the issue of ‘honour’ in terms of female identity, the ‘mother-son’ relationship, and so on. What these issues mean in feminist terms — within the larger iconic universe of Mother India — is a question that is central to an understanding of the film’s extraordinarily layered meaning, and to Hindi films today. Film scholars have attributed its importance to its alignment with the ideology of India that Nargis portrays. As Javed Akhtar once remarked, “All Hindi films come from Mother India.”

As one theorist has pointed out, Radha’s (Nargis) first apparent choice is between being an ideal wife (honouring her suhaag and refusing moneylender Sukhilal’s advances) and being an ideal mother (feeding her starving children). Later, the choice put to her is between being an ideal mother (unconditionally loving and protecting her son) and being an ideal woman of the village community (protecting its izzat, which has been tainted by Birjoo’s abduction of one of its daughters).

To take this view further, the film works out a blurring of such divisions between mother and wife. The notion of the ‘wife’ — the romantic partner — and the image of the ‘mother’, the unconditional maternal figure of endurance and support, becomes at once a shared, composite role. This effects a fundamental effacement of the ‘woman’ from the very narrative of the film. Crucially, the film is about ‘Mother India’, not ‘Woman’ India — carrying with it suggestions of patriarchy and male domination via a hitherto unseen route — the cloaking of patriarchy in maternal power.

It is curious if one notices how that one crucial word — ‘woman’ — never comes into question. It is also significant that being the symbol of motherhood she represents, in a film dealing with issues of national identity post-Independence, she is symbolically allowed only to be the mother of sons (no daughters need figure in this structural universe). Again, in relegating Radha’s supposed gesture of feminist defiance in the film (shooting her son Birjoo, often read as standing up for the larger principle of loyalty to womanhood over the obligation of her role as a ‘mother’) to that of community service, subscribes to the very patriarchal discourse it is supposedly against.

Birjoo’s villainy in the film, further, is viewed ambiguously. While breaking all norms by endangering the village girls’ izzat and becoming a dacoit, his actions are simultaneously cast in a heroic light when it is evident that he is driven to by a desire to avenge his mother’s affronted chastity; causing him to be seen as an exemplary son who, even in his final gesture before death, is seen pulling out the blood-soaked kangan he has recovered for his mother — a symbol of her violated honour. This kind of reading of the Birjoo/ Radha equation and in a larger sense, of portrayals of masculinity within the film, is entrenched in patriarchal norms. Firstly, the entire conception of the ‘izzat’ code or of the ‘honour/chastity’ motif underlying the film serves to entrap or limit women to the high ‘pedestal’ of such rigid moral enclosure that they cease to be allowed space for existing as human beings, while the men in the film are still allowed ‘weaknesses’ and departures from norms and duties assigned to them in society (the husband deserts his wife, the son disobeys his mother).

Constructions of the ‘masculine’ and the ‘feminine’ within the film are clearly set out in gendered stereotypes — Birjoo, even as a boy, measures out his self-worth in terms of his capability to inflict violence on others, and Radha’s self-worth is to be measured in terms of her enormous power for endurance. Birjoo’s so-called need to “avenge” his mother’s affronted “chastity” is again a subscription to patriarchal discourse at its most de-humanizing of women. Birjoo’s clear lack of respect for Radha at this instance is made evident with his utter disbelief that she can shoot him. “You – you’re just my mother,” he exclaims. Her actual shooting of her son is not quite the crucial feminist breakthrough it might be read as. If we were to read it as “feminist”, then it is a form of feminism which protects the very terminology that encloses and oppresses women — the terminology of ‘honour’ and ‘izzat’ (Radha will not allow for any woman’s honour to be attacked), preserving the essential status quo set up for women. Furthermore, her immediate remorse and tears as she rushes towards her son, who hands her the blood soaked kangan, allows for Birjoo to have a final say before he dies. The entire moment comes full circle.

From beginning to end, Nargis is the mother figure – making her a ‘mother’ even in her role as wife. The ‘mother’ element of Radha extends to not only her natural born sons, but to her husband, to her oppressors, to her village, to the very soil or earth of her land — and thus, a new conception is born, which implies that ‘motherhood’ must necessarily extend to all aspects of a woman’s identity, and leads ultimately, to the overall denial of womanhood. “Mother India” abounds in close-ups. The ‘magnification’ process that theorist Mary Anne Doane talks of in relation to the close-up becomes increasingly pertinent to this film: the ‘mother’ must be represented as ‘larger’ than she actually is. Her ‘larger-than-life’ representation contributes greatly to her iconicity. As she represents the nation itself, she simply must be presented in ‘magnified’ states. Radha’s face is transformed into a symbol. The face becomes the ‘mask’ of collective representational meaning, and “Mother India” utilizes this large-scale myth making in constructing an abstract, iconic topography of India, represented by Nargis’ face.

Nargis’ face appears abstracted almost — the representation is so dramatic and bold, pitted against the blue of the sky, that she functions herself as a component of this ‘earthy’ landscape, consistent with what Doane calls the “inescapably hyperbolic nature of the close-up.’ The most intense emotions are conveyed through such processes of ‘enlargement’, universalization and abstraction. Nargis becomes much more than just an ‘actress’ playing a role, and much more than just the character of ‘Radha’.

tarini sridharan


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