Mother India 1

The importance of a mother’s role is too often taken for granted. They not only display, in most cases, unwavering love and support, but also endure great sacrifice to provide for those whom they love. The lengths to which a mother will go to protect her family is what drives Mehboob Khan’s sensational epic Mother India. In Khan’s eyes, mothers, and women in general, are the soil that fertilized India and the world as whole. They weathered the harsh storms of life and held up their children on their shoulders as they waded through the devastating currents of change.

The first film from India to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Film category, and a remake of Khan’s own 1940 film Aurat, Mother India is a sight to behold. It is a Technicolor spectacle whose raw emotion oozes through every single pore. Despite the vibrant musical numbers and moments of slapstick comedy, the themes of poverty and tragedy feel right at home alongside Italian neo-realism films like Bicycle Thieves and Stromboli.

Spanning several decades, the story revolves around Radha (Nargis) and how her lifelong struggles ultimately reshapes the views of an entire village. Days after her wedding Radha learns that her new mother-in-law struck a deal with a crooked moneylender, Sukhilala (Kanhaiya Lal), in order to pay for the lavish ceremony. As Sukhilala’s deal yields a high interest rate, Radha and her husband Shamu (Raaj Kumar) endure long hours in the crop fields trying to pay off a debt that seemingly has no end. With their family growing, and Sukhilala continuing to bleeding them dry, Radha struggles to keep her family fed and safe in the face of poverty. Things get increasingly difficult for Radha as she is forced to endure natural disasters, devastating tragedy and class persecution.

Considering the levels of pain and sacrifice that Radha endures, it should not come as a surprise that Khan makes her the symbol of India as a whole. She is a woman who not only sticks to her principles, but is also willing to do anything she can to ensure that her sons Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) are raised with a sense of honour and decency. Radha is even forced to make the ultimate sacrifice just to emphasize the importance of treating women of all ages with the utmost respect and care.

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One of Mother India’s greatest strengths is the way in which Mehboob Khan gives both a sweeping and intimidate feel to Radha’s hardships. In some scenes all he needs is a simple shot of the character’s faces to emphasize the weariness of endless persecution. At other times he implores grand montages and flashbacks to show the painful passage in time. The epic visual splendor of Mother India is reminiscent of films like Gone with the Wind and Black Narcissus. There are so many great shots and images, including several lavishly orchestrated musical numbers, that linger in our minds long after the film ends. One example of this comes after a storm ravishes the land and Radha, holding her recently deceased newborn, instructs her starving sons not to take any food from Sukhilala, who has stop by to offer his assistance. Another powerful moment comes when a distraught Radha is trying to find her wounded son laying within a burning field of crops.

To her credit, Nargis is outstanding in the lead role. She gives Radha so much depth that we feel the magnitude of the brief few moments of joy she experiences just as much as we do the gut-wrenching sadness that flows like water to the crops. If Nargis’ Radha is the heart and unwavering strength of India, then Sunil Dutt’s Birju is the rage of the poor. Dutt, and the child actor who plays the younger version of Birju, does a great job of portraying a man who simply wants a fair shake for his mother and the rest of the family. He represents the anger that many of the impoverished feel being frequently swindle by the rich. In contrast Kanhaiya Lal’s Sukhilala, who leans more towards slapstick than any other in the film, provides a sense of arrogance and entitlement that makes him a villain you cannot help but hate.

It is easy to see why Mother India was such a popular and influential film for its time. Aside from providing the blueprint that the Bollywood industry would follow for the next 50 plus years, it is a film whose themes still feels relevant and powerful today. Sure some of the melodrama may seem dated by today’s standards, but it is actually nicely balanced when considering the era in which it was made. Mother India is a must see not only for those looking to dip their feet into the world of Bollywood, but also those who simple love epic storytelling done right.


  1. You really liked it, didn’t you? A lot of people have problem with all the melodrama in it and I completely understand their issues with it. Sometimes, even I think Sunil Dutt goes too far as well. But while looking at it as a whole, I can not help but admire it. One thing that I always love about it is how accurately it depicts the socioeconomic condition of the country just after independence. It is really impressive to see it done on such a large scale.

    1. The melodrama is laid on thick at times but that is to be expected considering the era the film was made in. The only time I rolled my eyes was when a character, who is shot, somehow manages to find the strength to carry another individual out of harm’s way. Again, I had to remind myself that the film was made in 1957. Regardless, it was not enough to do distract me from the technical achievements and overall socioeconomic commentary of the film.

  2. I confess that I finally reached a point where my thoughts were along the lines of “what next?” in regards to bad things that could happen to this woman. I’ve seen several other acclaimed films from India that heap on the misery even more, though, so in comparison Mother India is actually not as bad.

    1. She does endure a hell of a lot of stuff over the three hours. However, it did help to bring gravitas to a lot of the imagery in the film. For example, my mind immediately goes to the brief but powerful shots like the river of blood that flowing into the crops, when her husband is force to wear the Ox bell, etc.

  3. Wow! I love that this was a film on India. It’s such a fascinating subject. I haven’t seen it but melodrama doesn’t bother me so I’ll have to check it out.

  4. Just wanted to say thanks for writing a January post! I’d leave a longer comment, but I’ve never seen Mother India myself – it’s a Blind Spot for me too.

  5. Huh… I have some problems with this film. First of all, it’s cool that it got Oscar buzz and stuff but there are so many other Indian films that would have deserved that much more! However, this it mainly the fault of the Indian people that decide which film to submit. Then there’s the patriotism. I always find that feeling very hard to accept in any kind of context because I can’t relate to it and it just makes me think of the horrible things that people do ‘for their country’.
    That being said though, Mother India is an important piece of Indian culture and much like Gone With the Wind for the US, you can’t ignore it as a film buff.
    Great post, I’m surprised you went with such an unusual choice.

    1. I did not find the patriotism as detrimental to the film as you did. Considering the blatant amount of patriotism in most American blockbusters, this film did not seem as bad in comparison. Though you now have me curious, what other Indian films from 1957 do you think are more deserving of the Oscar nomination?

      1. Not from 1957, hahah, I don’t know many of those. But other films like Dil Se (my favorite film of all time), Devdas, Dev.D, Anari… Lots of good ones out there.
        You’re right about the American blockbusters, but even there it bothers me a lot. I guess it just always bothers me. Perhaps it’s because in Germany, there are a lot of unwritten laws about not being patriotic (except during the soccer season).

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