Mother India (1957), a benchmark in Hindi film industry, glorifies our country, which had then seen just 10 years of independence; it celebrates the Indian women – a daughter, sister, lover, wife, mother, an individual and the goddess; and in the most dramatic, impactful manner it presents the magic of cinema.
This epic film is written by Wajahat Mirza (who also wrote the dialogues for Mughal-e-Azam), S. Ali Raza (who wrote films like Aan and Andaz) and Mehboob Khan (the director). It was a remake of Mehboob Khan’s film titled Aurat (1940), based on the story by Babubhai Mehta, to which he profusely added a strong sense of nationalism – like in the song ‘Dukh Bhare Din Beete Re’ we see an outline map of India literally drawn on the land using haystacks, with people inside, waving joyously and Radha, along with her two sons, standing at the centre on a pedestal, with sickles in hands.
Though 172 minutes long, with a total of 12 songs (by Naushad; lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni), Mother India has a very well written, crisp screenplay. It begins with the protagonist, Radha, an old lady, considered as the mother of the entire village, taking the audience into a flashback, as if saying, ‘come, listen to my story’.
We see now a younger, beautiful Radha who marries Shamu. At first, she comes across as a shy and subservient bride, her husband being her lord, but wait until Radha hears about the loan that Shamu’s mother took from the devious moneylender, Sukhi Lala, right then Radha confidently offers her jewellery, her gold bangles to pay off this debt.
The tussle between a family in debt and a corrupt loan shark, between Radha’s values and absolute degradation of every moral standard, only intensifies as the story moves ahead. Radha’s family grows, their needs increases, but so does Sukhi Lala’s interference and with Panchayat’s support he declares his right on Shamu’s farm and its produce.
Birju, Radha’s second son, is a rebel right from the beginning – he wants his farm and Radha’s gold bangles back at any cost. Foreshadowing this, Birju troubles Sukhi Lala as a kid, not ready to give him the harvest, calling him a thief and grows up to become Sukhi Lala’s doom.
The tight plot doesn’t give respite to the viewer for Radha has not one but many battles to win; Shamu’s arms are crushed in an accident, humiliated by Sukhi Lala for living on his wife’s mercy, he leaves Radha and their four kids forever; after passing away of her mother-in-law, Radha faces natural disasters – flood and storm hits her land and takes away her two youngest kids.
With only Ramu and Birju as her family now, defeated, she goes to Sukhi Lala and begs him for a morsel of bread. In this highly dramatic sequence, Radha, who had decided to compromise, eventually doesn’t allow Sukhi Lala to violate her; she has a dialogue with the goddess Laxmi –
“Devi, Radha k roop mein aate hue laaj na aayi… mere roop mein aayi ho to apni laaj lut-te hue bhi dekh lo… hanso nahi… hanso nahi… sansar ka bhaar utha logi Devi, mamta ka bojh na uthaya jayega… Maa bankar dekho, tumhare panv bhi dadmaga jayenge…”
(Translation – Goddess now that you have come in my avatar, witness how you are dishonoured. Don’t laugh! It is easy to nurture the whole world and truly difficult to be a mother, try being one, even you’ll falter.)
Radha looks weak at first – like the mother who is expected to sacrifice and is thusly, worshipped – but after talking to the goddess within her, she remembers her individual self; Radha stands up, crushes the evil and soars like a phoenix.
She raises her kids into fine young men; she gets Ramu, a man of principle, married, but worries for Birju, the stubborn son. Once again foreshadowing is used here – Radha warns Birju not to trouble any girl or else she won’t spare him, in fact, after the Holi sequence when Birju tries to get Radha’s bangles back from Rupa (Sukhi Lala’s only daughter) and the whole village beat up Birju for being so insolent, then Radha promises the entire village to punish Birju herself, kill him if need be.
Bloodthirsty, Birju joins some dacoits, kills Sukhi Lala and abducts Rupa. When Radha tries to stop him, with a rifle in her hands, Birju doesn’t listen, sure that his mother can’t harm him; Radha shoots him down – Birju dies in Radha’s arms after giving her the gold bangles.
Here the flashback ends; Radha opens the gate of the irrigation canal, allowing the muddy reddish water to flow in the fields, symbolizing bloodshed that she and the whole nation had witnessed for freedom.
Every scene, every dialogue, every song makes this film nothing less than an epic poem. The three love stories, in its limited space, bloom beautifully – Ramu and Champa represent ‘love’ that triumphs; Birju and Chandra, both opposite in nature, represent unfulfilled love; Radha and Shamu, unite to face separation forever, represent ‘love’ that sacrifices.
Throughout the film, the characters stick to their traits and yet, each character grows. Ramu fights Birju to protect Rupa in the end; Sukhi Lala begs Radha to save his daughter, but still doesn’t say a word about the debt; Birju leaves the village to become a dacoit, hitting his mother when she tries to stop him; and Radha, a mother becomes Radha, a woman and sacrifices her son for a girl’s honour. That is why these characters are still remembered, they repeat their traits, their flaws, just like we all do.
A 21st-century screenwriter could be reluctant to accept Mother India’s melodramatic approach, but what cannot be resisted is its great storyline, life-like characters and true representation of Hindi cinema.