Mehboob’s ‘Mother India’ (1957): Imaginations, Representation of the Nation and Production
In 1949, the Film Enquiry Committee was set up by the Nehru government to cope with the imprints of colonial legacy which stayed on in the hearts and minds of the people of India. The decades of post Partition and 1950s were significant in building ideas and narratives of state formation and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting defined its role within the framework of nation building. Thus Indian film producers and directors were urged to consider a cinematic representation of the then newly independent nation. American historian Katherine Mayo’s 1927 book of the same name, was written as an opposition to India's desire for self-rule, and attacked Indian society, faith, religion and culture along with pointing out the ways women and the ‘untouchables’ were treated in Indian society by describing practices of child marriage and poverty. Mayo, an established social advocate had previously exposed corruption in the Pennysylvania Police Force and taken up issues of sexual harassment and antiquated rape laws in the US. A.M. Rosenthal mentions in his book ‘Mother India’ Thirty Years After that Katherine Mayo contributed violent colouring to the American mental image of India. The book elicited an outrage from the entire country and Gandhi, who personally agreed with many of Mayo’s sentiments and whom she had interviewed, had to send CF Andrews and Sarojini Naidu to change opinions in the US, to not much success.
Mehboob Khan’s film was a response to Mayo’s work. Brigitte Schulze argues that the reality experienced by the rural population was eclipsed with a governmental focus on the national myths of ‘Indianness’ during this period and films like ‘Mother India’ portrayed the merger between the political and the popular myth. Ten years after independence, Mehboob Khan under the banner of his company which was the hammer and the sickle, shot the film based on his successful talkie ‘Aurat’ (1939), around Surat, Kolhapur and Nasik with some thirty-three bullock carts, two hundred farmers and some hundreds of acres of paddy fields.
Mehboob produced and directed the film. He also wrote the script along with Wajahat Mirza and S. Ali Raza. Iqbal Khan, Mehboob’s son mentioned in an interview that the actual budget was 2.5 million, but it went up by 3.5 million due to outdoor shoots and payments.
While Nargis, who was only twenty-six when she was cast, was the first and last choice for Radha, matters were complex when it came to the casting of Radha’s sons. Mehboob wanted to cast Sabu Dastagir, an Indian actor who was popular in Hollywood as Birju, but it did not materialise. Iqbal mentioned that "Dilip Kumar was very keen to play the role of Birju. In fact, he was ready to play both husband and son. But Dilip Kumar and Nargis could not be cast as mother and son. They had earlier played romantic roles and the public would not have accepted them as mother-son”. Finally Mehboob cast newcomer Sunil Dutt, and Rajendra Kumar. Sajid Khan, who played young Birju, was picked from a lorry loaded with poor children. Apparently, Mehboob took just three minutes to cast Raj Kumar as Nargis' husband.
The film’s publicity said, ‘The grain of rice on your table does not tell the grim tale of the toil that grew it.’ Salman Rushdie wrote in ‘The Moor’s Last Sigh’, that, “Mehboob Productions’ all-conquering movie Mother India- three years in the making, three hundred shooting days, in the top three all-time mega-grossing Bollywood flicks-hit the nation’s screens. Nobody who saw it ever forgot that glutinous saga of peasant heroism, that super-slushy ode to the uncrushability of village India made by the most cynical urbanities in the world. And as for its leading lady-O, Nargis with your shovel over your shoulder and your strand of black hair tumbling forward over your brow!-she became until Indira-Mata supplanted her, the living mother goddess of us all.” Indira Gandhi drew significantly on Nargis as Mother of the Nation during election campaigns, replacing older iconographies with a cinematically inflected political reappraisal.
Early imaginations of the mother goddess tied to the nation, developed with the likes of Bankim Chandra’s ‘Vande Mataram’. Nehru recognised the need for reform despite disagreeing with Mayo and in his ‘The Discovery of India’ put forward a vision of the men and women working together towards a new future. The film has been interpreted against a historical background of reform with tractors contrasting the dominant image of women ploughing the field and men as failed protectors of women, namely Radha, who comes from a mythic inheritance of struggle and sacrifice which becomes essential to her identity. Nargis, as Radha calling for the flood-affected villagers to not leave their homeland, becomes significant in a traumatizing post-Partition space.
Gayatri Chatterjee wrote in ‘Mother India’ that Mehboob was deeply engaged in thinking about societies transitioning from feudal to capital and traditional to modern but not whether or how a country gained freedom. The film appealed to those still within the feudal system or transitioning to an early form of capitalist economy. When the film was being made, industrial age had not arrived uniformly in all parts of India and ‘money’ was considered a kind of ‘enemy’. Even in urban sectors, money and ostentation was mocked and people invoked mottos like ‘simple living, high thinking’, which was typical of the Indian nationalist desire for spiritual excellence and actions to benefit the entire community, which was reflected in Mehboob’s film. Then, the most significant aspect of the cinematic narrative was the bond between the hero/heroine and the wider community which in ‘Mother India’ is depicted as a universal community of rural sufferers, struggling and surviving together.
Mehboob remained true to his roots and shot the fire-sequence in Umra, Gujarat where he was born. While shooting the sequence, Nargis was caught in the middle of the fire and was rescued from certain death by Sunil Dutt who burnt his face and chest in the process. He was nursed back to health in Billimora, the director’s house and the matter was hushed up due to the risk of the audience who might not be able to differentiate between reel and real, and thus detect incest into the onscreen relationship. Released during Diwali week, October 1957, ‘Mother India’ ran for a whole year at Liberty Cinema, Bombay and Baburao Patel wrote in his Filmindia review that it was “the greatest picture produced in India during the forty and odd years of filmmaking” and added that “Remove Nargis and there is no ‘Mother India’.
Chatterjee, Gayatri, Mother India, Bloomsbury, 2020
Mishra, Vijay, The Texts of “Mother India”’, Bollywood Cinema; Templates of Desire, 2001
Schulze, Brigitte, “The Cinematic ‘Discovery of India’: Mehboob’s Re-Invention of the Nation in Mother India”, Social Scientist, Sept-Oct 2002, Vol. no 30.
The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films, ed Sabine Haenni, Sarah Barrow, and John White, “Mother India (1957)” by Anupama Kapse
Sinha, Mrinalini, “Refashioning Mother India: Feminism and Nationalism in Late Colonial India”, Feminist Studies, Vol 26, Autumn 2000
Jain, Tasbir, “Daughters of Mother India in Search of a Nation: Women’s Narratives About the Nation”, Economic and Political Weekly, Vol 41, No. 17, 2006