What can Mehboob Khan's Mother India, the biggest Hindi hit of 1957 and our first entry to the Oscars in 1958, tell us about our ideals of Indian womanhood?
Mehboob Khan's Mother India was not just the most successful film of 1957, but a social epic that became, from the 1960s to the 1980s, one of India's most successful cultural exports ever, watched and re-watched in cinemas and homes across the Middle East and Africa by people who didn't necessarily know Hindi, becoming in many ways the most emblematic 'Indian' film of all time.
In 1958 it was India's first official entry to the Oscars, and apparently came rather close to winning, losing out in the Best Foreign Film category to Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria by a single vote.
This, despite the fact that the film's visual style was powerfully influenced by Soviet socialist iconography – think of the many memorable tableaux in which Nargis (as the film's heroine Radha) is framed with a plough, or with her two sons and sheaves of wheat – and the fascinating fact that Mehboob's insignia of hammer and sickle was removed from the print sent for Oscar nomination. The film was also banned in Turkey as a 'Communist' film.
What is indubitable is that Mehboob's grand, melodramatic, technicolour vision of an unlettered Indian woman raising two sons against terrible odds managed to speak a wide range of audiences. Perhaps it is just in the nature of popular Indian cinema to be able to combine a host of messages: Mehboob's identifiably Marxist insignia of hammer and sickle, as the film scholar Rosie Thomas has pointed out, appeared on the screen next to an Urdu couplet that translates to 'Man proposes, God disposes'.
Certainly, for Indian audiences, Nargis's status in Mother India as the exemplary mother and wife is undeniably constructed by her association with the archetypes of mythical Hindu femininity. She is named Radha while her husband (Raaj Kumar) is called Shyamu, their post-marriage courtship evoking the eternal romantic pairing of Krishna and his gopi lover Radha. After Shyamu is disabled and abandons the family in a fit of depression, Radha is left alone to raise her two young sons. There are strong allusions here to Sita's epic tribulations – her abandonment by an ethical but weakened husband, a trial by fire, as well as an unspoken evocation of the villainous Ravana in the lecherous moneylender Sukhi Lala, against whose overtures Radha must defend her chastity. The film's more overt religious references are to Lakshmi – the goddess of wealth, to whom Sukhi Lala compares the poverty-stricken, half-starving Radha in a crucial ironic scene – and to the 'devi', whom Radha beseeches for help against Sukhi Lala and who, in the tradition of Hindi cinema's depiction of faith, gives her a sign that strengthens her fading resolve.
But more central to Mother India is its construction of Indian womanhood. Radha is the exemplary daughter-in-law who presses her mother-in-law's feet as well as her husband's, who quietly eats the few morsels left after her husband and sons have eaten, who doesn't only cook and clean and take care of the cattle but labours alongside her man in the fields, and voluntarily surrenders her jewelry in the family's time of need. But over the course of the film, we watch this shy bride who barely opens her mouth in front of her mother-in-law or her husband transform into a mother who can beat up her grown sons – or even kill them.
What unites the self-sacrificing femininity in the earlier half of the film with the ethical vision of motherhood shown later is the film's unequivocal embrace of a model of female sexual virtue at the cost of all else. As one of the film's immortal songs 'Duniya mein hum aayein hain toh jeena hi padega' goes, “Aurat hai woh aurat jise duniya ki sharam hai,/Sansaar mein bas laaj hi naari ka dharam hai.”. Trying to translate these sentences is difficult precisely because the words 'sharam' and 'laaj' -- literally shyness, bashfulness – are here used to denote the much more complex idea of honour. A woman's only religion in this world, the song says, is to safeguard honour.
The climactic confrontation between Radha and her son Birju (Sunil Dutt) is the outcome of precisely this belief: faced with a choice between saving her son's life and saving the 'honour' of a young woman of the village (Sukhi Lala's daughter Rupa, whom Birju has abducted as payback), Radha chooses to kill her own son. “Main beta de sakti hoon, laaj nahi de sakti [I can lose a son, but not honour],” she declares. The dialogue is about Rupa's (and the village's) 'laaj', but gestures equally to the originary moment when Radha chose her chastity over Sukhi Lala's offers of food and money, despite the fact that she had lost one child to starvation and might have lost the other two, too.
Mother India's conclusion can be read as a spirited defense of young women's sexual honour by an older woman, even against the depredations of her own son. This may seem worth celebrating in a world in which the patriarchal norm is probably that which appears in the final segment of an NH10, where Deepti Naval's character is the most patriarchal and violent in her defense of her family and caste 'honour'. And yet somehow there seems to be a continuum between the premium placed on chastity by Mother India in 1957, and the policing of honour we see around us in 2017.
Published in Mumbai Mirror, 25 Sep 2017.