In 1957, Mehboob Khan produced and directed a film that has achieved almost iconic status in the history of Indian cinema. Mother India was the first Indian film to receive a nomination for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and won several Filmfare Awards, including Best Film and Best Actress.
Mother India is a fine example of the importance of perseverance. If you don’t get it right the first time, try again. Sometime along the way, somewhere and somehow, you will get to your goal. Also, if you did something well once, chances are you’ll do it better the next time round. Practice makes perfect.
I’m not talking about how Radha, the female lead character of Mother India (and of Aurat) manages to surmount all the obstacles in her path and emerge strong. I’m talking about Mehboob Khan himself, who was the director not just of Mother India, but of the film, Aurat, of which Mother India was a remake. Based on a story by Babubhai Mehta (and supposedly partly inspired too by Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth) and with dialogue by Wajahat Mirza, Aurat was a film Mehboob Khan only directed. Seventeen years later, now a producer in his own right, he remade the film, both producing and directing it. And how well he proved that if you do something well the first time round, there’s a good chance you’ll do it well, and even better, the second time round.
But, Aurat. I won’t go deep into detail for every scene here, because this is a fairly simple story that’s better told as a gist.
The film begins with Sunder Chachi (Sunalini) haranguing her only offspring, Shaamu (Arun) in an affectionate way. Shaamu is getting married and Sunder has pulled out all the stops for the wedding. She has borrowed a few hundred rupees from the local moneylender Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal), just to make sure that everything is done ‘the way it should be’.
The baaraat sets off, all excited and happy. Shaamu is married, and brings home a beautiful bride, Radha (Sardar Akhtar, who went on to marry Mehboob Khan).
Soon, Radha has become very good friends with Kamla (Vatsala Kumthekar), who has been married five years now but hasn’t had any children so far. This doesn’t seem to faze Kamla, who counters the jibes of her otherwise affectionate husband Bansi (Harish) about their childlessness with some caustic remarks of her own. Kamla isn’t the demure and self-effacing sort: she says just what comes into her head, and she is the one Radha first confides in when she discovers that she’s pregnant.
Kamla, too, is beside Radha when her baby is born, and even when—within a space of six years since Radha’s wedding—another two children arrive.
By now, things have gone pretty downhill for the family. Sukhilala has been pestering Sunder for the money: along with the capital, the interest is piling up too, so now Sunder owes him a lot of money. Sunder resorts to bluster, trying to shout Sukhilala down and tell him that his money’s going nowhere, she will return it—but Sukhilala is intelligent enough to see (and money-minded enough to point it out) that there’s no way she’s going to be able to repay it.
Sukhilala’s gaze falls on Radha, who is passing by, going about her housework, and he tells Sunder that there’s one way she can repay her loan: by sending Radha to his house to attend to his housework (it’s obvious that Radha will not merely be expected to cook and clean, but perform duties of a rather more intimate nature). Sunder, naturally, flies into a rage and tells Sukhilala to get lost, but this episode sends shivers down Radha’s spine.
Radha is having a bad time. We see her, hard at work, all through the day: making uplas (cow dung cakes, used as fuel), grinding wheat, fetching water, cooking, sweeping, looking after her children, even helping out in the fields. When Shaamu comes home from the fields at night and has his dinner, he wipes up his plate and demands more from Radha, who without a word, gives him almost everything that’s left in the cooking pot. When he’s finished off the food, she upturns all that is left—a couple of spoonsful of rice—into his plate and settles down to eat. It’s far too little for a grown woman, but when one of her children comes toddling up, demanding food, she takes him into her lap and feeds him from the plate.
At night, once Shaamu has lain down, she presses his legs while he drifts off to sleep. In the middle of the night, when one of their oxen starts lowing because it’s got its leg caught in its rope, Radha is the one to get out of bed to go and attend to the matter.
This isn’t just a ‘bad time’, it’s a horrid time, and Radha, the epitome of the self-sacrificing Sati Savitri, bears it all stoically. She even gets pregnant, yet another time (and, bound by patriarchy as she is, tells Shaamu that ‘children are God’s gifts’, when he complains about where he’s going to get money to fill all these mouths).
But Shaamu doesn’t stop at complaining [as if he didn’t have a hand—or, um, whatever—in getting Radha pregnant]. One night, he gets up and goes away. Just like that. In the morning, Sunder and Radha wake to find that Shaamu’s gone.
Sunder tries, in vain, to reassure herself and her daughter-in-law that he will be back within a couple of days, but both of them know that this is Dutch comfort. They will have to make do.
This is merely the start. One after the other, disasters strike Radha. In the course of less than ten years, she has gone from being a young, bright-eyed bride to a mere husk, a woman desperate—through famine and disease and death and desertion—to keep her children alive and well.
Eventually, we see Radha as what she has become when her sons have grown up. Ramu (Surendra), the elder one, is the ‘good’ son: charming, hard-working, upright. Ramu is in love with Jamuna (Jyoti), a local village girl who returns his feelings: with them, it’s basically a case of them finally getting around to marrying, though right now nobody else in the village knows of their relationship.
Ramu’s younger brother Birju (Yaqub, in what I count as the finest of all the roles I’ve seen him in) is the exact opposite of Ramu. He idles away his time, gambling and loafing about, and generally being a nuisance. Radha’s old friend Kamla, who had finally got pregnant and had a baby daughter around the time Radha was abandoned by Shaamu, doesn’t know it yet, but Birju is especially a nuisance for her daughter, Tulsi (Brij Rani). Because Birju’s got it into his head that Tulsi is destined to marry him. Tulsi doesn’t like Birju, but Birju puts down all her annoyance to the nakhras of a woman who really means yes when she says no.
Where this will take Radha and Birju and the rest of them is probably something you already know if you’ve seen Mother India…
What I liked about this film:
The story, which is interesting and neither awfully complicated nor simplistic. The shades of grey that appear here and there through the story are intriguing: for instance, Birju, for all his nastiness (down to hitting his own mother: in old Hindi cinema, how much more low can you get?), has moments when you glimpse—even if only very briefly—a gentler side of him, the affectionate brother and son. And Radha, going from a relatively sheltered wife and daughter-in-law to a village matriarch who is forced both by circumstances and by her own conscience to take the law into her own hands: interesting.
Sardar Akhtar as Radha. Her acting (unlike that of most of the other women in the film) is low-key and realistic. And, while her makeup does help, her acting plays a big role in making her believable both as the young wife as well as the old woman.
The music, by Anil Biswas. Interestingly, while Aurat is chockfull of songs, many of them—the majority—are just a line or two, repeated several times over the course of a minute or two, rather than the more usual songs of several minutes, with a few stanzas in them (though there are those too).
What I didn’t like:
The acting of the younger woman: Brij Rani (as Tulsi) and Jyoti as Jamuna are too theatrical for my liking.
Plus, while it may reflect the thinking of those times and of rural society (where I fear such ideas still prevail to some extent), I was irritated by some of the premises in this story. For instance, Radha’s repeated pregnancies, given that they are so poor, is idiotic (her asserting that ‘children are God’s gifts’ annoyed me even more). In the latter half of the film, Radha’s constant forgiving of Birju’s criminal and anti-social ways—he is not merely ‘mischievous’ or a prankster—also annoyed me a good deal.
Of course. Because Aurat was remade into one of the most famous Hindi films ever, it’s de rigueur for me to do a comparison between this one and Mother India.
In essence, the story—down to the names of the characters (as well as one actor playing an important character—Kanhaiyalal playing Sukhilala in both films) is the same. Radha comes as bride to her husband’s village, and soon realizes that because her mother-in-law took a big loan from Sukhilala, the family is in deep debt. As she bears one child after another, the family gets deeper into debt, and finally her husband runs away, her mother-in-law dies, and natural disaster strikes. Radha comes close to giving up her honour to Sukhilala in exchange for some money to feed her children, but does not. Years later, an obstreperous and belligerent Birju—whom Radha cannot give up loving—makes her take matters into her own hands, leading to a tragic climax.
The differences are in treatment. On a superficial level, the scale. Mother India, all colour, with big names and good actors in the cast, is a big budget film: you see it not just in the cast and crew, but in the settings, the picturizations. That train of camels trudging in the backdrop, or the hundreds of people making their way slowly through flooded fields, or even in the impressive scenes of the devastating flood.
In contrast, Aurat, not just in black and white (which was anyway par for the course in 1940), but also with constraints—the drought-stricken land is all that it can manage by way of natural disaster—is far less spectacular.
The real differences lie deeper down: in characterizations, in elements, in details. Mother India scores when it comes to some of these. For instance, it lays a good deal of emphasis on the relationship between Radha and her son Birju (played by Sajid Khan in Mother India) as a child. In Aurat, we see very little of Radha’s interactions with Birju as a child: in Mother India, we see a good deal of Birju as a child. We see him, fiercely protective of his mother, affectionate though rough—and because of this building up of character, it’s easier to relate to Radha’s leniency towards her son when he’s grown up and become even more of a nuisance (but still obviously loves his mother a lot).
Then, there’s Shaamu’s decamping in the middle of the night, and the build-up to it. In Aurat, while there is the pressure of the debt and the fact that Radha is amazingly fecund, the fact that Shaamu suddenly runs off makes him a defeatist, a coward. On the other hand, in Mother India, it’s tragedy piled on tragedy: they lose Radha’s jewellery to Sukhilala; then their utensils go to him; when they start digging up the fallow field they own, their bullock dies—and then Shaamu’s arms are crushed under a boulder, rendering him pretty much useless. As if that wasn’t enough, Sukhilala and his men heap scorn on Shaamu, taunting him for eating his wife’s earnings. It’s a logical progression: you can see what drives Shaamu to run away. Not a coward, but a man miserable and desperate and weighed down by guilt at being a burden to his wife.
Finally, one important difference that highlights character (plus perhaps also reflects how audiences might have changed between 1940 and 1957?): how Radha manages to overcome Sukhilala’s lecherous advances when, in the wake of a devastating natural disaster, and at the end of her tether, she comes to him. In Aurat, Radha prays, begging God to save her—and just as Sukhilala is pouncing on Radha, the storm outside gathers momentum and fells a tree, which breaks the wall and falls conveniently on Sukhilala, not killing him but definitely teaching him a lesson. In Mother India, Radha takes matters into her own hands and thrashes the old lecher until he begs for mercy.
So, Mother India does some things better: it provides a more relatable story, and a woman who sometimes comes across as stronger than her predecessor of Aurat. However, it does fall prey to the 1950s love for melodrama and masala, which means that there are lots of songs (and full-fledged ones too, not the one verse here and there of Aurat), and comic relief scenes which do nothing to help the plot and which actually enhance the grimness of the rest of the story. Plus, the melodrama in this film is just too much for me. Sukhilala is an over the top villain who leaves no stone unturned in destroying Radha and Birju (he is aided in this in the fact that here he has a daughter—played by Madhubala’s sister, Chanchal—who is at daggers drawn with Birju).
Aurat is comparatively low key and restrained in that sense.
Which is the better film? I can’t say. Both Aurat and Mother India have their pros and their cons, and it’s hard to say which wins. I do know one thing, though: both are, eventually, stories of such unrelenting sorrow and suffering and screechy distress that I am not likely to rewatch either of these in a hurry.