Directed, story, and screenplay by Mehboob Khan
Mother India was the first (and only one of two) Bollywood movies to be nominated for a Foreign Film Oscar, and it is well-deserving of such. Nargis starred as Radha, the mother of two sons who endures countless hardships to finally become a kind of mother-saint of the village—and, in the end, its savior and protector. While the title of the movie indicates that the focus is on the mother character and how she represents India, what is fascinating about this movie is there is an equal and opposing interpretation. One of the sons is rebellious from an early age; the key is that he’s not rebellious in an illogical way. All of his actions stem from understandable hardships, and his character is more belligerently devoted to the idea of everyone getting a fair shake than just stirring up trouble for his evil pleasure. He is defiant from childhood—he doesn’t accept his lot—he loves his mother but can’t contain his wildness—and he shocks and yet gains the complicated sympathy of the viewer. This is so apparent that it’s hard for me to believe it wasn’t intentional on the part of the filmmakers. The thrust seems to be that there is a paradox of Indian resilience: that she protects the traditions and sacred pieces of herself, and she defies and questions unjust treatment. There are some truly horrifying scenes in this film related to how impoverished the family becomes at different times. The child actors, like all Bollywood child actors I have seen so far, are excellent. In America, it is rare to find child talent that does not come off as puppetry or saccharine.
Song Highlights: The cinematography and directing of the songs during which Nargis must work the land contribute to their heartbreaking significance. Near the end, when Nargis runs after one of her sons through the forest, the film achieves what almost no American film with songs can achieve: perfect integration of the song into the plot, characters, and movement so that the scene could not exist in any satisfying percentage without the song. The longing, the running, and the words of the song combine into a powerful auditory, visual, and meaningful experience. Music by Naushad and lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni.
Tidbits: This was the last movie Nargis was in—Nargis is in the unquestionably-a-star-of-Bollywood canon, along with Waheeda and Madhuri Dixit. She married Sunil Dutt (the man who plays her youngest son) and, as most Bollywood actresses did, retired after the marriage. They were not far apart in age; Nargis wears (rather convincing) age makeup for the second half of the film.
Rating: This would be another good one to start with, and if your library wants to collect only a few Bollywood movies, it should definitely include Sholay and Mother India. Again, as far as I remember, there are no “stereotypical” Bollywood moves here. There is violence towards females, which is accepted and tossed off—a surprise to our American-trained sensibilities (later posts will address violence towards females).
Library Collection: Whatever the motivation for the collection, this should be included. It is one of Bollywood’s most beloved movies, it is an intriguing piece of story, and it serves to show an important historical landmark in the Bombay film industry.