Revisiting Mother India
In her introduction to a timely tribute to the making of Mother India, Nasreen Muni Kabir quotes the legendary film maker: “My latest film, Mother India, is also built upon a dream (another being the costume-drama Aan, shot on 16mm Kodachrome, later blown to 35mm by Technicolour, London, which was screened to full houses internationally), as was its original Aurat, which I made at National Studio… the story of Aurat, as visualised by me and developed by Babubhai Mehta was centred around the fact that the true Indian woman enters her husband’s home when she marries and leaves it only when she dies, that she will never sell her chastity for any price on earth. Now that times have changed and life is different, I thought of re-making Aurat in the context of the changing world. But the main character has not changed: the Indian woman who is one with the land she works on.”
One wonders if it is still any different today, especially in the rural context. Unlike the overt transparency, or absence of a secret behind the making of a milestone Hindi film, when one goes back in time there are many related, unrelated stories, facts and rumours about this all time Indian classic, from the title of the film, to the casting of Nargis, to Dilip Kumar’s, the original choice, refusal, to Sunil Dutt’s nearly unceremonious entry, and the extent to its making resulting in the break-up of Raj-Nargis relationship. There are stories and stories, though all of them find a place in The Dialogue of Mother India (Niyogi Books, Rs 1,250). That Sunil Dutt demonstrated exemplary courage by saving Nargis from raging fires during the outdoor in Umra, South Gujarat is too well known to be recounted here.
Mother India (1957) was a remake of Mehboob’s own enormously successfully, critically acclaimed Aurat (1940) with Sardar Akhtar as Radha, Surendra as Ramu and Yakub as Birju. Kanhaiya Lal, the villain Sukhilala, was the only common factor between the two versions. After the release, Sardar Akhtar became Mehboob’s second wife. One needs to know a little more
about the film-maker before there is any more virtues, or otherwise of Mother India. In a career span of almost three decades as a director, with no formal education, all of 18, and with three rupees in his pocket he landed in Mumbai, leaving his wife and son behind in Sarar, near Baroda, Ramzan Khan Mehboob (later to be called India’s Cecil B DeMille) learnt on the job (on a salary of Rs 30 a month) making an invisible debut as a junior artist in Imperial Film Company. He was one of the forty thieves in Ali Baba aur Chalis Chor.
Like many other failed actors before and after him, Mehboob Khan got his directorial break with Al Hilal (The Judgment of Allah), in 1935, based on his own script, inspired by DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross. The film’s success ensured there was no looking back. By the time he made Aurat, written by Babubhai Mehta, that drew considerable inspiration from Pearl S Buck’s The Good Earth and The Mother, as perhaps also from Brecht’s Mother Courage, Mehboob Khan had become an established successful director of meaningful cinema. Aurat has widely been exclaimed as a landmark film, so any remake of it later without too much tampering ensured a certain success. So it really came as no surprise when Mother India became a strong contender for the best foreign language film at the Oscars in 1958. While Vajahat Mirza (who wrote the dialogue for Aurat) and S Ali Raza were credited for the brilliant dialogue of Mother India, the name of the story and scriptwriter were conspicuous by their absence. The film was further immortalised when Vijay Anand shot the film’s premier at Mumbai’s Liberty cinema as an important sequence in Kala Bazaar.
Nasreen Kabir’s well-researched ‘Commentary’ is invaluable in the context of recreating the history of an iconic Indian film which was three years in the making, went literally through several ordeals by fire before it was completed in over a hundred shooting days despite both man-and-God made interruptions mostly the same outdoors that were used as the background for Aurat. Referring to an interview by Bunny Reuben, she quotes Nargis about her role and performance: “The role is a characterisation whose facets may not much longer be presented by the woman of today. I do feel that when this film is released every woman in India will identify herself with the role a tribute not only to the women who are like the woman in Mother India but also to the women who would like to be like her.” The film won Nargis the Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, as also the Filmfare trophy.
Music (who had replaced Anil B Naushad’s) contributed significantly to the immorality of the film, the pain and pathos in Lata Mangeshkar’s rendering of Duniya mein hum aaye hai to jeena hi padega and o mere lal aaja tujh to gale laga lu still work like haematocele. The black and white and colour pictures together with dialogue in Roman, Hindi and Urdu make the book an invaluable addition to a collector’s library.
By Suresh Kohli