Original release: October 25th, 1957
Running time: 172 minutes
Country of origin: India
Original language: Hindi
Writer and director: Mehboob Khan
Cast: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Kanhaiyalal
“The goddess who carries the burden of the world.
You won’t be able to carry the burden of motherhood.
Try to become a mother.
you’ll give up in 2 steps.”
She held a handkerchief and wept as she always did when we watched these Indian classics. How my mother loved them, and would talk to me endlessly as a child about what they meant to her. She didn’t know it at the time, but her passion for these films would pass onto me – in years to come I would look at them and remember all what she taught me.
There was something different with Mother India though. I could see it in the way she looked at Nargis – her favourite actress – and nod her head side to side, teary eyed and with a bittersweet smile as if to say “I know, I know”. Yet this was one film she didn’t tell me very much about.
Mother India’s story begins with its central character, Radha (Nargis), as an elderly woman in her village. With the completion of a water canal, the villagers and officials arrive to take her to the opening ceremony. As the “mother” of the village, they won’t use the canal without her inaugurating it. They try to put garlands of flowers around her neck, at first she refuses but they insist and as she smells the petals, the fragrance reminds her of her wedding day, many, many years ago.
The story then flashes back to this time and we see the beautiful and shy bride marrying Shamu (Raaj Kumar). It’s a huge wedding and the villagers gossip about her mother-in-law mortgaging the family’s land to pay for it. Radha learns of this the next day and immediately begins to feel the burden; she works tirelessly despite her husband’s pleas that she shouldn’t but she doesn’t want to be his lazy wife. He prefers for her to rest, wear her wedding jewellery and make other women in the village jealous of her good fortunes.
Unfortunately, these will not be luxuries the family can afford. The interest alone on the mortgage means three quarters of their crop will always go to Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal), the greedy money lender. For years to come, they will endure poverty and hardship all because of him.
After an accident leaves Shamu without his arms, he is too ashamed to let Radha carry the burden. He abandons them in the middle of the night and she is left to care for their children. Soon after, her mother-in-law dies and seeing an opportunity to help himself to even more, Sukhilala offers to free Radha from poverty if she marries him, but she refuses to sell herself.
Fate has decided Radha hasn’t suffered enough yet. A storm, followed by terrible floods, sweeps through the village and the crops are all destroyed. Radha’s youngest child is also killed. In the wake of this disaster, the villagers want to leave but Radha convinces them to stay and rebuild.
Several years pass and Radha is now a middle-aged woman and her two sons, Birju (Sunil Dutt) and Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) have grown up resentful of Sukhilala and the wealth he continues to steal from their family. Birju begins to wage his own personal war against him and ends up being chased out of the village, leaving Radha heartbroken. He eventually returns, but seeing what he’s become and before he does any more harm, Radha makes yet another sacrifice for the greater good.
It’s a stunning film, of epic proportions and there’s not a moment when our hearts don’t pour out for this selfless woman. Just when you think she can’t possibly endure anymore, she’s dealt one blow after next, but continues to do everything in her power to put food on the table and care for her family.
From beginning to end it’s exquisitely filmed and the early scenes where we see Radha’s wedding captures Nargis at her most stunning. She radiates with a light that tells us at once something about Radha’s character. Later on we see her working the fields – dirty, tried, drenched in sweat but still doing it – she doesn’t complain, she doesn’t rest. She makes sure her children have food and she’ll go to sleep without eating just so they can have enough.
Without a husband to rely on, no money of her own, no jewellery left to pawn and sometimes no food in her stomach after working outside all day and inside most of the night – I know this had been my own mother’s life for many years before I was born. To care for so many others but no one to care for you, to make so many sacrifices you could never speak about, over the years I came to understand why she didn’t tell me much about Mother India, in so many ways it was the story of her life too.
I look at the hardships they quietly suffered and now I understand what her bittersweet smile meant. Both women did so much but asked nothing in return, except that their children needn’t suffer or go hungry and got the education they themselves couldn’t.
I realised something else too. That smile when she watched Mother India; it was a smile when all she felt was pain but couldn’t show it – that to me is what it means to bear the burden of motherhood.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
You can find his music on Soundcloud .