Indian cinema scholars have written extensively on the crucial decade after Independence, particularly the 1950s, when the Nehruvian vision of balancing industrial progress with equity found its cinematic expression in the coexistence of tradition and modernity on screen. Films like Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1956) and B.R. Chopra’s Naya Daur (1957) are cited as instances of such a claim.
Mother India’s narrative is bookended with shots of the titular Radha (Nargis), who toils hard almost singlehandedly to raise her sons, against the backdrop of exploitation by Sukhilala or Lala (Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi), the feudal landlord/moneylender. The scene is that of a dam being inaugurated by the elderly and frail Radha. The transition of the transparent water into a blood-red hue and back, provides the frame for moving into the narrative, that begins with Radha as a newly-married young wife, continues with flashbacks of her life, and ends by returning to the film’s present. Within the flashbacks, there is the climax in which she shoots down and sacrifices her beloved-but-spoilt son Birju for the sake of her village and for the honour of its women, like Lala’s daughter Rupa (Chanchal), who Birju and his gang had kidnapped on the day of her marriage.