Mother India, a 1957 classic by the iconic Mehboob Khan, is often acknowledged as the “most Indian” movie ever, depicting the stark realities of the socio-economic-cultural life of a nascent nation where a vast majority of people lived in the villages. Released ten years after independence, the movie has stood the test of time over the years and continues to leave the audience awestruck with its larger-than-life canvas and narrative even in the post-millennial era. Giridhar Jha meets noted writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar in Mumbai to understand the phenomenon of Mother India on the 60th anniversary of its release. Excerpts from the interview:
Video by Apoorva Salkade, Editing by Suraj Wadhwa
Even now, six decades after its release, Mother India remains one of the finest movies India has ever produced. What’s so special about it?
I clearly remember the day I saw this movie for the first time, way back in 1957. I was barely 12 years old then, but I still have deep impressions of watching it at that age. I subsequently saw it again and again—maybe four or five times during my school days. Mother India, in my opinion, is a gatha (saga) in real terms. It’s a story that goes in a way from one generation to another. The canvas of the story is huge and there is something so very Indian about it. Mehboob Khan himself was from a small village in the Kathiawad region in Gujarat, and he was quite familiar with its culture and landscape. Therefore, the smell of the soil, the feel of the fields and the breeze of the villages, everything quintessentially Indian, is all there in the film.
Doubtless, the history of Indian cinema cannot be complete without this timeless classic. Its characters are so dramatic and the situations so grand, be it the tragedy, the drama, the vendetta or the sacrifice. Everything is in a way so real and, at the same time, larger than life.
I suppose the definition of the classics is that they are not only relevant in their own time but also have a kind of universal quality that makes them transcend their time and space. Whether in the country of their origin or in faraway societies, they remain relevant .They get into another time, another era and yet remain relevant all the time. Mother India is one such film.
That was the golden era of great movies and great directors in Hindi cinema. What sets Mother India apart from other excellent films of its time?
Yes, there were many other great film-makers besides Mehboob Khan at the time, such as Bimal Roy or Amiya Chakravarty who made very good movies such as Sujata (1959) and Seema (1955) respectively. Seema toh kamaal ki film thi (Seema was an extraordinary movie). As far as Bimal Roy was concerned, his Do Bigha Zameen (1953), which was released four years before Mother India, was as Indian as Indian can be. May be not in terms of stark reality but in their own lyrical form, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor also made classics like Shree 420 (1955) and Pyaasa (1957). They were all good film-makers who were depicting social reality in one way or the other, but Mother India was one big saga of an Indian village. It showed so many aspects of the rural life—the ubiquitous moneylender, the poverty, helplessness and anger of the oppressed farmer—all of it was there, not to speak of the glorious representation of the Indian woman through the character of Radha, played by a great performer like Nargis.
What impressions do you still carry of that film?
There are many extraordinary scenes in the movie. But one scene that I keep remembering is when Radha’s son Birju, played by Sunil Dutt, steals a gun from somewhere, comes home and hides it in the haystack. The mother sees it and quizzes him about it. The son says that he will kill Sukhi Lala with the gun—the money lender played by Kanhaiyalal, who had been the tormentor of their family and many others in the village. All the problems will be over with the killing of Sukhi Lala, he points out. But the mother, a poor woman-farmer, tells him all about the futility of the gun. It was an exceptionally well-written scene, with the mother underlining the fact that the gun is no solution in society. “You cannot harvest the fields with the gun, the gun cannot make you roti either, the gun simply cannot be a solution,” she tells him in a simple but rather effective way. There are many such moments in the film that remain with us.
Mother India is considered to be not only Mehboob Khan’s magnum opus but also the best of Nargis. Can anyone visualise any of her contemporaries doing that role that redefined the Indian woman on the screen?
Nargis’s role of a mother has undeniably inspired generations of moviegoers. There is no doubt that she has given a great performance. I cannot say how any other competent actress of her generation would have performed that role, but for the audience of our generation, Mother India means Nargis, just as Devdas means Dilip Kumar only despite the fact different actors have played Devdas at different times over the years. That cannot be changed.
(from left) Mehboob Khan, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Nargis on the set of Mother India
In fact, Mehboob Khan had made another hit film, Aurat, on the same story, which was released 17 years before Mother India. Sardar Akhtar had played the role that was later enacted by Nargis in Mother India, while actor Yaqub had portrayed Birju. Arun Kumar (actor Govinda’s father) had done the role of Radha’s other son in Aurat, which Rajendra Kumar did in Mother India. Kanhaiyalal, however, played the villain in both the movies. There were a few others who were associated with both versions of Mehboob Khan’s classics. Take dialogue writer Wajahat Mirza, for instance. He is perhaps the most unsung hero of the Indian film industry, as he wrote the dialogues of three all-time classics: Mughal-e-Azam (1960), Ganga Jamuna (1961) and, of course, Mother India. It is unbelievable.
What do you have to say about the film’s other characters?
Every main character played their part rather well but what is remarkable about Mother India is that not only its three principal characters—Radha, Birju and Sukhi Lala— but others were extremely good as well. Even the minor characters were so real. There is a scene of a panchayat which is convened to settle a dispute between the money lender and Radha’s husband, a farmer played by Raaj Kumar. The panch and the sarpanch as well as the villagers sitting around them all look so authentic in that scene. Even the moneylender’s bodyguards look real. Mehboob Khan must have taken real people from the village—they do not look like junior artistes.
How do you compare the Mehboob Khan classic with other classics of its time such as Mughal-e-Azam?
It is difficult to compare Mother India with other classics of its time such as Mughal-e-Azam. They are from completely different genres. But one can take a look at Do Bigha Zameen, which was also a story about a poor farmer—and maybe was closer to stark reality, more realistically, more honestly depicted. But it obviously did not have the quality of a great saga that Mother India possessed. I think we Indians are trained to live on the sagas and do not usually like stories with a small canvas. It comes genetically to us from the times of Ramayana and Mahabharata, the sagas which have been passed on for generations and will remain with us in the times to come. Mother India has had such a quality. Although it talks of real socio-economic issues, it deals with them in an impressive and grand manner.
Nargis wields her son’s firearm in Mother India
The film was based on a story set in rural India, and yet it caught global attention after its release. It was the first Indian film to be nominated for the Oscars in the best foreign film category, and it also received an award at the prestigious Karlovy Vary film festival.
That a film depicting rural life in India won the admiration of the international audience should not come as a surprise. Arre bhai, Pearl S Buck’s Nobel Prize-winning The Good Earth was a story about a Chinese farmer but it went on to become an international best-seller. Anybody who read books in those days had read that novel no matter where he lived. Even the Hollywood movie based on it starring Paul Muni tuned out to be a big hit. Back home, even today you don’t get tickets easily of a play based on Mughal-e-Azam whenever it is staged, even though it depicts a story of the Mughal era. Such stories always remain relevant regardless of their setting. Similarly, in the case of Mother India, people may not have experienced the miseries of the main protagonist Radha in their own lives but they empathise with her. Why is Europe today bothered about the Syrian refugees and why are people concerned about Rohingya refugees these days? We have never seen a Rohingya village and we are not Burmese either. But we empathise with them and their predicament. Mother India has been liked by successive generations so much because of its timeless appeal. People, regardless of whether they are living in a village or a city, have the same spectrum of emotions. Let alone a movie like Mother India, based on rural India, we have liked films based on the American civil war, classics like Gone with the Wind, which keep the audience involved and engrossed with their narratives, depicting feelings, hurt, deprivation and other emotions which transcend boundaries. Such films have always had a universal appeal because audiences in any part of the world can relate to them.
Ganga Jamuna (1961), one of the early films in which the angry young man looms large
After Mother India, the next really powerful role of a mother on the screen came in 1975 in Deewar, which
was played by Nirupa Roy. Was the character of Nargis there in your subconscious when you were writing that role for the Yash Chopra film?
I won’t be able to tell you if Nargis’s character was in my subconscious while the mother’s role in Deewar (played by Nirupa Roy) was being written by us (Salim-Javed) but it is a fact that the people of my generation had been brought up on classics such as Mother India, Ganga Jamuna, Pyaasa, Sujata and so on; all of them had left a deep impression on us. We had seen these classics over and over again during our school and college days. Both Mother India and Deewar have a strong mother and two brothers, one of whom crosses the line and goes to the other side of the law. On one level, there are certain similarities between the two movies but then, there are differences at the same time. Deewar was the image of its time and it was very urban in temperament. There was no permanent villain, like Sukhi Lala of Mother India, in Deewar. The man who had written “Mera baap chor hai” on the hand of the main protagonist (played by Amitabh Bachchan) does not come back again on the screen, nor does the latter go in search of him to seek revenge.
Nirupa Roy, another iconic mother, in Deewar
His anger was not against just one person, but the system. It was social structure, not any individual, which was
the villain. That was the major difference between Mother India and Deewar.
The Salim-Javed duo is widely credited with having invented the angry young man in Hindi cinema with the emergence of Amitabh Bachchan in movies like Zanjeer, Deewar, Trishul and so on. Wasn’t Birju of Mother India also an angry young man, fighting against the exploitation, injustices?
It would not be right to say that we “invented” the angry young man. Birju was, of course, an angry young man and so was Ganga played by Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jamuna. But those angry young men on screen were different from the angry young men of the seventies. In our movies, we did not dilute the character of the angry young man. His previous avatars had lighter moments on the screen. They fell in love, sang songs, did romance and comedy as well which somehow diluted their characters, but when we came on the scene with movies like Zanjeer, Deewar and Trishul, we did not let him divert from his main emotion by giving him such scenes. He remained raw and unadulterated.
Coming back to Mother India, Mehboob Khan could not replicate its success with his next, Son of India (1962)?
It is because Son of India was not another Mother India. It was meant to be Son of India. I remember watching this film which was brilliant in certain parts but overall it did not have coherence and believability. Jayant had given a great performance in the film but somehow the picture did not gel.
Can Mother India be remade now?
Well, it can be but then, what is the need? It has been made so well. See, I am not against remakes as such, but I believe there is no point in redoing the classics. Last year, some people remade the Hollywood classic Ben Hur (1959) but it sank without a trace. Nobody came to know about it. A gentleman tried to remake Sholay also a few years ago. In my opinion, remakes of only those films should be made which may not have been made in the best possible manner because of one reason or the other, may be due to financial constraints, or incompetent actors or directors. If you really feel certain movies could have been made in a better way, there is no harm in remaking them. Of course, nobody will arrest you if decide to also remake a classic which has otherwise been made so well and left nothing to be desired.
There has not been another Mother India-like movie in the past 25 years or so, in the post-liberalisation era. Has the contemporary audience now lost its connection with stories set in rural India?
See, it takes time for a movie to actually evolve into a classic. Sholay and Deewar were not considered classics immediately after their release. They were, of course, superhit movies but it took ten to 15 years to be declared a classic. A movie has to stand the test of time to become a classic. In the past few years, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan (2001) and Dangal (2016), both set in a rural milieu, were extremely well-written and directed movies. Another film that will always be mentioned when a serious study is done on Indian cinema is Dil Chahta Hai (2001). Like Sholay and Deewar, that film also influenced many others after its release. Its characterisation, humour, romance, sensibility, morality, everything left a deep impression on the audiences.
In every era, good films and bad films are made. When Mother India was made, the middle class still had a connection with the villages. India had not been industrialised by that time. Unlike today, the umbilical cord of the middle class with the villages had not been completely cut off in those days. The first or second generation of the middle-class gentry that had left the villages for cities still had links with the village life but, with gradual industrialisation in the years to come, that link started getting snapped gradually. Today, villages are like Uranus and Mars for the youngsters but in 1957, that was not the case.
But it is not right to think that the new generation has no talent. The language and the etiquette have changed and so has the tempo of life. There was a time when Shakespeare was considered the ultimate but who writes like him now? Hence, it is not right to say the golden past is always behind us. If you ask me “Will Mother India be made again,” I will say no, it will not be made but another movie of a different kind will be made that will make an impact.
Looking back, will Mother India rank among your top five favourite films?
Look, you make a list of favourites when you are young. If you ask me “Who are your favourite actors and actresses today,” I will not be able to tell you. Now, I like a particular film or an actor’s performance. But if you are asking me about my favourite films from my student days, Mother India will definitely rank in the top five. Others? Well, Mughal-e-Azam, Ganga Jamuna, Pyaasa and Shree 420 ... Paanch ho gaye!