It is not unheard of for directors to remake their own films. Two of the most successful commercially successful and revered Hollywood directors of all time, Alfred Hitchcock, and Cecil B. DeMille, both did it. Hitchcock remade his 1934 film The Man Who Knew Too Much more than two decades later. The director, who had long considered remaking one of his early British productions, told Francois Truffaut that the original film was “the work of a talented amateur,” and thought it would update well with a glossy Hollywood patina, a sexier location (Morocco rather than Switzerland), and American stars, Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day.
DeMille was a foundational showman of Hollywood, and pressed technological advancements and an expansive budget into service when he remade one of his early silent films into a vast Biblical spectacle, The Ten Commandments. The Biblical scenes in the original 1923 version are astonishing, especially for their time, staged on eye-popping huge sets with hundreds of extras. But DeMille wasn't satisfied, and remade the film in 1956, harnessing newly-available film technology to achieve a massive wide-screen Technicolor spectacle. The original film included both the story of Moses and a modern storyline, a Deewaar-esque morality tale about a woman and her two sons, one of whom scrupulously follows the commandments while the other breaks as many as he can in his rise to riches. In his remake, DeMille dropped this storyline and focused the entire film on the Biblical epic, bringing in high-watt Hollywood power like Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner to play Moses and Ramesses. The result was the grandest, most expensive, and most commercially successful film in Hollywood history at that time – and also DeMille's last.
When Mehboob Khan remade his own 1940 film, Aurat, into Mother India, perhaps he, like DeMille, saw state-of-the-art film technology as an opportunity to fulfill a vision that had been limited by what was available to him the first time around. Khan employed some innovative effects in Aurat, such as arresting use of double exposure, but Mother India is on whole other visual level. Khan and cinematographer Faredoon Irani (who also shot Aurat) used Technicolor brilliantly in Mother India, shooting in rich brown and orange tones that both highlight the austere beauty of the rural Indian landscape and bring to life the grit and heat of working the soil. Khan's retooled story was epic in scope, as well as in budget – like The Ten Commandments in Hollywood, Mother India was the most expensive Indian film to date. It was also an enormous commercial success.
Mother India is not a scene-for-scene remake the earlier film; Khan's reworking of the agrarian story shifts the focus and amplifies the allegorical weight of the tale, introducing new themes and adding layers of symbolism. Even the films' titles reflect this expansion in scope. Aurat is the story of a woman, with perhaps some commentary on the oppressed state of womanhood. Mother India, though, captures within its scope womanhood, motherhood, the Republic itself, and the land in which it is embedded. Khan had planned to release the film on 15 August 1957, the tenth birthday of the Republic; it was meant as a tribute to the nation and an expression of its strength and resilience and promise. Khan chose the title in part to rebut the infamous 1927 book of the same name by the American scholar Katherine Mayo, an anti-independence attack on Indian society and culture. And he buffed the story to better serve that ambitious goal.
As the scope of Aurat's agrarian tale expands into a gritty but grand Technicolor allegory, the suffering of the titular woman/mother becomes proportionately greater. In Aurat, Radha (Sardar Begum) loses her youngest sons to famine, and her husband Shamu (Arun, Govinda's father) to abandonment. She also suffers some indignity at the hands of the usurious moneylender Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal). But when the rains finally come, the hand of God directs them to collapse Sukhilala's home, releasing Radha from her debt to him.
In Mother India, though, Radha (Nargis) faces an almost unimaginable pageant of hardships, each bearing its own symbolic force. When she learns that her mother-in-law has mortgaged the family farm to Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal again, in a broader, even more sniveling performance well-suited to the larger scale of the film), Radha assigns to herself a mountain of responsibility for the family. She breaks her own back working the soil, even pulling the plow herself after the family's ox dies. Mother India the earth and Mother India the woman merge in a sweaty display of the true hard work of nurturing. Shamu (Raaj Kumar this time) abandons Radha in this film as well, but first, he loses his hands in an accident while working by her side. In both films, Radha loses a child to famine, but in Mother India she must also be the pillar that saves her boys from flood, literally hoisting them on her shoulders to keep them out of the water that rushes around her neck-deep.
In contrast to Aurat, Mother India tells Radha's story in flashback, adding a pair of bookends to the story that frame its broad allegorical implications. The film opens with villagers pleading with Radha, now an old woman, to bless the inauguration of the village's new canal. “Arrey, tu to hamari maa hai, saare ganv ki maa,” they implore – and so the viewer knows, from the outset, that Radha not only will survive her trials, but will come to hold a revered place as the mother of the village. And indeed she does, shouldering not just the burden of rearing her family but of restoring a village upheaved, and finally, in the end, blessing that canal for her children, for the people of the village and, by implication, the people of the nation. With this framing, the simple, sad story of Aurat is perfected into metaphor for the construction of modern India and healing the fresh wounds of Partition.
Radha's relationship with her wayward son Birju also becomes more pointedly symbolic in the later version of the film. In Aurat, Birju (Yakub) is an unprincipled rogue, acting on his own whims and for his own pleasures, an overgrown id. By Mother India, Birju (Sunil Dutt) has acquired a moral compass of sorts, if a misguided one. This Birju refuses to pay his family's tariff of grain to Sukhilala, trading it instead to buy bangles for Radha. This is not undifferentiated adolescent rebellion, but righteous fury at the injustice Sukhilala brings down on Birju's family (not to mention its Oedipal undertone). Injustice is what drives Birju into exile as a dacoit. Nevertheless, in Mother India as in Aurat, Radha makes the most cutting sacrifice a mother can make, killing her own son in protection of the village, and especially of its women. In Aurat, that death was a necessary tragedy, but when Mehboob Khan remade his film, he freighted that climax with the film's broader message: once Mother India has made the difficult decisions and painful sacrifices, those of her children who remain will be squarely on the road to prosperity.