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-[Film Reviews]-, Bollywood, South Asian Cinema

‘Mother India’ (1957): The Matriarch of Melodrama

nargis16 mother india

Directed by: Mehboob Khan || Produced by: Mehboob Khan

Written by: Mehboob Khan, Wajahat Mirza, S. Ali Raza || Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar, Kanhaiyalal, Jiloo Maa, Kumkum, Chanchal, Sheela Naik

Music by: Naushad || Cinematography by: Faredoon A. Irani || Editing by: Shamsudin Kadri || Country: India || Language: Hindi

Running Time: 172 minutes

If you can endure the initial depressing 45 minutes, you’re in for a tour de force of family values, philosophical ethics, and powerful cultural symbolism. Despite covering extraordinarily dour thematic territory including, but not limited to, poverty, parasitization of the poor by the rich, and a mother shooting her own son in cold blood, Mother India (MI) manages to forgo much of the melodrama that typifies (or plagues, depending on who you ask) most of Hindi cinema. MI contains realistic, powerful characters going through shitty situations, rather than a bunch of stage-actors miming in a soap opera. Again, MI can be difficult and sad to watch, but it never feels exploitative or cheap because its characters, particularly the protagonist played by Nargis, are captivating and empathetic. Little drama feels forced here, and none of the major plot devices seem contrived or shoved in to create cheap thrills. The hard realism of MI’s themes and setting makes the story all that much harder to watch in many respects, but in a tactful, artistic way.

An overriding theme of Mother India is the inherent conflict between Nargis Dutt’s protective, loving maternal instincts and her harsh but righteous sense of communal justice, a supposed allegory for India itself, hence the film’s title.

MI is sometimes referred to by Western critics as India’s Gone with the Wind (1939), given how both films are emotionally heavy historical epics that track a series of colorful characters over long periods of time (re: decades). MI lacks the captivating chemistry that Gone With the Wind had between Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable, as Nargis mostly goes at it alone, but her character is so interesting that she’s able to make the story all her own. By the time her children are mature enough to become complex characters themselves, Nargis has established her powerful presence and given the narrative enough steam to carry on till the end, regardless.

MI centers around a mother’s (Nargis) dedication and self-sacrifice to both her children and to her community. She in many ways embodies the epitome of feminine strength, duty, and Indian national pride. The historical symbolism and patriotic themes here are far from subtle, and yet never feel on-the-nose. One doesn’t need a comprehensive understanding of regional politics or local ethnic history to appreciate MI, as is the case with all great films that show and don’t tell, and the forcefulness of the film’s social criticism helps clarify the setting in this respect. MI’s narrative is so universal and so cinematic that you’d have to be dumb, deaf, and blind to not understand what’s going on.

The musical sequences are subdued throughout, while the songs themselves are strong and help to emphasize the emotional struggle of Nargis’ protagonist. The film is carried by its down-and-dirty script, though, and works on a variety of interpretative levels. Nargis is the human instrument through which the screenplay delivers its ideological impact. Together, the effective pacing and Nargis’ performance combine to make a worthwhile story that raises the stakes further and further as the film progresses. The movie’s dark, depressed lighting helps to reinforce the downtrodden mood of the film, and the grimy outdoor photography is an added bonus. MI not only omits the melodrama typical of most Hindi films, it also wisely sticks to one genre (drama) the whole way through.

The intimate focus on the film’s main character, played by Nargis, is the film’s greatest weapon. Through her her trials and tribulations, we get a strong, intimate sense of who she is as a woman and a human being. Her relationship with her husband and children, her relationship with her community, and her growth in response to them flesh out a character that is both deep and easy to realize. Nargis plays the role with a visceral quality that defies the passage of time. The simultaneous examination of both her strength and vulnerability is the core from which all the other facets of the narrative extend. Both her community’s struggles and her children’s growth and conflict with their wealthy antagonist are layered on top of Nargis’ memorable, relatable protagonist.

However, the fact that virtually every major supporting character in MI is well written goes a long way towards immortalizing the fame of the movie’s story. Her children learn from and grow in concert with their mother, and the cast of figures that make up the village community also develop realistically as the film progresses. Even the main antagonist, who is, for all intents and purposes, little more than a mustache-twirling stereotype, serves his function in the movie as the man audience loves to hate.

Here, our heroine embodies the role of Shiva the Destroyer.

The movie’s most famous and referenced scene is the climax where Nargis shoots one of her sons, who has “crossed over to the Dark Side,” so to speak. It’s a bit of a stretch, believability-wise, as the plot device of a once good, morally focused character transforming into a dark, tortured, amoral bad-guy is overused in cinema worldwide (e.g. recall Harvey Dent’s comical transformation in The Dark Knight [2008]). Its use here isn’t convincing, either. Nargis’ son’s downfall is abrupt, and the sudden increase in pacing during the last half hour of the film doesn’t help that character transformation feel plausible. This may seem trivial in the grand story, but Nargis’ son going bad is the entire setup and motivation behind the most important scene in the movie! It’s far from a crippling blow to the film, certainly, but it’s enough of a distraction to warrant examination.

With that said, Mother India is a stellar film regardless of its stumbles. It’s probably the best of the Bollywood classics I’ve seen thus far, and its depth and realism go a long way toward building an unforgettable cinematic experience. Put another way, it’s got cinematographic teeth to match its melodrama.


SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Mother India is built atop a foundation of strong screenwriting and memorable visuals. Nargis gives a great performance and works well with the movie’s incredibly depressing score.

However… the actions of certain cast-members are hard to believe; some pacing issues toward the end rush the film’s best scene.

—> Mother India receives MY HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION, though don’t consider this light viewing.

? Does the Dad getting his arms crushed remind anyone else of when Winona Ryder asked Johnny Depp to hold her, and Depp holds up his scissor-hands and goes, “I can’t?” Anyone?

About The Celtic Predator

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