Mehboob Khan's Mother India is one of the most influential films in Indian cinema history, on continuous show in the country for more than 40 years.
The basic story of a woman beset by tragedy and beholden to a pitiless moneylender, driven to kill her rebellious son to uphold the honour of her community inspired the director so much that he filmed it twice. My own childhood memory of the film is of a sad tale of food shortages and the plight of farmers. Watching it 25 years later, I find a strongly gender-oriented film on the issue of "motherhood" as an eternal theme of Indian women.
Gayatri Chatterjee's book offers convincing interpretation and analysis, describing the director's intentions and the film's phenomenal success over the past four decades. She highlights the way the film mimics the mythic process by borrowing from Indian mythology; and shows how the film draws on mythological representations of the qualities and virtues portrayed as right for Indian women. She draws attention to the portrayal of Radha (the heroine, played by Nargis Dutt) in the form of Mother Earth, as Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity) and also as a consort of Krishna (the personification of love).
Indeed, the film was justified to the censors by its focus on the mother "round whom revolves everything that is sacred and glorious in our culture, tradition and civilisation". As Chatterjee points out, images of motherhood can stand, in a patriarchal society, for strong ideals of community and stability, but can also draw attention to the efforts required of women in such a society. In the late 1950s, the film would certainly have appealed to the Indian audience because of the extraordinary moral and emotional strength of its heroine, a quintessential feature of the idealised Indian woman and her association with divinity.
To make sense and to make an impact, Mother India has to be viewed in the context of the economic, political and social changes that came about in the immediate post-independence era of nation-state building. The film highlights some of the developmental issues facing India, including illiteracy, lack of credit facilities in remote villages, gender roles and so on. The very title evokes nationalistic feelings and the memory of India's struggle for freedom. The idea of the nation as mother was open to exploitation by advocates of colonialism and their opponents. In the arts, the idea became an important tool for nationalism and the freedom movement, of which this film is an example. When the film was released in 1957 (on the tenth anniversary of independence) India was dependent on American food aid. Growing more food was an important national campaign for India. The image of Radha with her plough - strong, beautiful and earthy - formed the centrepiece of the main publicity poster.
Chatterjee shows us how the film creates an image of India, using characters to personify abstract qualities: beauty and goodness, wealth and power, poverty and exploitation, community spirit or spiritual malaise.
Overall, her analysis is insightful as well as informative, critical as well as appreciative.
Vandana Desai is senior lecturer in geography, Royal Holloway, University of London.
Author - Gayatri Chatterjee
ISBN - 0 85170 917 6
Publisher - BFI Publishing
Price - £8.99
Pages - 87