|The beginning of the story: Radha (Nargis) as the happy young bride at the joyous communal wedding ceremony. The cost of the wedding is exorbitant. The entire tragic family saga revolves around paying back the sum to the evil landlord Sukhilala.|
Opened by Gian Luca Farinelli, introduced by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur.
Viewed with English subtitles on print and e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly, Bologna (Il Cinema Ritrovato), 28 June 2014
Saaed Mirza (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2024, catalogue and website): “All Hindi films come from Mother India”, an Indian screenwriter once remarked. Exuberantly rich in incident and spectacle, director Mehboob Khan’s film has acquired the status of a national epic over the years. The film unfolds the saga of a peasant woman, whose courage and determination symbolizes the endurance of the nation itself. The rural landscapes of India, the rhythms of village life and the changing seasons are brought alive by evocative colour cinematography in rich earth tones."
The Epic Journey of a Nation
"Mother India was made in 1957, exactly ten years after India gained Independence. Though the film begins a generation before that momentous occasion, strangely enough, it never actually reveals
the face of the colonizing power. Rather, it delves into the rhythm of an agricultural civilization that has existed since time immemorial. And representing this timelessness is Radha, played by Nargis, who combines the characteristics of both Mother Courage and Mother Earth."
"Through her, we traverse the epic journey of a country from darkness to light. Radha’s story begins with her as a young bride who, along with her farmer husband, struggles to make ends meet. Theirs
is a journey of a little happiness and much struggle and sorrow, since most of what their land produces is taken by the village landlord. When Radha and her husband try to fend for themselves
by cultivating a piece of barren land, catastrophe strikes. The husband loses both his arms in an accident, and Radha has to pawn her jewellery to the landlord in order to fend for their three children."
"Later, she will also lose her land to him. Though at this point the film revolves around the theme of an unjust agrarian system, of land and the struggle to make it yield, other factors come into play. The disappearance of Radha’s husband one day, because he cannot bear the humiliation of his incapacity; the death of Radha’s youngest child in a flood. Through all this, we see the saga of Radha, and her indomitable spirit, as the years pass and her two young boys become men."
"The only reference to India becoming a nation comes when Radha appeals to fellow villagers who are attempting to flee the ravages of a great flood, not to abandon their lands and to have faith that
things will change. The villagers return, and in a symbolic shot, regroup into the contours of the map of India. The year is 1947 and India is free."
"The saga now shifts to Radha’s struggle on two fronts: one, to till the land with the help of her sons, and the other, more personal, to tame the rebellious spirit of her younger son who harbours deep anger against the scheming landlord who brought such grief upon his family. In all of this, Radha maintains a stoic dignity that arises from the values ingrained within her. These are the values of a traditional India that has seen a series of destabilizing onslaughts, and yet has held fast and remained unchanged."
"The film ends in independent India, where Radha is invited to inaugurate a small dam that will finally bring water to the parched fields. Hopefully, this is a new beginning that will change the lives of people who have been oppressed for so long." (Saeed Mirza, Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)
Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's introduction (my notes): "This is the first time a retrospective from the Golden Fifties of Indian cinema has been mounted. The films are vanishing - the original negatives do not survive, and the prints are not in good condition.
The 1950s were a time of hope and aspiration, of social idealism.
A new breed of film-makers emerged.
In 1952 the first Indian film festival was arranged. In it, Ladri di biciclette was screened, shot on location, showing true human struggle. That was an important revelation.
The new film-makers had come from small villages to cities, directors such as Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt. They all migrated with a new sense of hope.
It was not easy to choose from a heritage of 70.000 Indian films (at the count of 2013) made in 32 languages, and in the 1950s in three major centers: Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras, in Hindi, Bengali, and other languages.
The selection of 8 films represents all those three major centers.
Mehboob Khan was a silent film actor who founded a film company of his own; its emblems were the hammer and the sickle.
Mehboob Khan shared the vision of Nehru. Mehboob died in 1964 at 57, in the same year as Nehru.
They shared the new vision, the new myth of India. In the newsreel before the feature there is also evidence of that Nehruvian vision. Also an important topic in the newsreel is the visit of Danny Kaye to encourage children to get vaccinated.
We have lost so many Indian films. Most of them are gone. Now there is a new awakening." Shivendra Singh Dungarpur's introduction (my notes)
AA: The mother of Indian cinema.
There is a magnificent flow in this epic of Indian struggle and reconstruction. There is an affinity in the approach to Soviet kolkhoz musicals of Pyriev and Alexandrov.
This is a musical melodrama with both celebration songs of life and laments of life's hardship. It mixes realism and fairy-tale with equal conviction.
There is the splendour of the wedding, and the Festival of Colours, the excess and abundance of the musicals.
The characters are based on stock figures, almost caricatures, elevated to myth.
The terrible mother-in-law figure.
The exploiter-landlord-moneylender Sukhilala whose evil knows no bounds.
The long-suffering mother. A great performance by Nargis.
The prodigal son who turns into a tramp, a village lunatic, and a bandit. Birju is very well acted both as the child actor and the actor of Birju as a young man.
Radha the mother has protected Birju to the end, also when there is a mob out to torch Birju. From the sea of fire mother rescues Birju one final time. There is an atavistic force in these scenes. Birju becomes a bandit leader. There is a bloodbath as Birju comes to wreck the wedding of Rupa. That is the last straw. Radha shoots her own son. Birju gives his mother the bracelets, the symbol of what it was all about.
But in the conclusion there is new hope. A dam is opened, and the water fertilizes the fields.
The realistic element is strong. It is the tragedy of the little farmer financially chained to the landlord-exploiter in a system we in Europe call feudal. The scenes of ploughing, pioneering, removing large stones, and the work montages (starting already during the opening credit sequence) are powerful. This is also a story of illiteracy and loss of education: the farmers are not able to check Sukhilala's cooked account books. Despite the melodramatic-musical mode the performances of the characters and the family tensions are realistic and believable. This is also the story of Radha's lost love, the husband becoming crippled, having lost his both arms. Radha never ceases to miss him.
A few days ago I saw a Swedish film about the conditions in the Swedish countryside in the 1930s, Den enfaldige mördaren, and watching this was struck by the affinities.
The reconstruction of Bharat mata has been conducted from difficult source materials. The opening credits state that it has originally been a print by Technicolor based on Gevacolor negatives, but the colours in the sources available have faded.
Anyway this is an engrossing and unforgettable experience. One of the rare films that achieve the level of myth. The myth of the rebirth of India. And also a psychoanalytical myth of mother and son.