Mother India (1957)
Director: Mehboob; Writer: Mehboob; Producer: Mehboob; Cinematographer: Faredoon Irani; Editor: Shamsudin Kadri; Cast: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar, Rajendra Kumar, Kanhaiyalal, Jilloo, Kumkum, Master Sajid, Sitara Devi
Duration: 02:47:17; Aspect Ratio: 1.333:1; Hue: 35.921; Saturation: 0.080; Lightness: 0.330; Volume: 0.158; Cuts per Minute: 9.690; Words per Minute: 38.000
This film has acquired the status of an Indian Gone with the Wind
(1939), massively successful and seen as a national epic, although formally the film’s rhythms and lyrical ruralism seem closer to Dovzhenko’s later work finished by Yulia Solntseva. Radha (Nargis), now an old woman, remembers her past: her married life with two sons in a village. The family have to work extremely hard to pay off the avaricious moneylender, Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal) and her husband (Raj Kumar), having lost both arms in an accident, leaves her. Alone, she has to raise the children while fending off the financial as well as sexual pressures from Sukhilala. One son dies in a flood and in later years her son Birju (Dutt, Nargis’s later husband) becomes a rebel committed to direct, violent action, while the other one, Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), remains a dutiful son. In the end, the long-suffering Mother India can only put an end to her rebellious son’s activities by killing him, as his blood fertilises the soil. The film is a remake in colour and with drastically different imagery of Mehboob’s own Aurat (1940), notably in the heavy use of psychoanalytic and other kinds of symbolism (the peasants forming a chorus outlining a map of India). Its spectacular commercial success was ironically noted in Vijay Anand’s Kala Bazaar
(1960) when Dev Anand is shown selling tickets on the black market for Mother India’s premiere. Mother India’s plot and characters became the models for many subsequent films, including Ganga Jumna
(1961) and Deewar
Song: Dharti mata jeewanbhar hum tere hi gun gaaye
vertical pan shot
The first dissolve
Indic marriage circles
Lahore-Bombay cinematic nexus
hindu marriage ceremony
Song: Pee ke ghar pyaari dulnaniya chali
hindu bridal homecoming ceremony
The afterlife of silent cinema
Song: Matwala jiya dole piya
Song: Chandariya katati jaaye re
The crushing of the hands: castration
Song: Nagari nagari dwaare dwaare
Song: Jeevan mein aaye hain toh jeena hi padega, jeevan hai zehar toh peena hi padega
Radha sells herself to feed the children
Song: O jaane waalo jao na ghar apna chhod ke, maataa bulaa rahi hai tumhe haath jod ke
A harvest song featuring girls swinging and singing as in the clip from Rattan. The swing sequence is centred around Kumkum who at this point in the film is the fiancee of Rajendra Kumar, Nargis's elder son. The song as it is sung covers a long period in history as the villagers led by Nargis rebuild their homes and farmsteads after devastation by floods. The upbeat quality of the song signals the happiness of the villagers played out to the typical beat of a collective harvest song. The lyrics too refer to the passage of bad times.
The film was directed by Mehboob Khan who was married to Sardar Akhtar, sister of AR Kardar's wife. A line can be traced between the filmic styles of the two filmmakers as they worked very closely together and made films around similar issues, one of them being the issue of sexuality in the transition from feudal India to modernity. Both made woman-centric films.
The links between the filmic preoccupations of the two directors will become clearer when we look at the second set of clips from Rattan and Mother India.
Song: Dukh bhare din beete re
Song: Ghunghat nahin kholungi sayya tere aage
Song: Na mai bhagwaan hun, na mai shaitaan hun
tight rope walking
Song: O gaadi waale gaddi dheere
Song: Holi aayi re
This song from Mother India too unfolds in the presence of the Shiva statue as did the song in the second clip from Rattan. So what about songs on swings and songs sung in the presence of Shiva in the two films?
Swings and Shiva statues hark back to older pastoral traditions of fairs where young boys and girls came and set up romantic relationships or marriages were fixed. The girls would play on swings, dance and sing. The boys who as neophytes on the edge of agrarian martial maturity and were therefore under the sign of the yogi Shiva would come to woo the girls. Songs on swings denote feminine fertility as does the festival of Holi. Although both traditions get associated with a Vaishnav celebration of human sexuality the sign of Shiva remains powerful in such feudal martial traditions. This is because Shiva is the ideal husband that girls are supposed to pray for. But also the fact that young boys in their days as brahmacharis, when they are being trained for warfare, remain under the sign of Shiva until they transit to the Vaishnavism of mainstream Indic caste life plays a significant marker in such songs. Plus Shiva is always the yogi in search of his lost consort whose anger t that loss needs to be appeased by all couples on the edge of sexual relationships.
Interestingly enough Birju, the younger son of Nargis, Mother India, played by Sunil Dutt, is throughout the film given Shaivite yogic markers by Mehboob. This is all the more interesting since his name Birju is a name for Krishna although it could also mean 'semen' which would then swing the sense of his name towards Shiva. Here too, we see the polymorphous semanticity of the cultural matrix underlying feudal Indic lives in the countryside.
Historically we need to take into account that between Rattan in 1944 and Mother India in 1957 we might be seeing through the elaboration of a 'tradition' of play with certain common tropes in Bombay cinema (here the swing songs and songs sung in the presence of Shiva) the shifts in the socio-cultural economy for such tropes. While Rattan places such a cultural matrix as described above in the relatively gentrified upper echelons of society to which Swarnalata belongs by 1957 the same cultural matrix is squarely placed at the threshold of 'Village India' by Mehboob. Swarnalata as noted in my annotation for the clips from Rattan can switch codes between the gentrified and the 'rustic', can substantially play the wooing game in older 'folk' ways. She can be urbane and 'folk' at once. By 1957 we see that such a world is 'naturalised' in what commonsensical Indic thinking in modern times would deem as the 'folk', a 'folk' that would be located in a fetishised way in the village exclusively.
The world depicted in Rattan should not be misread as the appropriation of the 'folk' by an urbane filmmaking community in order to play out its fantasies or as a clever ploy by the industry to present a gamut of cultural codes within the frame of a single film to reach out to a culturally variegated audience profile. What Rattan depicts was very much real for North and North-West India. Much would have changed by the time Mehboob makes Mother India. For example, it would be interesting to compare the relationships between the main protagonists of Rattan and that between Birju and the moneylender Sukhilala's daughter. While the first relationship across class and caste is a lyrical one, the one between Birju and the moneylender's daughter is defined by an impossibility of marital relationships across such divides. Piquant raunchy sexuality is possible but not lyrical coupledom. Suhilala's daughter is probably destined for the city while Birju will languish in the village. The exclusive location of this crisis in 'Village India' in Mother India might thus indicate an absolute caesura by the 1950s between countryside and city in terms of biradari marriage circles. The point to remember is that decoding the art direction of Mother India-couture, architecture, design etc. will reveal the 'modern' nature of the village Mehboob is showing us. This modernisation has been precisely possible in the main through the maintenance of marriage circles between city an countryside by biradari diktat, by institutions such as the khap. Thus films from the 1940s such as Rattan might be seen as inaugurating an enunciation of the problem as it begins to congeal in ideological ways for communities and thus does not play up the city-countryside issue but speaks mainly of class power as divisive of marriage circles. It can still speak of the crisis in terms of affect. By 1957 we are seeing a film that speaks of the same things but one which foregrounds the 'Vlllage' as the problem and making the affect issue recede even into the domain of the perverse. According to these films it seems. 'Village India' is something that then emerges as a coterminous phenomenon along with the modern Indic city through successive fragmentation of marriage circles of feudal fraternities.
So, are we seeing here a loss of historical complexity of Indic religion-class-caste realities? Or are we looking at a complex transformation of a set of cultural relationships that nevertheless express themselves through a stable set of cultural codes selected by certain filmmakers in Bombay to talk about the transformation of feudal India in modern times? One way of looking at these set of films and many others from this period would be to see a crisis in kinship based marriage circles within feudal systems where there is always a paranoia of the man or the woman going up in class through economic mobility therefore exiting from earlier marriage circles within fraternities. Such mobility would place the entire imagination of feudal systems into deep crisis. So the 'caste' Other in these films can be read as shorthands for those in kinship circles who have now been 'left behind' by the cutting edge of community upward mobility. Rattan and Mother India deal with situations where the girl moves up the class order leaving the man behind (yet another echo of the 'class' tensions in the Shiva-Sati story). Another set of films set in the Punjab or thereabouts would speak of urban heroes falling in loving with village belles, suffering from amnesia and then forgetting his love (a Shakuntala kind of story). He is always on the verge of marrying his social class equal when the deus ex machina intervenes and the original couple reunited. Similarly films coming from an Islamicate feudal setting that speak of childhood love need to be seen within the logic of cross-cousin marriages.
In both films the combination of swing songs celebrating unfettered female sexuality and in Rattan the Shiva statue in some ways legitimising socially problematic sex gives way to an ambiguous reading of the Shiva statue as signifying status trouble in sexual relationships in the circuit between city and countryside and India modernises in a particular manner from the 1940s onwards. The swing between Vaishnava and Shaivite elements of filmic iconography are ways in which these tensions are enumerated in many films from this period. An ethnographically informed cultural reading of the feudal ethos from which these films emerge would reveal the entire gamut of so-called 'syncretistic' iconography and modes of worship in feudal India masked the political forces the deities within a polydeistic universe represented. The exemplary work by a historian such as Indrani Chatterjee is moving in a direction where the installation of deities in villages are intimately related to issues of sexual and social reproduction of clan power and clan fissioning that produce the castes of India. To put it bluntly, the lower castes of today were the commensal and sexual equals of the superior within the jati hierarchy some time back.
And it is in this sense that bhakti or Sufic syncretism makes sense. Such cults are mainly run by a combination of low caste householder devotees and unhappy men thrown out of marriage circles by clan politics who run the cults at the head of things. That they speak of syncretism is precisely the pharmakon in the system-to speak about the constellation of deities back home being One in order to to counteract the war of the deities heading clans. It is also a manner in which men who cannot marry due to caste-class calculus come to terms with celibacy by exorcising the fantasies of sexual love mathematically denied to them by a play of clan numbers. At least in theory!
The point that this annotation is making is that Hindi cinema needs to be located within an ethnographic reality even if films are palpably fantasies. It is the ethnographic basis of modern Indian fantasies coming out of a feudal landscape that needs to be understood even to understand the manner in which fantasies are created to deflect a direct presentation of a cultural crisis through a set of displacements and condensations (for example the childhood love motif might displace the actual of cross-cousin marriage crises in islamicate India and condense fruitfully through dialogue with the commercial and cultural success of a film such as Devdas produced from another culture also centred on childhood romance). Such moves obscure and still manage to hint at the kinship crises at the heart of Hindi cinema from the time of the talkies. The onset of the talkies in North Indian cinema very quickly gets almost exclusively located within a larger matrix of kinship crisis in a very peculiar way. Things cannot be hinted at directly since these are internal community 'secrets' that would shame the community if presented directly without the mediation of fantasy. Nevertheless they need to be said out aloud in public. Why cinema gets hijacked to talk incessantly of such troubles so substantially and in such powerfully public ways is something that we might need to think through now.
bullet shoulder belt
hindu bridal procession
Mother kills son; dam inaugurated.