Mother India
India 1957
Directed by Mehboob Khan.

A woman leads an utterly crappy and unrewarding life, toiling under the thumb of a cruel and petty moneylender in a village filled with illiterate peasants. It's like the Indian version of GONE WITH THE WIND, in which the we learn the soil, beautiful Tara, is and should always be the center of her life. Replace a nice southern mansion with scraping in the dirt and eating roots, and "as God is my witness, I will never amputate my husband's arms again!" Relentless misery piles on the new wife (Nargis) of a poor man (Raaj Kumar), whose grandmother mortgaged the farm to pay for the wedding.

Nargis gives birth to three kids, while the moneylender takes 3/4ths of their crop to pay the "interest" and leaves them hungry. The village refuses to get the police involved, and so the family continues to try and make it on the small bit of food they get to keep, and allow themselves to be used like this for years. The movie asks us to celebrate their fortitude, but when her children are starving to death and she refuses to allow the moneylender to feel her up for a little grain, you start to wonder where her priorities are. By the end of the movie, she spells it out for those of us who are a little slow, "I can sacrifice a son! But not my honor!" Great. What the hell kind of mom says that? After a while, all her suffering starts to seem self inflicted, and you wonder if maybe she just enjoys all this self-flagellation.

The first half of the film is unrelentingly grim, only enlivened by a delightful child actor, playing her rough and wild son. The second half, when her children have grown, drives home exactly what kind of insular, tedious, and depressingly ignorant lives everyone leads. Her rough son Birju (Sunil Dutt) has grown up into a rough adult, who steals and teases the women. His face is bright red, as if burnt from the son (or as if he were Krishna, or some sort of capricious God). The other son (Rajendra Kumar) is stalwart and upright, like his father, and dumb as a box of rocks and uninteresting, just like his father. He gets married, but his red-faced brother's marriage is rejected, leading him to a life of crime, and ultimately, tragedy. The whole time he curses the moneylender, and one continues to watch the movie hoping, waiting, for someone to kill the bastard.

Mother is dedicated and faithful. Not so much to her sons, as we have seen, but to the land. She pulls the plow like an ox when the oxen have died, she digs in the mud to find food, she convinces the village not to abandon the land when a flood seems to have all but destroyed it. The only true, honest thing a peasant can do is love the land, farm it, live on it, and let nothing else matter. This romance with peasant farming reaches comic heights in MOTHER INDIA. Look, for thousands of years, mankind has worked in the fields. But you know what? It's a crappy, backbreaking job, with little payoff. No one fantasizes about being a farmer, they want to be a prince or princess, someone who has other people doing labor for them. When you import slaves, do you ask them to run the government, because it is such a bother? Hell no, you whip them out into the fields. Why? Because farming sucks. Always has, always will. It wasn't until the rise of communism that suddenly people started pretending that farming was a good thing that everyone should be doing. Soon, movies depicting the glory of peasant life started popping out from Russia, and China. It was no surprise to me to discover that Mehboob, the director of MOTHER INDIA, was a socialist. The film is filled with ideas about the collective village being more important than the individual and disdain for the learning of the upper class, who use knowledge as a cudgel. And farming is placed at the pinnacle of human achievement. I plant, therefore I am.

MOTHER INDIA is one of the all time classics of Indian cinema, much beloved and much imitated. I found it mostly boring and frustrating, but with good performances, good direction, and glorious color. In fact, Mehboob is clearly a great director, some of his shots still composed in the dramatic silent movie style, creating powerful and dramatic tableaux. His style is strongly reminiscent of epic Hollywood productions of the same period.

Scholars love analyzing and re-analyzing the movie over and over again for complex layers of symbolic meaning. An entire chapter is devoted to the movie in Vijay Mishra's book Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. He writes the film has "the principle of hermeneutic containment" and as a result, "somehow transgression needs to be excised from the spectatorial mind." He also suggests that "it is through visual ambiguity that MOTHER INDIA turns a lack into something more, into a nonlack..." At this point, someone should have wrestled the pen from his hand and made him promise never to write another sentence like that again. Instead, he got his book published and he probably earned tenure. But none of his comments helped me appreciate the film more.

Ultimately, MOTHER INDIA didn't really appeal to me personally. In fact, its politics just made me angry. But then, I'd be willing to bet that a viewer who loves epic dramas like GONE WITH THE WIND might really enjoy it. It's also a canonical Indian film, the kind you would likely be forced to watch in a class on Bollywood cinema. For those reasons, I recommend MOTHER INDIA.

Rating: Marginally Recommended (Marginally Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on December 10, 2004.


I didn't find this film to be comic at all. I think it teaches us a lot about nationalism, because it shows us things that are not just ideas from communism but from all nationalisms. One can understand this film better by reading social historian Peter Burke's work on nationalism. Burke identifies three tendencies of nationalism, which are primitivism, communalism and purism. The essay by Burke is in the book "Socialist Theory and People's History" edited by Raphael Samuel. Burke's essay is written in plain language, unlike the book by Vijay Mishra that you quote, which sounds awful.

Posted by: Bradley Tatar at April 16, 2005 03:51 PM

[ED Note: This comment edited to remove the naughty bits. What remains is a good point, which I publish below. A reminder: all counterarguments about movies are welcome. Just keep it clean and try not to speculate about my upbringing overmuch.]

You wrote, "...she refuses to allow the moneylender to feel her up for a little grain....priorities lie.." Honour takes top priority in an Indian woman's life. Being grabbed and pawed by some man who would, in return, give grain for her starving children can probably be the worst thing a woman can face in her life. Even today in some really poor pockets of India, there are women who have to make these choices. And this is sheer pathos.

Posted by: Gayatri Pagdi at March 9, 2007 12:26 AM

For a website claiming to be "revealing the heart of Asian Cinema" your review seems to be completely lacking any perspective or compassion. Usually astute in your judgment of a film, it seems this time cynicism has got the better of you. But then I find 'Casablanca' pretty boring so maybe it is all about a cultural disconnect.

Posted by: Saif Khan at December 13, 2007 03:09 AM

Saif -

I hear you, and I think I agree. In fact, this film did get the better of me. It made me angry. Nationalistic fervour is trying at the best of times, and here I was unable to find any character I could feel truly sympathetic towards. I'll revisit the film in the future and see if it inspires a re-evaluation.

Gayatri -

No one should ever be put in such a position to make such a terrible choice. But in the movie she is, and her response is to place her own ideals ("honor") over the lives of her children. I distrust people who are willing to die for ideals, and people who are willing to kill their own children for them are not people I care to celebrate.

Bradley -

Thank you for the book rec. I have located it in my local library and so far it has been a good read.

Posted by: PTN at April 17, 2008 12:10 AM
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