Saturday, September 10, 2011

The oldest Indian film I've seen


Epic/ Melodrama
Directed by Mehboob Khan – Written by Wahajad Mirza, S. Ali Raza, Mehboob Khan
Starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar

The 54-year old classic has been overdue on my watchlist for a long time, so yesterday I finally pluck up courage and flung my DVD into the player. After all, it's the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award (it was also India's first submission ever). Plus, it's one of the two single Indian films included in the famous "1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die"-book.
Realizing I'm not used to these overlong Melodramas anymore, I took a break at the Interval, finishing the whole thing this noon. Fun fact: the film is actually shorter than K3G, MOHABBATEIN and many tomes from the turn of the millennium.

I had only a vague idea of what this epic was all about (something with a strong female lead), and was surprised by the settled yet dramatic narration, which in many aspects reminded me of MUGHAL-E-AZAM (third oldest Indian film I've seen). Both films have eventually been colorized, however, I'd like seeing the original version, as the colorization is quite poor at times. 

As often in family dramas, the film revolves around pretty much the same subjects and problems all the time, while the years go by - love/ marriage, poverty and motherhood, to name the most important ones. What's special though, is the importance of the female lead, no, the fact that there is a female lead is extraordinary in itself. As we are speaking, female-centered films are slowly beginning to stabilize their position in Hindi cinema, but they have been an exception most of the time. Also, one must keep in mind that in the 50s, there hadn't even been a women's movement in Europe yet, and that even in Hollywood female-centered films were rare. MOTHER INDIA was my first encounter with one of India's most beloved actresses, Nargis. She is a woman with a very interesting face, revealing her beauty at the second sight only. I'm not sure whether she would be considered a good actress, if she'd belong to today's generation of actresses, as her acting style is quite dramatic, but at that time, in that film, she deserves being called one of the greatest actresses of India. At first, I thought that Sunil Dutt played the character of Radha's husband, but turns out he played Birju. Well, he didn't really impress me.

Director Mehboob Khan is known to be one of the pioneers of Indian cinema, however after MOTHER INDIA his career slowly came to an end. Most of his films are rather unknown today. 

Aside from demonstrating the strength of India's population by means of the unconquerable woman Radha, and thereby being utterly patriotic, MOTHER INDIA simply is a milestone in the filmic landscape of India. It revolutionized the technical aspects of Hindi filmmaking, as direction and cinematography were quite obviously inspired by the Hollywood blockbusters of that time, it successfully displayed the zeitgeist, and in a whole, it cleared the way for a modern Indian cinema that combines Indian tradition and culture with inspiration from the western hemisphere. 

This being said, there are some things regarding MOTHER INDIA that personally turned me off a little; 
  • The patriotism - Surely important for the then still young Indian society, that had finally escaped the British regime, it seems badly pretentious to a foreign viewer like me. Also, I'm German, so I've been brought up with a dislike against patriotism. 
  • The many songs - An annoying factor that can still be found in certain newer releases, or at least throughout the films of the 90s and beginning 2000's. Songs are nice, and as I heard Ashutosh Gowariker say in an interview, they can be very important, if they either bring forward or underline the story, or give you a very welcome break. What he also said: songs can be annoying, and let the viewer drift away in the wrong kind-of-way. That's what happened to me after the 6th song.
  • The male/female relations - Sure, it's very sweet and innocent if girls and boys get ashamed by just looking each other in the eyes and everything, and even though this can also get annoying after a while, I'm able to stand it because of the context and the time. But: if a married woman get's ashamed by her husband touching her or looking at her, I'm about to roll my eyes out of their sockets. It's not just the woman who finds this inappropriate, though - same goes for all the other people like the mother etc. Gosh, I'm happy I didn't live in that era. 
  • There's a little kitschy-ness to this film as well, mostly due to the patriotism.
Maybe I've scared you off now, but it's not as bad as it seems. Also, if you haven't seen this film yet, it'll be hard for you to call yourself a Bollyphile, so there's nothing else to do than just jump into the cold water.

Rating: 7.0


  1. Good review Mette, this looks like something I should watch. After seeing Ray's The Music Room recently, I am interested in learning more about this period of Indian cinema.

  2. Mother India is one of those films I rate 10/10, though obviously no film is perfect in thte end... However all the possible shortcoming were just blown away by everything amazing.

  3. Bonjour Tristesse - Watching Ray's films is on my to-do list, too - I mean, they're so famous, I can't miss them. Lovely to hear that you're taking interest in Indian cinema, this period is, as much as I know, very important. I should watch some more classics.

    Gaja Gamini - You're probably right. At least I've never seen "The Perfect Film", so I guess there's always going to be something to criticize, no matter how tiny that thing is. Films I rate 10/10 can never be perfect, but still, Mother India didn't impress me as much as other films have done.


Let the discussion begin!