Mother India | 1957 | Movie Review

It is common knowledge that Mother India was India’s first submission to the Academy Awards (and it lost the award by just one vote). But did you know that its original opening sequence showed a hammer and sickle symbol (the sign of the Russian revolution and the logo of Mehboob studios)?

The studio edited it since they had submitted this movie for the Oscars during the cold war anti-communist period. 

That was the extent of producer and studio owner Mehboob Khan’s solidarity with the proletarian struggle. 

The film’s plot is simple – In a village, a poverty-stricken woman named Radha (Nargis), although abandoned by her husband amidst many troubles, works hard to raise her sons Ramu and Birju and survive against a cunning money-lender, Sukhi Lala. It is also one of the handfuls of Bollywood films dealing with filicide. 

This movie ran to packed theatres and went on to win international acclaim. It was dubbed in several European languages and did substantial business in Greece, Spain, Russia, the Eastern Bloc countries, French colonies, Latin American countries and the Arab world. 

But there is much more to the film and its pro-Marxist plot than what remains in the public memory. Khan had sowed the seeds of this film years before it went on floors.

What happened before the film?

Mother India was a remake of a film that Khan had directed 17 years before. It was called Aurat (1940), and it starred Sardar Akhtar, Surendra, Yakub, Kanhaiyalal (who played Sukhi Lala in both films) and Arun Kumar Ahuja (father of actor Govinda). Babubhai Mehta wrote the story for this film.

Aurat was based on a theme used in pro-communist literature around the world, linking feminism to nationalism. It was popularised by Maxim Gorky, who was the face of Soviet Literature as far as the West was concerned.

This theme involves a poor village mother whose life is filled with hardships; her only joy is her son(s). As the story progresses, this woman struggles to balance her traditional values against the new anarchist ideals that her children endorse. 

Mehboob Khan had admitted to being inspired by Pearl S Buck’s Good Earth and The Mother. Both these books shared the “struggling mother” theme and were written by a pro-missionary author. Khan, who had made no pretences about the ideologies of his office and production company, decided to use these influences and remake his 1940 success as Mother India.

There was just one problem. The government wouldn’t let Khan make the film. It was all because of an American woman named Katherine Mayo.

Katherine Mayo’s controversial book – Mother India (1927)

Katherine Mayo was a historian and nativist who was famously known to be hostile towards non-white people. She also promoted racist stereotypes of African Americans. Mayo claimed that “negroes” were sexually aggressive and lacked self-control, thus rendering them a threat to “innocent white Anglo-Saxon women”. 

Regarding the anti-imperialist movement in India in the 1920s, Mayo was unhappy with the pro-Swarajya nationalists calling for the freedom of their beloved ‘Bharat Mata’ (meaning Mother India), and she felt that India would best serve as a cotton-producing colony for the British.

She put down her arguments in a vitriolically Hinduphobic book called Mother India that she wrote after visiting different parts of India. 

In the book, her claims are as follows:

1. Hindu men are weak in character, physique, mind and sexuality. They are incapable of producing anything worthy – an heir, solutions to problems in their society or good leadership for self-governance. 

Narrow-chested, near-sighted, anaemic young Bengali students, in native dress, brood over piles of fly-blown Russian pamphlets.

Inertia, helplessness, lack of initiative and originality, lack of staying power and sustained loyalties, sterility of enthusiasm, weakness of life-vigour itself—all are traits that truly characterise the Indian not only today, but of long-past history.

India’s children fit no action to their words. Poor indeed she is, and sick—ignorant and helpless. But, instead of flinging their strength to her rescue, her ablest sons, as they themselves lament, spend their time in quarrels together or else lie idly weeping over their own futility.”

2. Mayo’s agenda was straightforward – Indian nationalism is anti-women. If that weren’t the case, Hindu men would have taken much better care of their women. Since they have failed that, they would fail in governing themselves too. 

She argued that Hindu women are the most oppressed forms of living in Indian society. They have no say against the sexual, mental and physical abuse committed by their families and communities. Her only chance to have some respect among her peers is to get married well before her puberty and, eventually, produce a son. Till then, she will be tortured by her significantly older husband, his family, her family, the local priest, other women and the rest of society. 

Often by the age of five, when she is considered most desirable, she becomes the priests’ own prostitute.

The mother of a son will idolise the child. She has little knowledge to give him, save knowledge of strange taboos and fears and charms and ceremonies to propitiate a universe of powers unseen. She would never discipline him, even though she knew the meaning of the word. She would never teach him to restrain passion or impulse or appetite. She has not the vaguest conception how to feed him or develop him.

Because of her years and upbringing and because countless generations behind her have been bred even as she, she is frail of body. She is also completely unlettered, her stock of knowledge comprising only the ritual of worship of the household idols, the rites of placation of the wrath of deities and evil spirits, and the detailed ceremony of the service of her husband, who is ritualistically her personal god.

3. The problems in Indian society are because of Hindus and the defence of their faith. They cannot progress as long as they cling on to their religious beliefs.

It is no shame to a Hindu to be “caught in a lie.” You do not embarrass or annoy him by so catching him. His morality is no more involved in the matter than in a move in a game of chess.

With the Hindu comes, first, the ancient religious law of the family-clan; because of this system the public office-holder who fails to feather the nest of his kin will be branded by all his world not only a fool but a renegade, and will find neither peace at home nor honour abroad. No public opinion sustains him. Second, beyond the family line comes the circle of caste. 

 “To the Hindu nothing is false that he wants to believe. Or, all materiality being nothingness, all statements concerning it are lies. Therefore he may blamelessly choose the lie that serves his purpose. Also, when he presents to you the picture that it suits him to offer, it never occurs to him that you might go to the pains of checking up his words at the source.

4) The Hindu Brahman caused all the evils in society. The colonisers keep him in check. 

 “Brahmanic Hinduism broke them, cast them down and tramped upon them, commanded them in their multi-millions to be pariahs, outcasts, ignorant and poor. Then came the Briton, for whatever reason, establishing peace, order, and such measure of democracy as could survive in the soil.

 5) Hinduism is a senseless and violent religion.

Kali is a Hindu goddess, wife of the great god Siva, whose attribute is destruction and whose thirst is for blood and death-sacrificeBlack of face she is, with a monstrous lolling tongue, dripping blood. Of her four hands, one grasps a bleeding human head, one a knife, the third, outstretched, cradles blood, the fourth, raised in menace, is empty. In the shadows close about her feet stand the priests ministrant.

Siva, one of the greatest of the Hindu deities, is represented, on highroad shrines, in the temples, on the little altar of the home, or in personal amulets, by the image of the male generative organ

6) The only hope for Indians is converting to Abrahamic faiths, for they are superior and driven by common sense and liberal values.

Infanticide has been common not with primitive races only but with Greece, with Rome, with nearly all peoples known to history save those who have been affected by Christian or Muhammadan culture. Forbidden in India by Imperial law, the ancient practice, so easily followed in secret, seems still to persist in many parts of the country.

Muhammadan women enjoy great advantages over their Hindu sisters. Conspicuous among such advantages is their freedom from infant marriage and from enforced widowhood, with the train of miseries evoked by each. Their consequent better inheritance, supported by a diet greatly superior to that of the Hindu, brings them to the threshold of a maturity sturdier than, that of the Hindu type.

If the outcastes want not only education but Christian teaching, the persecution, for a time, is all the fiercer, for the caste people are afraid that if the outcastes become Christians they will no longer be available for menial service.

 7) Swarajya is a curse for Indians, for they cannot govern themselves. The Hindu babu and his call for Swarajya caused the Moplah riot. Mayo blamed Hindus for the Moplah riot. That’s right.

They (Muslims) set to work, in earnest and in detail, to establish a Muslim Kingdom and to declare a Swaraj after their own hearts.

 “Behold our miserable bodies! We are defiled, outcasted, unclean, and all because of the serpents who crept among us with their poison of Swaraj. Once let the British leave the land and the shame that has befallen us will assuredly befall you also, Hindus, men and women, every one.

And it should never for a moment be forgotten that when the Muslims of India draw the sword, it will not be as an isolated body but as the advance line of an energy now banked up, like the waters of a brimming reservoir, by the Frontier Defense of the Army.

We didn’t miss noticing that Mayo had no authentic source, literature or expert to back her claims in the book. She uses quotation marks for her bigoted statements to mask credibility. However, at a closer look, she attributes all these statements to anonymous entities whose existence and expertise in Hindu beliefs and point-of-view can be successfully debated. She credits her claims to “public men say”, “India feels”, and “a high caste Brahman man in Calcutta told me”. 

This vile book was widely published and distributed for free in the West and continues to influence how Indian society is perceived in foreign media. Notice how these stereotypes are the same that Hinduphobic elements employ to dehumanise Hindus in and outside India.

Responses to Mayo’s book

The book was severely criticised by the Indian press and leaders of the freedom movement.
Dr Ambedkar and MK Gandhi, who were firmly opposed to each other on political matters, agreed that this book widely misrepresented Indian society. 

Gandhi wrote that this book was the “report of a drain inspector sent out with the one purpose of opening and examining the drains of the country to be reported upon”. Annie Besant called Mother India “a remarkably wicked book slandering the whole Indian people”.

Ambedkar wrote in his book Pakistan or the Partition of India, “While Mother India served the purpose of exposing the evils and calling their authors at the bar of the world to answer for their sins, it created the unfortunate impression throughout the world that while the Hindus were grovelling in the mud of these social evils and were conservative, the Muslims in India were free from them, and as compared to the Hindus, were a progressive people.” 

Lala Lajpat Rai, quoted in Mayo’s book along with Gandhi, wrote another book Unhappy India in response to it. He called her account a “wholesale, indiscriminate vilification of Indian civilisation and Indian character”.

The book and the movie

After gaining much attention for the 1927 book, Mayo went on to write four similar, agenda-driven books on India. Her fourth book, The Face of India (1936), was banned by the government of India.  

When Khan decided to remake his old hit in 1952, he had to clear the script with the authorities, who were worried that this movie would be based on Mayo’s book and thus a possible threat to the national interest. He couldn’t have imported raw stocks to make the film without their permission. 

Khan sent them the script and a two-page letter saying: “There has been considerable confusion and misunderstanding regarding our film production Mother India and Mayo’s book. Not only are the two incompatible but totally different and indeed opposite. We have intentionally called our film Mother India, as a challenge to this book, in an attempt to evict from the minds of the people the scurrilous work that is Miss Mayo’s book.”

Khan convinced the government that the film was a deliberate rebuke to Mayo’s book.

The movie

The movie, however, was far from refuting Mayo’s claim. In his film, Khan infused all the propaganda themes characteristic of Bollywood movies by other left-leaning filmmakers and writers. Instead of challenging Mayo’s views on Hindu society and beliefs, he provided the western audience with more reasons to believe that perhaps Mayo was right after all.

Much like the nativist historian claimed, Khan portrayed Hindu men as weak and incapable of caring for their families. Radha and her young sons are abandoned by her husband Shamu after he decides that he is of no use to his family. Notice the couple’s names – Radha and Shyam Yadav.

Her mother-in-law had taken a loan from the local loan shark Sukhi Lala, who is a cross between a baniya and brahmin character, for her son’s wedding. The older woman had believed her bahu would bring prosperity into the house. Like many Hindus, Shamu’s mother considers that a young bride must be treated like Goddess Lakshmi, who will bless her home with good fortune.

But, as Khan and Mayo point out slyly, it is silly to equate women to Goddesses (Lakshmi or Bharat Ma) because they are just humans with no control over their destiny. Won’t you suffer if your human mata doesn’t grant your wishes?

And so, Radha spends her entire youth trying to settle Sukhi Lala’s cunning debt accounts by toiling hard in the fields. Radha doesn’t have enough to eat, has a series of quick pregnancies, is controlled by her mother-in-law and even sees her children die in natural calamities. Still, she continues to follow her traditional customs and duties.

She arranges for a ceremonial meal for fat brahmins after her mother-in-law’s cremation, even though her children don’t have enough to eat. 

Khan insinuates – How can these cruel brahmins continue to thrive while watching a poor woman starve herself and her children because of their illogical rules? And what is with this silly woman clinging to her ancient values? She should have kept that food for herself.

Kanhaiyya Lal, the actor who played Sukhi Lala in Aurat, plays the same role in Mother India. His character sketch is similar to the Thug Hindu Baniya portrayal of Hindus in Pakistani society and films. To them, all Indians are Hindus, and all Hindus are baniyas. And baniyas are disgusting creatures.

To any Pakistani, the loathsome Hindu baniya is untrustworthy, dishonest, cowardly, back-stabbing and shrewd. 

Here is an interesting fact about this film. Wajahat Mirza, one of the writers of this film, was so inspired by the Pakistani narrative that he went to Pakistan in the 60s to settle down there permanently. He had scripted several anti-Hindu films in Bollywood, like Ganga Jamuna and Mughal-e-Azam.

Anyway, going back to the film…

Lala is the villain responsible for ruining Radha’s home, poverty, loss of land, and many other miseries. Sukhi Lala also doesn’t have any moral scruples. He will make sexual comments about any woman he publicly calls behen or devi

Because of rich people like that Hindu Baniya Lala, people pick up arms against the state – a narrative exploited conveniently by Naxalites, Maoists, terrorists and other criminals. Because of all such oppression by the rich Lala, Radha’s son becomes a dacoit. Khan justifies it.

One of the themes left-leaning filmmakers love is the protagonist cursing or questioning the potency of Hindu Gods/Goddesses they have worshipped so far. Khan wasn’t going to leave a chance to showcase his disdain for idol-worshipping either.

In a scene, Radha is about to give in to Lala’s advances to get food for her starving children in return. Lala says he will adorn her with gold since she looks like Goddess Lakshmi. Suddenly she sees an idol of Devi Ma and says, “Radha k roop mei aayi ho, toh aaj uski izzat lut te hue bhi dekh lo… Maa bankar dekho, tumhare paer bhi dagmagaa jaenge.” 

It roughly translates to – If you have appeared in my form as Radha, then watch me get robbed of my honour today. It is easy being a Devi, but try being a mother, then you will also take the same decision as me.

It was convenient to target Hindus and their beliefs then as much as it is now. Nargis won the Filmfare Best Actress Award in 1958 for this film and married Sunil Dutt, who plays her dacoit son in this film. 

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