It was interesting to watch Mother India immediately after seeing Aparajito as the last film. Aparajito, like Pather Panchali before it, were good examples of India’s “Parallel cinema” movement, which was sort of an indie-filmmaker reaction to the “Bollywood” mainstream – and Mother India is definitely an example of Bollywood. It’s like I followed up a quiet Sundance film with a Marvel Studios epic. The advantage with different mainstream films – of any genre – is that even if you’ve never seen the films, there’s a chance you’re familiar with the tropes of that genre; you know James Bond films will feature lots of scantily-clad women and spy gadgets, you know superhero films will have lots of guys in spandex costumes having CGI-enhanced battles, you know romantic comedies will have lots of comedic misunderstandings. So I had an idea what I’d be seeing here, despite this being my first Bollywood film.
Now, I know I’ve not had the best luck with musical drama in the past, and I was curious to see how I’d react in this case. So I’m surprised to report that I found myself wanting to know more about the musical sequences in this film. But there’s a good reason for that – the print I saw had subtitles for all the dialogue, but surprisingly did not translate any of the singing. It was easy enough to follow along – there was plenty of evocative posing and dancing – but I was still frustrated over not knowing the lyrics during each of the songs.
The rest of the story was also clear enough to follow that I got that the songs were just adding some commentary. Mother India is a big ol’ epic, following the story of Radha (Nargis), a woman from a poor rural village, trying to raise two sons on her own and keep up with the debt imposed by the predatory moneylender Lala (Kanhaiya Lal). She feels especially trapped by the debt, since the whole reason her mother-in-law took out the loan was to pay for a lavish wedding for Radha and her husband Shamu (Raaj Kumar). However, Lala took advantage of the fact that mother-in-law Sundar (Jilloo Maa) couldn’t read, and tricked her into signing a loan with horrifically inflated terms.
But Radha and Shamu are in love and are both willing to work hard, and at first are convinced they’ll make it. Then Radha has one kid….then a second…and a third….and a fourth. Money gets tighter and tighter, especially with the interest on Lala’s loan, and they have to hock part of their land. Then one of their oxen. Then Shamu has an accident and loses his arms, and out of shame he abandons the family. Then there’s a flood that wipes out their entire crop and most of the village. Then…basically, poor Radha has a run of really hard luck, and Lala shows little to no sympathy.
But somehow Radha hangs in there; the rest of the village is under Lala’s thumb, so there’s a certain amount of community there, and they help Radha raise two sons to adulthood – the kind and dutiful Ramu (Rajendra Kumar), who is quickly married to a village beauty, and the feisty Birju (Sunil Dutt), who’s always suspected something’s not quite fair about how Lala does business. Even as a child Birju had issues with how Lala took most of the family’s crop, and how his mom had to give Lala her wedding jewelry in lieu of a debt payment; and he swore to get his revenge someday. Now, if Birju had been a good student, he could have channeled that urge into some kind of means to expose the corrupt Lala. But…Birju was too stubborn and willful to bother with school, and as an adult is illiterate. So the only options he has left are gambling, burglary, and banditry – habits that bring him to a face-off not only with Lala, but with his own mother.
In India, for its time, this was a pretty socially-aware film, particularly with the amount of agency Radha has. There are a few instances when Lala tells the pretty Radha that there’s another way she can pay off his loans…but each time Radha tells him he can go pound sand. Radha also steps up and takes over the farm after Shamu bails, and in one scene, when the village is nearly obliterated by a mass flood and her neighbors are all getting ready to pack up and leave, Radha (with a song) singlehandedly convinces everyone not only to stay, but to pitch in and help each other clean up. She’s gutsy and determined, and by the end of the film she is revered as an unofficial matriarch to the whole village.
Interestingly enough, that leads me to the only other disappointment I had with this film. There’s a couple scenes towards the end, where Birju is telling her some tall tales about what he’s been up to, where it seems that she loses that toughness and guile and is a little too easily taken in by his stories. Now, this could be because she’s a loving mother who always wants to see her kids in the best possible light; but it felt a little too much like a change of character in those moments, and it bugged me a little.
On the whole, though, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t find the song and dance sequences too weird or corny. They felt a bit hokey, to be sure, but not to the point I couldn’t just shrug and take them in stride. If I’d known what people were actually singing I might possibly have enjoyed them.