Mother India sits right at the top and shares the seat with just a handful of other movies as one of the best films ever made in Indian Film History. Deservedly, it also garnered an Oscar Nomination for Best Foreign Film - a first for Bollywood. Need I say more? Let me try...
Five years after her wedding, Radha, a regular village girl finds she has been abandoned by her husband (who leaves her in despair) and left to cope with his never-ending debt to Shuki Lal, the village "Munshi". To feed her children, Radha toils like a farm-animal and is able to save just enough food to eventually bring up her children. The injustice to and torture of their mother is interpreted in opposite ways by her children: while the elder Ramu is humble and just, the younger Birju who seethes with hatred for Sukhi Lal turns outlaw. While Radha tries to bring back Birju with love, Birju plans to finish Sukhi Lal's debt once and for all.
Mehboob Khan had made some good movies in his career, including a milestone first all-colour (technicolor) Bollywood feature. But nothing could have hinted at the brilliance to come in his waning years. Defying a very many stereotypes, his was the first major Hindi film with a female protagonist, a cowardly abandoning husband (how RajKumar, men of men, agreed for that role is another story), no definitive hero-heroine pairs, etc. He tells the 172-minute story in flash-back as a memory of an old Radha inaugurating irrigation canals in her village. Taking his titular heroine through happiness, desolation, compulsion and resignation, he transformed box-office darling Nargis into an actress nothing short of a legend. We see her go from an innocent bride to an anguished mother to a revered "Mother" of the village.
Nargis herself is most remembered for this career-defining and image-breaking portrayal (soon after which she married Sunil Dutt, who portrayed her bitter son Birju*). Sunil Dutt was a very under-rated actor, for the simple reason that all his great performances were never title characters, and were over-shadowed by more famous co-actors. His Birju is played with such realism and conviction that even today many comedians mimicking Sunil Dutt are actually mimicking Birju.
The director's production team does work beyond their era and workstyle to create the look of the people and place over time. From famine to flood for the backdrop, youth to old-age for Radha and from bright to dirty earthen to faded colours, the team wins complete involvement of the audience by filling our visual and audio sense with realism just next to reality. The director chose to spend more of his limited budget on these aspects, and in turn had to sacrifice on the equipment he could use to capture the sights and sounds that were being realised: the movie was made on 35mm and mono-sound.
Surprisingly, something I have noted as not being mentioned anywhere in literature connected to this movie is how without obviously being so, Mehboob created the most patriotic of Indian movies. The only give-away is in his choice of title Mother India. Depicting his motherland as a repressed and abandoned woman, and her children as peace-loving Gandhi-Ramu or rebellious Bose-Birju, Mehboob layers his movie with such fierce passion, it is impossible not to be overwhelmed by it.