Book Review
Mother India
London:  British Film Institute (BFI) Publishing, 2002.
Part of BFI Classics Series.  Rob White, Series Editor

By Gayatri Chatterjee

Reviewed by Christian Lee Novetzke
University of Pennsylvania


Mother India

Reviewed by Christian Lee Novetzke

[1] In the first frame of the 1957 film Mother India, the camera holds close on the wizened face of a venerable village woman.  Chatterjee invokes the striking image:  "her skin [is] the same colour as the earth she is sitting on, her face and hands as wrinkled as the dry mud" (22).  From this singular initial impression, Mehboob Khan, the film's director, spins his narrative about the life of a woman named Radha, played by the cinema star Nargis, who lives through the hopes and traumas of a quotidian Indian village through the latter years of colonialism and into the post-1947 era of Indian Independence.  Over almost half a century, Mother India, as Chatterjee asserts, has become less of a film and more of a cultural phenomenon, drawing unto itself a representative status as a codified history of the Indian nation (83).

[2] Chatterjee approaches Mother India, in her book of the same title, with clarity and wit, expanding on specific observations and details in a way that invokes the same sense of depth in minutiae that Mehbood elicits in his first scene.  Chatterjee makes copious use of archives, such as those housed in the offices of Mehboob Productions in Bombay, as well as interviews with several key members of the film's production team, including one of its famous male stars, Sunil Dutt.  She takes the innovative step of constructing a consistent comparison with an earlier film by Mehboob, Aurat (Woman), made in 1940, and she elaborates on possible authorial intentions via this comparative mode (47).  Throughout her text she intertwines narratives about censorship battles and creative license; intrigues on the set and among primary figures in the film's production; the reception of the film to national and international acclaim (it lost the "Best Foreign Language Film" Oscar by a single vote); contemporary receptions to a film made in the "Golden Age" of Indian cinema; and biographical sketches that give depth to the performances we can observe on the screen.  Indeed, the medium of the biography, of the life story set amid the stories of other lives and times, is Chatterjee's model:

 [3] Like the biography of a person, an account of a film chronicles both the time when the film was made and the time when the account is written.  It tells of people and objects, other films, literature, music and the arts, numerous beliefs and practices belong to both these periods (80-81).                     

 [4] Of the carefully selected stories Chatterjee explores in her book, the most salient is that of religion in modern India, or what she at times also calls "mythology" (10, 30) in reference to religious narratives (as opposed to religious practice).  In particular, Chatterjee traces out Mehboob's engagement with religion in the construction of a quasi-secular nationalist ethos.  Throughout the text, the author draws our attention to the complicated role religion plays in Mother India and in the cultural field of its production; in doing so, she paints a vivid image of the valence of religion within public culture in South Asia.

[5] Chatterjee details how religious metaphors play out in the film.  She notes at the onset that Mehboob makes his semiotics plain enough (10):  the primary character is named Radha, the forlorn lover of Krishna; her husband is Shyamu, another name for Krishna; her two sons (a third dies in infancy), Ramu and Birju, refer to two of Vishnu's most famous incarnations or avatars: the righteous king Ram and the young trickster Krishna, famous for his flirtations with village girls.  Early in the film, her husband, Shyamu, is injured while working in the field and is unable to assist the family.  Seeing himself as a liability, he leaves home, deserting his wife and children.  Chatterjee notices this as an invocation of the mythological relationship between Radha and Krishna:  the former is forever lamenting her abandonment by the latter, an aesthetic trope called viraha or separation (30).  Chatterjee establishes viraha as a foundational leitmotif of the remainder of the film, played out in various kinds of dislocation and suffering brought on by the greed of a moneylender, the deprivations of draught, and crush of poverty.  The author connects the latter motif of poverty to viraha; she points out that even when Shyamu and Radha were together, the ceaseless work of the fields kept them forever drawn apart, "Unlike the divine couple, Radha and Shyamu cannot spend time in loveplay; they work in the fields shoulder to shoulder-as equals" (32).  This is an important observation in Chatterjee's critical treatment because it establishes one fount of Radha's inner strength in the film, her physical endurance and intimacy to the soil of India, achieved in her own right as a woman.  Furthermore, Chatterjee writes, "The last possession an impoverished family holds on to is dignity; and it falls on women to guard that on behalf of family and community.  Women, indeed, come to signify that last possession" (52).  This observation runs to the heart of the film and its gendered metaphorical treatment of the history of the Indian nation, characterized by Mehboob in bouts of suffering and moments of success, but always with an aura of dignity.

[6] Mehboob's mythic-religious associations with his female protagonist extend beyond an association with the Goddess Radha, who is Radha's namesake.  In one of the film's early scenes, Mehboob depicts Radha's marriage to Shyamu, juxtaposing her radiance as a young bride to the previous, opening scene, that of Radha aged and worn.  In the wedding scene, Radha is associated-as many brides are in Hindu marriage ceremonies-with the Goddess of wealth and prosperity, Lakshmi.  Chatterjee enumerates these multiple religious associations:

 

In the course of fifteen minutes, the woman [the character of Radha] is identified with three Hindu goddesses, connected with different religious traditions and discourses, signifying for the devotee various boons and benefits:

 

1)      Dharti-mata or Mother Earth:  productivity and stability.

2)      Lakshmi: beauty, wealth and prosperity.

3)      Radha: consort of Krishna and the personification of love. (28-9)            

 

[7] The interplay among these religious representations as patterns in the film, particularly between Mother Earth and Lakshmi, is enumerated by Chatterjee, who asserts that "some mythical elements are mutated, some are changed, turned upside down-subverted even," forcing religion/myth and contemporary Indian public culture into "dialogue" as well as "conflict" drawn out on a mythical plane (31).  For example, Chatterjee traces the relationship between Radha and the film's key antagonist, Sukhi-lala, a parasitic moneylender (55).  Within his home, the moneylender worships the idol-images of the Goddesses of Wealth (Lakshmi) and Knowledge (Saraswati); as Chatterjee says, the two Goddesses are "in Lala's possession" (63) and Lala himself calls Radha, whom he hopes to possess sexually, "Lakshmi" when she enters his house (55).  Radha and her children, however, are never shown conducting ritual worship to idol-images (57).  Chatterjee intimates, though does not explicitly say, that the reason for Radha's lack of outward devotionalism lies in her own hallowed status, that of "Mother India," or India itself personified as a Goddess (Ibid.).  Chatterjee does point out that popular depictions of a relatively new, national Goddess, Bharat Mata, likewise combine elements of Lakshmi and Saraswati, just as Mehboob does in his construction of Radha's character in his film (49-50).  Perhaps Mehboob saw in the Goddess Radha, the bereft but powerful lover of Krishna, a mythic-religious alternative metaphor for the Indian nation than Lakshmi, Saraswati, or their composite, the nationalist deity Bharat Mata?

[8] A second explicit engagement with mythic-religious imagery and metaphor registers through the characters of Radha's sons, Ramu and Birju.  As Chatterjee explains, Ramu is associated with the hero, Rama, of the epic tale, the Ramayana.  In the epic, Ram is a just king who upholds his duty as a ruler to a fault, literally; his fault, as some commentators have suggested, is precisely in his strict sense of obedience to social and religious order, a singular attention to kingly righteousness that ultimately leads him to doubt and humiliate his wife, Sita.  Birju, on the other hand, is associated with Krishna, but specifically with Krishna as a trickster, as a disobedient child, but as a child devoutly loved (again, perhaps to a fault) by his mother, who endures his willfulness and mischievousness (44-45).  Both Ram and Krishna are, of course, incarnations of a single deity, Vishnu; and Mehboob seems to use this fact to present a composite male character with Radha's two children, emphasizing conformity and rebellion as two sides of a coin.  Chatterjee insightfully links this dichotomous metaphor to a critique of Independence and nationalism current in Mehboob's day (as well as today).  She notes that Gandhi's "invocation of ram rajya," an allusion to the glorious and just past of India portrayed in the Ramayana epic and the rulership of Rama, had always contended with competing imaginations about the shape and function of the Indian state, particular by those who "saw ram rajya as an unrealised dream" (73).  This critique of Rama's idealized reign transposed into contemporary Independent India is borne out in the film through Radha's sons.  As Chatterjee writes, "throughout the film Ramu is shown as a less-than-attractive narrative agent, initiating nothing and achieving nothing" (Ibid.).  Noting that two pre-Independence writers and activists, B. G. Tilak and B. C. Chatterjee, had tried, in their work, to turn the God Krishna into a figure of nationalist emancipation, Chatterjee sets Birju in contradistinction to Ramu:  "Birju makes it his life's mission to oppose the moneylender and does what Shyamu [his father] never dared" (74).  Yet Birju, unlike the God Krishna, is a tragic figure who, at the end of the film, is killed by his own mother for murdering the moneylender, Sukhi-lala. 

[9] Chatterjee enticingly notes the Oedipal circle completed by this last desperate act of Radha and in the process, gives us a fascinating glimpse into the role of censorship in early cinema in Independent India.  As Birju lies in his mother's lap, dying of the wound she inflicted, he holds out to her the wedding bracelets that she had been forced to sell to the moneylender during the famine that opens the film.  The censor board demanded that this particular shot be deleted and so it was.  Chatterjee speculates:

 

The authority displayed no objection to the representation of a parent killing a child; but, the depiction of an unruly criminal son as the only one capable of restoring Radha's dignity [symbolized by the wedding bracelets] was clearly unacceptable.  Or perhaps they saw the kangan [wedding bracelets] only as a marital sign and were worried about the incestuous implications here.  They would have been acutely aware of the fact that this son's name means the same as that of the father's.  On the other hand, this representation might be one of the principal reasons for the film's popularity (70).

 

[10] A third engagement with the theme of religion, and perhaps Chatterjee's most innovative one, appears in the multiple layers of production that she investigates.  She notes that Mehboob, whose full name was Mehboob Ramzan Khan, was a Muslim who regularly performed namaz or prayers (13, 74) and possibly completed the pilgrimage or haj to Mecca (80), yet demonstrated a cultural fluency with Hinduism that allowed him to construct a narrative thoroughly and intricately engaged with Hindu mythic-religious matters.  In Mother India and other films, Mehboob displays his intolerance for "mindless devotion, unquestioned adherence of rituals and god-dependence" (74).  Chatterjee points out that few religious practices are depicted in the film, unless they are presented in order to be critiqued (Ibid.).  When, for example, Birju leaves home for some time, he seeks out religious solace among ascetics, but finds only "a set of no-good, hashish-smoking idlers"; yet, as Chatterjee flags for us, he remains himself in the garb of an ascetic during his travels (66). 

[11] Among the cast of the film, we see a diversity of religious traditions:  Muslim, Hindu, and Parsi.  For example, Nargis, a Muslim, and Sunil Dutt, a Hindu, established a celebrated off-screen romance that resulted in a love-marriage a year after the release of the film, a situation that troubled Mehboob not because of its religious significance, but because he feared that audiences would find an on-screen mother and her child duo unacceptable as off-screen lovers.  Yet, Chatterjee tells us, "The Bombay film industry was an oasis of communal harmony in the post-Partition [post-Independence] period-it remains largely so even now" (68).

[12] The question of communal or religious "harmony" at work in the film and its phenomenon is, unfortunately, an arena that Chatterjee does not fully enter.  One wishes she would have made more explicit the particular operation of religion in the context of the nationalist imagination of Mother India, and how it differs from the mixture of religion and politics that political commentators characterize today as the Hindu Right.  In a note, Chatterjee does indicate that such a project is within her sights as she states in relationship to the God Krishna as a nationalist icon, "Krishna would gradually lose this position and the representation of Ram [Rama] would become, from the late 1980s onwards, [a] principal icon for a resurgence of militant nationalism" (85n35).  Perhaps this shift in imagery and ideology is not as late as Chatterjee suggests but is present in Mehboob's film, or foreshadowed, in any case, in the contentious rivalry between Ramu and Birju?

[13] Yet one must be careful not to ask too much of an author who has already given her audience so much.  Chatterjee's treatment of Mother India is masterful in its eloquence, written in such a way as to woo the reader into its pages.  As a text to be used in teaching undergraduates, for example, it must stand as exemplary.  The ease of prose, concise presentation, liberal illustrations, coupled with the sharp intelligence and insight Chatterjee delivers, renders the subject open to all levels of students.  Read in conjunction with the film, which is widely available in multiple formats with full subtitles in English, Chatterjee has opened up Mehboob's classic film to a wider audience than ever before and has raised the bar high for other such works.                

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