Film Review: Mother India

Mother IndiaI’ve had this review in my blog’s draft posts folder for more than two years, but there’s no time like the present for talking about a 55-year old film.

Mother India is the quintessential Indian film of its time, combining themes of sacrifice, family, corruption, progress and honour (no name but a few).

It was also India’s first submission for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958 and was chosen as one of the five nominations for the category, where it eventually lost to Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria.

It’s even been dubbed Bollywood’s answer to Pather Panchali, something that would be unlikely to please Nargis, who played Mother India’s heroine.

She famously criticised Satyajit Ray for exporting India’s poverty with his unsentimental depiction of Bengali village life.

“What I want is that if Mr Ray projects Indian poverty abroad he should also show Mother India,” Nargis, later to become an Indian MP, told one interviewer.

A lack of sentimentality is hardly a charge that could be leveled at Mother India, an epic melodrama in which Nargis’ character Radha faces trials such as tragic accidents, criminally wayward sons and lecherous moneylenders to name but a few.

The trouble with resurrecting a review that’s remained untouched since shortly after Channel 4’s Bollywood Classics cinema season is that I remember only images from it – the fate of Radha’s husband, the early pre-flashback triumph, Radha’s son Birju going off the rails.

One thing that was notable was the way Nargis, who I’d previously only seen in glossy 40s/50s films like Andaz, Awaara or Shree 420, appeared in such a thoroughly unvarnished state for much of the film, giving the film a certain degree of authenticity, if not actual realism.

So while I wouldn’t watch it again – too long, too melodramatic (which is quite something in the context of Bollywood) – Mother India was nevertheless a tour-de-force performance.

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