Mother India - Themes


Film scholar Gayatri Chatterjee interprets the film as an allegory. The red water flowing from the canal irritating the green fields at the end of the film is seen as the blood of Indians struggling for independence and those nourishing a new free India. It had major significance in terms of the patriotism and the changing situation in the nation at the time, and how the country was functioning without British authority. Rosie Thomas highlighted the themes of "female chastity, modern nationalism and morality" as being central to the film, identifying the discourses around female sexuality, modern nationalism, and their political implications as they intersect.

The film draws upon Hindu mythology. Nargis's Mother India is a metonymic representation of a Hindu woman, reflecting high Hindu values, with high moral values and the concept of what it means to be a mother to society through self-sacrifice. Mother India can also be seen as a metaphor of the trinity of mother, God, and a dynamic nation. In the wider context, her character is allegorical of what it means to be a mother in general. The character of Radha is identified with various goddess and mythological characters, such as Radha (the consort of Krishna, and personifying love and romance), Sita (a character in Ramayana, and personifying high moral value), Savitri (representing great morality and loyalty to husband), Draupadi (personifying duty and morality), Dharti-mata or Mother Earth, and Lakshmi (Hindu goddess of wealth and prosperity). The Mother India figure is an icon in several respects, being associated with a goddess, her function as a wife, as a lover, and even compromising her femininity at the end of the film by playing the role of Vishnu the Preserver and Shiva the Destroyer, masculine gods. However, while aspiring to traditional Hindu values, the character of Mother India also represents the changing role of the mother in Indian films and an Indian society in that the mother is not always subservient or dependent on her husband, refining the relationship to the male gender or patriarchal social structures.

In his book, Terrorism, media, liberation, John David Slocum argues that like Satyajit Ray's classic masterpiece Pather Panchali (1955), Khan's Mother India has vied for alternative definitions of Indianness. However, he emphasises that the film is an overt mythologising and feminising of the nation in which Indian audiences around the globe have used their pure imagination to define it in the nationalistic context, given that in reality the storyline is about a poverty-stricken peasant from northern India, not than a true ideal of a modernising, powerful nation. Jonathan Romney of The Independent describes the earth-mother Radha as "India's answer to Anna Magnani" and the film as a "musical melodrama is not just a populist romance but an all-out exercise in ideological myth-making." The New Internationalist says of Radha, "This is not the act of a wholly powerless woman. Indeed Radha's subtle transformation from more-or-less mute, submissive wife to an independently powerful mother, reflects the way the film discreetly disrupts female stereotypes. Traditionally, wives are seen as eternally self-sacrificing, and although mothers are given a greater degree of expressive autonomy, they are frequently models of piety. Radha is far from being a straightforward paragon of religious virtue. She evolves in the film's second half into a complex older woman, by turns sprightly, by turns truculent, her devotion to her two grown-up sons taking on almost incestuous overtones. Indeed, psychoanalytic underpinnings also surface with the characterisation of the second son Birju, who as a little boy is all mischief and irrepressibility, but who as an adult becomes wayward, his energy transforming into aggression."

Jyotika Virdi has argued that in her chastity, Mother India channels her sexual desires into maternal love for her sons who effectively become "substitute erotic subjects". Parallels are drawn with Gandhi's personification of the Indian woman as a goddess, acquiring certain masculine traits as they gain power as the goddesses did in Hindu mythology, but it is a power which is made more subtle by their virtue and acquiescence. For instance, in a pamphlet published with the intention to introduce the film in the social context to western audiences, it described Indian women as being "an altar in India", that Indians "measure the virtue of their race by the chastity of their women", and that the "Indian mothers are the nucleus around which revolves the tradition and culture of ages."

While the nationalistic representation of Hindu values may seem unusual in that the "Mother India" figure was portrayed by a Muslim actress and directed by a Muslim director, people such as Salman Rushdie stated that Bombay cinema is "highly syncretic", and its "hyphenated Hindu-Muslim nature is present in not only its discourses and production practices but indeed its very ideology". Rushdie describes Nargis's portrayal of Mother India as follows:

"In Mother India, a piece of Hindu myth-making directed by a Muslim socialist, Mehboob Khan, the Indian peasant women is idealised as bride, mother, and producers of sons, as long-suffering, stoical, loving, redemptive, and conservatively wedded to the maintenance of the social status quo. But for Bad Birju, cast out from his mother's love, she becomes, as one critic mentioned, 'that image of an aggressive, treacherous, annihilating mothers who haunts the fantasy of Indian males."

Mother India's actions at the end of the film in shooting her own son Birju have been said to "rupture the traditional mother-son relationship in order to balance the moral universe". This brought ambiguity to the mother figure who acts as a sacrificing provider and also as a destroyer, annihilating her own son, something extremely rare in Hindi cinema. The shooting stance of Nargis at the end of the film is one of the all time iconic images of Hindi cinema. Roy and Das Gupta have seen Nargis's portrayal of a Hindu woman, being a Muslim, as an allegory of the increasing symbiosis of religions in a multicultural and multi-ethnic society. Mother India was warmly received by countries in the Arab world, and in Algeria the film was still packing cinema houses ten years after its release.

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