Mother India – The Cinema of Mehboob Khan

Would it be true to say that the song sequence as a narrative convention of popular Indian cinema cannot be understood in terms of the conventions of the western, Hollywood dominant realist tradition? In Mehboob Khan’s Mother India released in 1957, I would say that this is a fact. Mehboob Khan’s mother India was one of the first films made in Technicolor in India and was nominated for an Oscar.

This article looks particularly at one of the song sequences “villagers don’t abandon the land of your birth, mother earth calls out to you with imploring hands” showing a complex cyclical experience of a village surviving on the brink of famine and floods and appears half way through the film. .

At its best, the song sequence is an integral part of the narrative and mise-en-scene of popular Indian film not merely a musical interruption of action.

 “The songs in the India film are not mere musical interludes in an otherwise pedestrian film – at least not some of the best films. They are integral to telling the story in a fantastical and enchanting way. The songs express the inner world of a character – his or her identity, longings, dreams and dilemmas. Song Pictorisation* is the high point of Indian film and every film enthusiast has a galaxy of memories, an amalgam of image and song indelibly stained in their mind and hearts…”  E. Johnson; Musical Movies Artrage No.19

The ‘conventional’ western view of Indian cinema can be seen in John Russell Taylor’s article on Satyajit Ray, “Ray is a great director (it is a prerogative of all great artists, to take us constantly by surprise – Ray is still a solitary figure, a unique talent in Indian Cinema… Background was highly literate and artistically sophisticated”. J R Taylor on Ray – Cinema a critical dictionary.

Although Taylor’s view of Indian cinema is considered to be outdated, critically, not may commercial Hindi films have been appreciated by non-South Asian audiences, despite the huge success of Hindi films at the box office in the UK.

Mehboob’s Mother India was a ground breaking film and can be seen as a departure from subjects being dealt within the Bombay film industry at the time. The film explored the relationship between farmers and their landlords. The storyline is very simple: an ordinary village life exploring the complexity and simplicity of such a life along with the communal pain and joy shared by all. The only outsider is the moneylender.

Mother India was shown in countries such as Spain, Greece, Egypt, and the Soviet Union and was extremely popular. In Spain, the film has been reported to run in the theatre for months: “This international dimension is revealing in terms of shared experiences of many societies in transition from peasant culture with their oral-folk tradition to industrial city based state and the anonymity of urban life. In Spain for example Mother India did good business in Andalusia where the power of the landlords over illiterate day labourers is similar to that portrayed in Mehboob’s masterpiece.” E. Johnson Artrage No.19

The story of Mother India is of Radha, the central character played by Nargis. She marries at a young age and is a peasant from a peasant community which is in constant debt and depends largely on the land. Her husband, played by Raj Kumar loses both arms in a farming accident and leaves the family in shame as he can no longer provide for them. Mehboob cleverly tackles the element of masculinity of man as head and provider for the family by showing the woman, Radha, who has to bear the shame and tries to sustain the dignity of the family as a whole. She is constantly in debt to the moneylender and faces a lifetime of hardship and struggle against poverty.

The film itself is a flashback. In the opening sequence we see Radha as an old woman who is requested to open the irrigation ditch. We see a close-up of her aged and wrinkled face which is followed by a dissolve of her memories of her wedding day. In the sequence at the end of the film, we see Radha, as we go back to the opening shot of the film, Radha as an old woman/the mother of the village, lifting the barrier to the water through. As the water rushes out, it turns into blood that has been shed in her past and flows out to water the fields.

In the song “villagers don’t abandon the land of your birth, mother earth calls out to you with imploring hands”, the sequence expresses the central themes of the film:

1. The earth as the “mother” of its people – Radha’s appeal to the villagers not to abandon the flooded land. The village is seen as the foundation stone of Indian society at the climax of the sequence where the villagers form a map of India with the harvested millet and at its heart is a direct reference to the Congress party’s slogan of the period “the village is India”.

2. Radha in turn becomes the mother of the village and by extension a symbol of rural virtues – not just rural virtues but feminine virtues where women can be relied upon to sustain the family; the community and by extension the whole of society. Radha is the woman who struggles against all odds to keep the family together, enduring hardship and suffering while resisting the importuning of the moneylender. Radha herself pulls the plough when there is no Ox.

3. The internal time-scheme of the song sequence is very complex: dissolves are used to superimpose continuity in a sequence which shifts between the past and an idealised view of the past/present/future. One dissolve contains a transition from Radha pulling the plough guider helped by her infant sons to the roles reveres and we see Radha who guides the plough while her fully grown sons pull it. They are now able to support her and the point is made visually clear as they lift her up and carry her on their shoulders.

4. The recurring shots of a wheel suggests the cycle of the season, from the sowing of the seeds to reaping the harvest and the cycle of human life from childhood to old age. Dissolves are used to depict the progress in time, past and present as opposed to a cut which would signify a break in the progress of the characters and disturb the smooth transition achieved by using dissolves.

In the sequence we see Radha’s past life, her lost husband, the progress and development of her children and finally we come to the present: ““villagers don’t abandon the land of your birth….” Sung by Radha after the village has been destroyed by floods. In the song Radha begs the villagers to stay and work on the land. Radha cannot leave as she is certain her husband will return to her. The character of Radha is ‘Mother India’. She is the land and the harvest – she gives and finally takes life.

In the beginning of the sequence we see Radha feeding the children with some roots she had gathered, this dissolves to a field, flooded, and an early morning sky. She is approached by villagers to leave, but refuses. We see a cut to her face against a clear sky and is singled out. Here Mehboob uses dissolves to create a rhythm of visuals – we see Radha looking at the villagers, a superimposition of her head on the villagers leaving, her head is the sky – she is both the sky and the earth. At this point she is visually separated from the villagers. These shots of her clearly involve the symbolism of Soviet posters.  This slowly dissolves to the villagers who turn back and she is surrounded by them, becoming a part of them and they work together to clear the land. Radha is at one and the same time the poorest and least significant member of the community and symbolically its leading figure.

There has been progress, the family has bought an Ox, so Radha does not need to push the plough – nevertheless she is there in the field, feeding her sons as they work and not eating herself, depicting motherly love and self-sacrifice. The villagers in unity plough the land, with fast and hard cutting we quickly move to the harvest time. Mehboob takes us to the wheel and a flashback. Again we see poster like images. Radha and Shamu (her husband) are together again, dissolves are used to set the rhythm, Radha holding the millet, becoming a symbol of fertility. Several shots of men and women in the fields holding axes and sickles, becoming moving posters – Mehboob takes us back to the wheel, back to the future, again we see poster like images, new relationships being formed.

The suggested ‘leadership’ of the village is Radha holding the millet backed by her sons with the villagers in the background and a dissolve to the map of India at Harvest time, with the millet in the middle of the map representing the heart of India. Here Mehboob’s political stand becomes clear that of a Congress Party supporter. Mehboob helped to propagate political ideology and the famous songs of the Congress Party “the village is India and India is the village”, which in the 1970’s was grotesquely echoed when “Indira” became India and India became “Indira”. Ironically Sunil Dutt who played Birju, one of Radha’s son’s also became a successful political with the Congress Party (and was also married to Nargis).

In the final dissolve to the village we see more circular motions. We finally come back to reality at the end of the sequence by the arrival of the moneylender, suggesting inevitable suffering and hardship.

Clearly Mehboob has portrayed and reinforced the status and ideological image of womanhood, fixing it within the tradition of the sub-continent: “a virtuous village woman who faces extreme hardship so that her family can survive in dignity. In the character of Radha we see strength, determination, devotion and virtue. Radha becomes a model of the mother figure for the entire village because of her courage and sense of honour. Mother India is also important for its portrayal of the tribulations of rural life”. Channel Four publicity for their Indian Cinema season in the 1980’s.

We see one of several shots suggesting unity, a unity of men and women, but only on the fields; of men and women walking parallel in the Mela (village fair). At the Mela we see more wheels. The Mela here represents collective and individual happiness and celebrations. In the Mela, Shamu and Radha are walking around with the children. Radha walks directly under a plough and Shamu walks ahead and stops to stroke a bull, signifying the loss and hardship to come.

In an extraordinary dissolve, a generation passes. Mehboob uses dissolves to move time forward. Radha is pulling the plough helped by her infant sons. We see the transition in time when Radha falls down and the children rise from the earth as adults lifting Radha up. The roles are reversed; she is no longer the provider and supporter. Mehboob uses music to suggest triumph – overcoming hardships. Again Mehboob uses dissolves to suggest the shift in seasons and the continuity/solidness in the relationships. Through a series of dissolves, the sequence capitalises on the wheel as a symbol of time.

*The concept of pictorisation – 1) not an interruption of action, it compliments the action 2) can provide an emotional gloss on the narrative, a subjective point of view, which cannot be contained within the narrative

This article first appeared as an essay in 1987 as part of Film and Video degree at LCP – Essay year 1 – Term 2: “analyse the relation between cinematic (mise-en-scene, editing, lighting, framing etc) and meaning in a sequence from a film of your choice”.  

Zakhme Dil – A Scarred Heart

On Wednesday 25th June 2008 at the Lord Mayor’s Hospitality Suite in Coventry, Save the Children launches a ground-breaking film entitled ‘Zakhme Dil – A Scarred Heart’ – telling the story of a young unaccompanied refugee in the UK.

Written and directed by Shakila Taranum Maan in collaboration with the young people from The Positive Press Project based in the West Midlands, the film tells the story of Ali, a young unaccompanied refugee from Afghanistan and It portrays images of life both in Afghanistan and UK.

There was once a time of no war, of everyday the sun-rising and children going to school. When fathers and mothers would do their job and sisters and brothers played and learnt about how to be in the world. When beautiful buildings stood proud; ancient, historical, with memories. And fragrances that were Greek, Persian, Chinese, Afghani, unimaginable.”   Extract from Zakhme Dil – A Scarred Heart ©Shakila Taranum Maan 2008

The Positive Press project has been running for the past year with an aim to give young people a voice on issues affecting them and to challenge representations of young refugees through the media. Young people participating in the project are drawn from both refugee and non-refugee backgrounds from Coventry and Birmingham. The project was funded by Comic Relief

The DVD is being officially launched by Save the Children in Coventry and will feature in the “Refugee Week” festival in London.

For further details contact Joanna Turner on 0121 555 888 or email her on j.turner@savethechildren.org.uk

Save The Children, Save the Children West Midlands, Afghanistan, Asylum Seekers, Refugees, Comic Relief, Refugee Week

Peter Doig at Tate Britain

My article on Peter Doig’s exhibition at Tate Britain has been published by Bohemian Aesthetic. See below:

Peter Doig: in the footsteps of Gauguin?

It’s not often I’d walk away from an artist’s work; and if I do, I try to return to it or I find ways for it not to affect me. In fact, Doig’s work is difficult for me to ignore, and I’ve been at a loss to explain this to myself. I can only do so by trying to recall the wise words of one of my lecturers at film school, the legendary Laura Mulvey, who makes the point to always look for something good in a work of art. In relation to Doig’s work, I’m still looking. Maybe one day I’ll understand it.
 
Walking in the footsteps of Gauguin (if, indeed, that’s what Doig is doing), his Trinidad series doesn’t share the same terrain—that of intimacy and compassion. Instead, the paintings appear to be distant and cold, murky, entering the filmic realms. But that’s not Doig’s intention; he says, “people often say that my paintings remind them of particular scenes from films or from certain passages from books, but I think it’s a different thing altogether. There is something more primal about painting.”  But the fact remains that Doig’s work does resemble still frames from motion pictures. His “Rasta in the Thicket in Trinidad” could easily be a shot out of Predator.

Click here to read this article in full.

Published by the kind permission of Bohemian Aesthetic eZine

 

 

Artificial Trees To Save The Planet

I don’t usually write about the environment, but an idea that professor Klaus Lackner of Columbia University advocating building billions of artificial trees to capture the build up of carbon in the atmosphere is difficult to ignore.

Biopact (a pact between Africa and Europe to develop green energy) writes that “carbon capture, in the form of “artificial trees”, is one idea explored in the BBC Two documentary Five Ways To Save The World. But could these extraordinary biomimetic machines help to mitigate our excessive burning of fossil fuels and its potentially catastrophic consequence, global warming? Or would we be better off using real trees in a carbon negative energy system? Let us compare the two ideas.

In 2006, more than 29 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide were pumped into the atmosphere. And 80% of the world’s energy supply still relies on fossil fuels. German geo-physicist professor Klaus Lackner of Columbia University’s Department of Earth and Environmental Engineering, thinks he may have found a way of tackling our current excessive use of fossil fuels.

Click here to read the full article

 

The Matter of Whiteness

The recent bill-board campaign by the British National Party in London for the Mayor’s election,  putting ‘Londoners First’ showing a working white class family – semi obese and content brought to mind Richard Dyers book entitled ‘White’.

In the culture of ‘White is Right’ – where the white majority feel they have to fight back to regain their whiteness and britishness, non-whites are beginning to feel the backlash – recently local council’s are doing away with specialist ethnic community groups in favour of ‘services for all’ and in the process losing vital knowledge necessary to combat racism, especially that of a feminist perspective.

Dyer’s ‘White’ seems somewhat time sensitive. Published in 1997 by Routledge as part of their ‘Cultural/studies/Race and Ethnicity’, much of the writing remains relevant – although it could do with a re-visit by Dyer. The publishers state that ‘white people are not literally or symbolically white. Yet they are called white. What does this mean? In Western media, white take up the position of ordinariness, not a particular race, just the human race… while racial representation is central to the organisation of the contemporary world, white people remain a largely unexamined category in sharp contrast to the many studies of images of ‘black and Asian peoples.’ 

Richard Dyer in his chapter entitled ‘The matter of Whiteness’ says that ‘this book is about the racial imagery of white people – not the images of other races in white cultural production, but the latter’s imagery of the white people themselves. This is not merely to fill a gap in the analytic literature, but because there is something at stake in looking at, or continuing to ignore, white racial imagery. As long as race is something only applied to non-white peoples, as long as white people are not racially seen and named, they/we function as a human norm. Other people are raced, we are just people.’

 

Romila Thapar – A History of India and the Absence of Satan

Romila Thapar’s ‘A history of India 1’ is worth every re-visit. I had the good fortune of coming across is some years ago, prior to that, I had very little knowledge of the historical make of the modern India, although her work stops at the arrival’s of the Europeans in the sixteenth century.

Published by Pelican, the book ‘traces the evolution of India before contact with modern Europe as established in the sixteenth century. Professor Thapar’s account of the development of India’s social and economic structure is arranged within a framework of the principal political and dynastic events. Her narrative covers some 2,500 years of India’s history, from the establishment of Aryan culture in about 1000 B.C. to the coming of the Mughuls in A.D. 1520 and the first appearance of European trading companies. In particular she deal’s interestingly with the many manifestation of Indian culture, as seen in religion, art, and literature, in ideas and institutions.

Thapar states that ‘the history of India in the first volume begins with the culture of the Indo-Aryans and not with the prehistoric cultures of India.’ She further says that ‘1526 marks the arrivals of the Mughuls in northern India and they were (amongst other things) actively involved in the future of Europe in India.’

In her chapter ‘The Antecedents’, Thapar says ‘wealth in India, as in every other ancient culture, was limited to the few. Mystical activities were also the preoccupation of but a handful of people. It is true, however, that acceptance of such activities was characteristic of the majority… whereas in some other cultures the rope-trick would have been ascribed to the promptings of the devil and reference to it suppressed, in India it was regarded with amused benevolence. The fundamental sanity of Indian civilization has been due to an absence of Satan.’

 

The New Face of the British National Party

Dear folks, I have been extremely busy with a number of projects so have not had an opportunity to put pen to paper until I came across a BNP bill board advertising for ‘real Londoners’.

I live and work in Southall and last week walking with a group of friends we were confronted with a the BNP ‘real Londoners’ bill board opposite the Hambrough Tavern, a pub that was burnt down by the local migrant community in protest of a meeting held by the National Front.

In recent years, BNP has been successful at getting elected but have failed miserably at running a council with in-fighting being the norm and lack of democratic process which is of course against the grain of the BNP as they are basically thugs.

The malaise and the lack of willingness on part of many voters not to come forward or to stay away deliberately is disconcerting. I know for a fact that a lot of young people in my extended family did not vote let alone register for a vote – they are too angry with the Labour government over the Iraq issue.

Perhaps we need the political and social structures to deteriorate to the levels of the early 70’s with ‘Paki bashing’ being the norm – perhaps then the generation of my nieces and nephews will feel compelled to be part of a political landscape.

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