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Although Taylor’s view of Indian cinema is considered to be outdated, critically, not may commercial Hindi films have been appreciated by non-South Asian audiences, despite the huge success of Hindi films at the box office in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

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Tongues on Fire Celebrates 10 years

Tongues on Fire Film Festival was set up by founding Artistic Directors, Pushpinder Chowdhry and Harvinder Nath who have informed the festival direction and propelling in to an international stage with a view to be ‘Beyond Bollywood’. The festival has been at the forefront of supporting British Asian talent such as Gurinder ChadhaShakila Taranum MaanMeera Syal,  to name a few.

It is ironic that in their 10th year, the Festival has suffered a major financial set back and has lost its main backer. Despite this, both Pushpinder and Harvinder have endeavoured to move forward with an exciting programme which includes British and international films.

Pushpinder and Harvinder state in their Directors notes that “This year marks our 10th anniversary film festival and TOF is extremely thrilled to begin once again with an Opening Gala Weekend at BAFTA. We are proud to present the London premiere of Hope and A Little Sugar and welcome the talented director Tanuja Chandra and actress Mahima Chaudhry to our festival. Our Opening Gala Weekend continues with The World Unseen, a film made by an all-women crew, and we are privileged to present a Q&A with the director Shamim Sarif and producer Hanan Kattan.

This year we are delighted be honouring Meera Syal for her contributions to film, television and theatre. It will be the first of our yearly profiles of Asian filmmakers who have pushed the boundaries in film and media.

This exciting month-long season showcases work by women or stories where women are the central protagonists in order to encourage debate reflecting real-life issues. The festival presents the British premiers of Mira Nair’s Mirabhai Production of AIDS Jagoo and Bhavna Talwar’s Dharm, and an opportunity to screen the Vanaja and Rituparno Ghosh’s Dosar”.

Click here to read further on the Tongues on Fire Film Festival 2008.

 

 

Khoya Khoya Chand – The Lost Moon: The Cinema of Sudhir Mishra

Just when you were despairing that all the great directors were no longer exploring film language in Hindi cinema, along comes a classic! Khoya Khoya Chand  released in December 2007 with a highly accomplished cast of actors from Soha Ali Khan, Shiney Ahuja, Rajat Kapoor, Sushmita Mukherjee and Soniya Jehan,  the grand-daughter of the legendry Noor Jehan, shouts from the roof tops that all is not lost in Hindi cinema today. The film is produced by the legendry Prakash Jha. 

Sudhir Mishra has created a masterpiece of cinema in the true creative and artistic tradition of film making. And it does what it set out to do; to bring to the audience great actors and directors of the 50’s and 60’s film world in Hindi Cinema.

Shooting in the style of light and shade, akin to Guru Dutt’s cinema, Sudhir Mishra has created his own film language. Here he uses the camera effectively as an observer. Mishra lays out the narrative of Khoya Khoya Chand through an exploration of a classic love story between an actress, Nikhat played by Soha Ali Khan and a writer-director, Zafar, played by Shiney Ahuja. Many have written about the fact that perhaps it was the telling of the story of Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman’s  story love affair. Nikhat and Zafar’s coming to the industry are a form of escape and refuge; here Mishra employs great technique and vision of the black and white era where shadows are used colourfully to explore depth and emotions, life experiences and intellect of a character as was the norm within the works of Guru Dutt, Bimal RoyMehboob  to name a few.  Mishra uses these when focusing on the characters of Zafar, Nikhat and Prem Kumar, played by Rajat Kapoor.

Each character carries a multitude of shades and as the film progresses, the journeys and transitions forced upon them by the outside world bring to the foreground their darkness. Ultimately the film is about love, loyalty and passion, even within the perceived fickle world of film.

 

A Throw of Dice

Oops, missed Franz Osten’s A Throw of Dice at Trafalgar Square with a new score by Nitin Sawhney, which is NOT a Bollywood film but a Hindi film and formed a part of establishing Hindi cinema.

A Throw Of Dice (Prapancha Pash) is 77 minutes and was a India/Germany/UK production directed by Franz Osten in 1929. A silent film, the print has been newly restored.

The German-born director Franz Osten was a great influence on film makers in India and made 19 films in India between 1926 and 1939.

A Throw Of Dice formed the final part of a trilogy of Indo-German productions. Franz Osten fell from grace when in 1939 he became a member of the Nazi Party, resulting in his work being destroyed or simply lost.

The screening at Trafalger Sqaure has become a part of tradition where old classics, all silent films, have been fully restored, digitised and backed up by a new soundtracks, such as Battleship Potemkin with a new score from the Petshop Boys and A Throw of Dice seems to have been added to that list – an odd choice given its director’s history and the celebrations of 60 years of India’s independence and it’s subsequent partition. Perhaps a better choice would have Dadasaheb Palke’s masterpeice Raja Hairshchandra, the first full length feature produced in India.

 

Aag – Raj Kapoor

Re-visiting Aag, Raj Kapoor‘s first film, you realise the talent that manifested in the great film director.

Made in 1948 and shot in black and white, Aag is Raj Kapoor directorial debut. Starring Nargis, Premanth, Nigar Sultana and Kamini Kaushal, the film was a huge success at the box office.

As was the case with Hindi cinema of the era, the story lines were dense and complex with exquisite lyrics and music.

Raj Kapoor plays Kewal who is obsessed with setting up a theatre company despite protests from his father. His childhood sweetheart leaves for another town and this propels him to defy his father and set up the company.

Destitute after the partition, a young beauty joins the theatre company, played by Nargis and soon Kewal falls in love with her. The patron of his theatre company played by the dashing Premnath also falls in love with Nargis.

Broken hearted Kewal sets fire to the theatre which causes his face to be disfigured.

Strikingly lit with dramatic songs, Aag remains an all time great.

Mehdi Hasan

When Lata Mangeshkar described Mehdi Hasan as perhaps one of the greatest singers, she was making a much needed recognition of an extraordinary talent. She further commented that she had much to learn from him, particularly his ability to take you to the place of the lyrics imparting from his lips.

Mehdi Hasan was born in India into a family which hailed from a great tradition north Indian classical music. Forced to move to Pakistan after the partition of India, Mehdi Hasan perhaps lost out on the global recognition for his extraordinary talent had he stayed in India.

Despite the limited audiences initially, he soon made the ghazal popular and inspired many to sing in a semi classical style and he had a major impact in the Urdu/Hindi speaking world with making ghazals popular in film per se.

Singing the works of Ahmed Faraz and Faiz Ahmed Faiz in Pakistani films, Mehdi Hasan reached international fame.

Perhaps it was the fate of artists of that era who were given begrudging recognition in Pakistan. Unable to embrace its artists due to Pakistan’s Islamic heritage, shunning many and letting traditions such as Mehdi Hasan’s slip away will no doubt leave a deep crevasse in creative expression.

 

Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam – Cinema of Guru Dutt

Starring Meena Kumari, Guru Dutt, Waheeda Rehman, Sapru, Nair Hussain, Krishan Dhawan and Dhumal Mukund, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam is set in Bengal at the turn of the 19th century and tells the story of an aristocratic family on their way to ruin.

Meena Kumari plays Chhoti Bahu who is married to the youngest aristocrat in the family Chhote Babu, played by Rehman. Bhootnath, played by Guru Dutt enters this world of mystery, intrigue and crushing traditions. He lives with his uncle who teaches the children in the grand mansion. Bhootnath soon finds employment in a local factory that produces the bridal red powder to adorn the foreheads of women. There he meets Jabba, played by Waheeda Rehman, a confident daughter of factory owner played by Nazir Hussain. It is his employment in this factory that brings Bhootnath and Chhoti Bahu into close contact. Meeting with men outside of the family was forbidden and unheard of. 

Exquisitely lit, the film is photographed with his long time collaborator, V.K. Murthy and was made in 1962. Although the credit of director is given to Abrar Alvi, the visual language is that of Guru Dutt’s and many still argue to this day that in fact it was Guru Dutt who directed the film but gave credit to his friend.

Guru Dutt shows Meena Kumari’s character, Chhoti Bahu, spiral into an alcoholic when she tries to seduce her husband to stay with her which by default turns into love when Rehman, Chhote Babu, is left paralysed after a brutal attack over a quarrel about a prostitute.

Complex and layered, Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam is told in flashback; when Bhootnath returns to the ruins of the grand mansion – he finds the remains of Chhoti Bahu, buried with all her jewellery. Guru Dutt shows us the stifling world of the aristocrats, their hedonisms, entertaining of prostitutes and gambling steeped in tradition, culture and machismo. He wanted to go beyond conventions and create daring work. He was forced to edit out a scene where a drunken Meena Kumari puts her head in the lap of Guru Dutt. Despite working in stifling conditions, he created a master peice.