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Although Taylor’s view of Indian cinema is considered to be outdated, critically, not may commercial Hindi films have been appreciated by non-South Asian audiences, despite the huge success of Hindi films at the box office in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

The Russian director, Andrei Tarkovsky is perhaps one of the most influential film makers in recent times. George Clooney remade ‘Solaris’ in Hollywood, something that would have been unthinkable even in the 90’s! Directors such as Ridley Scott using the theme of dreams and death in The Gladiator is straight out of Solaris, where Russell Crowe’s character walks through fields of wheat with a focus on his hands as he caresses the growth. This appears in Solaris in the opening sequence where Chris walks through nature before his flight to Solaris. The idea of the Matrix is straight out of Tarkovsky “Stalker” down to the colour tones.

Much has been written about Tarkovsky’s work, to which many of us return time and again. His is succinct article on Tarkovsky, Maximilian Le Cain states that “even at its bleakest, Tarkovsky’s universe is suffused with faith and the idea of transcendence.” This is very much in keeping with the director’s work that was so rejected by the Soviet government as it endeavoured to use spirituality as his base for exploration into the human condition. Below is an extract from Le Cain’s impressive article.

Andrei Tarkovsky is almost certainly the most famous Russian filmmaker since Eisenstein. His visionary approach to cinematic time and space, as well as his commitment to cinema as poetry, mark his oeuvre as one of the defining moments in the development of the modern art film. Although he never tackled politics directly, the metaphysical preoccupations of films such as Andrei Rublev (1966), Mirror (1974) and Stalker (1979) provoked ongoing hostility from the Soviet authorities. Like many other artists in the Soviet Union, his career was marked by constant struggles with the authorities to realise his vision. Although this meant he completed only seven features in his 27 years as a director, each one is strikingly uncompromising in its thematic ambition and formal boldness. Whether or not he would have fared better under the capitalist film industry in the West is open to debate – Bresson and Dreyer, for example, both suffered frequent frustrations in creating their formally radical investigations into human spirituality.

Tarkovsky was born in 1932 in Zavrzhe in what is now Belorus. He was the son of noted poet Arseni Tarkovski and actress Maria Ivanovna. His parents divorced while he was still a child. His father’s poetry features in Mirror, Stalker and Nostalgia (1983) and his mother appears in Mirror.

Tarkovsky studied Arabic at the Moscow Institute of Oriental Languages between 1951 and 1954 and geology in Siberia, before enrolling in the famous VGIK Moscow film school in 1959. His teacher was Mikhail Romm. While there, he worked on a short piece for television There Will Be No Leave Today (1959). His prize-winning graduation short, The Steamroller and the Violin (1960), was written in collaboration with future director Andrei Mikhalkov-Konchalovsky who would also work on the Andrei Rublev script.

His first feature, Ivan’s Childhood (1962), was an adaptation of a war story by Vladimir Bogomolov. At its centre is an orphaned 12-year-old scout whose lost childhood is repeatedly invoked in a dazzling series of dream scenes. The rest of the film avoids action movie heroics in favour of an intense study of the tensions assailing a group of soldiers during the dead time between missions. Although Tarkovsky’s style is not yet completely developed, his haunting ability to capture nature is already impressively apparent. The lyrical but claustrophobic weight of the film’s forest setting is perhaps its most memorable element. One of the cinema’s great war movies, Ivan’s Childhood won its director notice in the West by being awarded the Golden Lion at Venice.

Andrei Rublev displayed an enormous advance in Tarkovsky’s technique. Although loosely based on the life of famous mediaeval icon painter Andrei Rublev, this episodic series of meditations on art’s survival and relevance in the face of harrowing historical circumstances was interpreted by many as an allegory for the plight of the artist under the Soviet regime.

All the characteristics of Tarkovsky’s visual approach were now in place. As he explained in his book of film theory, Sculpting in Time, cinema’s capacity for capturing time was in his view its most important feature. He favoured long takes that allowed the time flowing through an individual shot to take effect on an audience. His contemplative, imagistic style emphasised the integration of characters with the world around them, both through their positioning in the frame and through the slow, probing camera movements he frequently employed. Like Antonioni, he proposed a cinema based on the rapt observation of the present moment as opposed to a plot-driven preoccupation with what will happen next.

Vividly textured images of nature abound in Tarkovsky’s cinema, with the four elements – earth, air (in the form of wind), fire and water – highlighted time and again. Animals, especially dogs, appear frequently and often enigmatically, possibly representing another embodiment of the omnipresent forces of the natural world. Buildings are often ruined and decaying, always on the point of being reclaimed by nature. Even the still-occupied rural homes in Mirror and The Sacrifice (1986) are isolated in the countryside, vulnerable to the ever-present elements. This vulnerability is expressed in images like snow floating through the roof of a sacked cathedral in Andrei Rublev or rain falling inside the hero’s family home at the conclusion of Solaris (1972).

To read the full article.