The exquisite sacrifice that is the life of an Indian woman is a common and moving theme upon which many great Hindi films are based, from Amar Prem to Lajja. And the mother of all these films may be Mother India, in which an Indian woman survives an almost unimaginable series of hardships and rejuvenates an entire village with her own backbreaking work, only to face the ultimate sacrifice - one she must make not only for her family, but for the good of the entire community.
Radha (Nargis) marries the handsome Shamu (Raaj Kumar) and settles well into life with his solid agrarian family. She soon learns, though, that her mother-in-law mortgaged the farm to pay for her and Shamu's lavish wedding celebrations. The moneylender Sukhi Lala (Kanhaiyalal) claims three-fourths of the farm's produce, having tricked Radha's illiterate mother-in-law into signing a usurious contract. As the family grows - Radha has three children - it becomes more and more difficult to subsist on their meager share. The hardships multiply, leaving Radha and her children alone, homeless, and starving. They survive through Radha's own tireless hard work, and her sons grow into strong young men, though each is scarred in his own way by the traumatic experiences of his childhood. The spirited Birju (Sunil Dutt) is mischievous and temperamental; he is hungry to seek revenge from Lala, who still claims the lion's share of their produce. The solemn Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) is protective of his mother and reflects her values, relying on hard work to make his way. The tension between the two philosophies sets the stage for the film's ultimate conflict, as Birju's rash, violent nature clashes head-on with his mother's stern, grounded integrity.
Mother India is a beautiful film, shot in beautiful brown and orange tones that both highlight the majesty of the rural Indian landscape and bring to life the grit and heat of working the soil. The themes lend themselves to an abundance of iconic and symbolic images - Radha hauling a plow that is meant to be hauled by an ox; Radha standing neck-deep in flood waters, hefting her young children over her head on a pallet. And Nargis, as Radha - really as the titular Mother India - is in absolute top form. She is the epitome of badass filmi womanhood; she is simply fierce. Nargis has crafted a performance that is melodrama at its finest, focused and heightened emotions that magnify the viewer's sense of Radha's experience. Indeed, the multiplying calamities that befall poor Radha can be hard to watch - there are times when the story is so bleak it seems hard to carry on.
Still, there is a current of hopefulness as well. Radha's story is told in flashback; the film opens with the villagers asking Radha, now an old woman, to bless the inauguration of the village's new canal. "You are the mother of us all," the villagers plead with the recalcitrant old woman. And so the viewer knows, from the outset, that Radha not only will survive her trials, but will come to hold a revered place as the savior of the village. Radha shoulders the burden of rearing her family and restoring a village upheaved, in what is surely a metaphor for the construction of modern India and healing the fresh wounds of Partition. And so the film's message is, as it must be, that once Mother India has made the difficult decisions and painful sacrifices, those of her children that remain will be squarely on the road to prosperity.
The film's second half is as much about Radha's sons as it is about Radha; much time is devoted to developing their contrasting approaches to reconciling with the past and preparing for the future. The hot-headed Birju thirsts for revenge and lives in the moment; Ramu is practical, methodical, and hardworking. The film is abundantly clear in its endorsement of the latter philosophy. And yet as much as Birju frustrates her, Radha adores him; as in Deewaar, Mother India favors her miscreant son over her honest one. The only limit Radha sets for her indulgence of Birju is one that reflects the film's girl power subtext: "You may do as you like and I will always love you," she tells him, "but don't you dare ever disrespect a woman."
These comments are quite long enough, but I have to add a few words about Mother India's beautiful music. The songs encapsulate the agrarian beauty of the film and present delightful tableaux of idealized life in a farming village. While they don't stand alone - there are no singular dances or set pieces that stand out in my memory (except perhaps the Holi song) - they add texture, and in the film's darker moments, respite, to an already lovely movie.