On the eve of Women’s Day, I watched Mother India for the first time. The film, which is supposed to have had a far-reaching effects on Indian cinema, left me with mixed feelings. The film, which released in 1957, stars Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajender Kumar and Raaj Kumar, and was clearly ahead of its time. It is everything you would expect from a Bollywood film – memorable songs, excellent performances, heavy dialogues and of course, action. But for someone like me who watched it in 2021, it is tragic to see the portrayal of women in reel life and expectations from the gender in real life have not changed much in 63 years.
It’s rightly said that films are a reflection of society. Today, we cringe when a woman is shown as extremely submissive, but as a society, we still have set rules of how a ‘adarsh naari’ should be. But who laid down these rules? Can we blame anyone for these patriarchal boundaries?
Mother India represents the society we lived in, six decades ago. But after having watched it in 2021, I realised some of those rules are still intact.
Nargis as Radha has duties as a wife. She is the epitome of a ‘pativrata patni’. Even after being subjected to her husband’s rage (Raaj Kumar), she pays for his mistakes. She shoulders the responsibility to be the righteous person in the house. It is she who sacrifices at every step.
When her husband leaves on finding himself disabled and dependant on her, she is forced to become the sole bread earner with small kids to take care of. The film has a scene in which Sukhilala, a cunning money lender, tries to take sexual advantage of Radha.
The makers also gives us a glimpse of how society is hard on men as well. Raaj Kumar’s character is shamed for being disabled and living off his wife’s earnings, forcing him to do what he did. But, the question remains, does this justify his actions?
In the second half, Radha is blamed and held responsible for her son Birju’s actions. That he is a rebel is seen as a consequence of her upbringing. But then he is a grown-up man who should ideally be responsible for his own acts. But then again, when was a man blamed for his actions?
Mother India is essentially a Nargis film which went on to become a classic. I remained engrossed watching it and appreciated the hard work it required of actors back then.
It is a great watch even today. But sadly, it also a mirror to how little has changed for women despite six decades having gone by.
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