Mother India (1957) मदर इण्डिया / مدر انڈیا

Country: India
Language: Hindi
Director: Mehboob Khan
Running Time: 172 minutes
Starring: Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, Raaj Kumar

Ratings: IMDb.com – 7.4/10 | Rotten Tomatoes – 83%

Film Festivals:
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival

Awards:
1958 Filmfare Awards: Best Actress (Nargis) / Best Cinematographer / Best Director / Best Film / Best Sound Recordist
1958 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival: Best Actress (Nargis)

Nominations:
1958 Academy Awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film

Considered to be the bedrock of Indian commercial cinema, Mother India was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Many people saw the film as an extension of Director Mehboob Khan’s earlier black-and-white film Aurat (1940), albeit in color.

The setting is rural India, as an apt metaphor of India’s independence after being freed of British colonial rule. Mother India depicts the story of Radha (Nargis), a single mother who struggles to survive in her village as she tries to raise her kids, and pay off the debts incurred by husband. The entire story is shot as a flashback.

Shot primarily using warm and earthly colors such as orange and brown, Mother India is a beautiful film that highlights the majesty of the rural Indian landscape and brings to life the mettle and strength of the drudgery in bucolic India. The movie’s themes also create a multitude of iconic and symbolic impressions. For instance – the scenes of i) Radha hauling an ox plow and ii) her standing neck-deep in floodwaters and lifting her children over her head symbolized hard work; that the people of India had to rely on themselves to keep the country going after its independence despite the slew of problems that besotted them. While the village, with its traditional and cultural values embodies India’s dependence on Agriculture as the backbone of its economy at that time, the portrayal of dams, tanks and canals were used in similar fashion to reflect India at its fledging stage of growth and development. Finally, one of the most iconic and powerful scenes in the film was that of Radha standing deep in the mud soaked soils of her fields and calling out to her fellow villagers not to abandon the land and their mother country India. The villagers then return to salvage the crops and in doing so, form the map of India out of the cut wheat. Overall, the film’s visuals provided a vivid and colorful picture of India in the 50’s.

Because the story was told from the perspective of a flashback, director Mehboob Khan makes use of visual/editing techniques such as dissolves to depict the progress in time. Compared to a straight cut, the use of dissolves creates a smooth transition that makes the viewers feel like they are watching everything unfold as time ebbs by. The recurring shot of a wheel throughout the film was also used to suggest the cycle of a season, not just that of a harvest but also the characters’ growth from childhood to old age. (Shakila, 2008).

One of the key issues that Mother India tried to address was feminism – of the Indian women’s fight against male oppression at that time, and for honor and integrity. Central to this was the strong commanding performance and focus on the film’s protagonist, Radha and how she relied on hard work and determination to surmount her problems, which incidentally were mostly caused by various male characters in her life i.e. her husband, the tyrant Sukhilala and her sons. The idealization of her as the sole breadwinner and the perfect mother further augmented all these.

Overall, Mother India is a strong and compelling portrayal of the status and ideological image of womanhood that director Mehboob Khan wanted to bring out for women at that time. Through Radha, we see a model of strength, determination, devotion and virtue – epitomizing the perfect model of the mother figure not just for her family and the village, but also ultimately to the entire nation.

References

Shakila. (2008, July 30). Mother India – the cinema of Mehboob Khan. Retrieved on October 23, 2010, from http://aboutfilm.wordpress.com/2008/07/30/mother-india-%E2%80%93-the-cinema-of-mehboob-khan/

The Middleman (1976) Jana Aranya

Country: India
Director: Satyajit Ray
Language: Bengali
Runtime: 131 minutes
Starring: Pradip Mukherjee, Satya Banerjee, Dipankar Dey, Lily Chakravarti

Category: Culture

Ratings: IMDb.com: 7.8/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 100%
Film Festivals: NIL
Awards: 1976 National Film Awards (India): Golden Lotus Award for Best Director
Nominated: NIL

Director Satyajit Ray is considered one of the greatest Indian cinema auteurs of the 20th century, and his reputation is nailed with his Best Director win for The Middleman (1976) at the National Film Awards. Ray believed that Indian cinema needed “more imagination, more integrity, and a more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium”, and true to his word, The Middleman does away with the glitz and glamour of Hollywood technologies. Rather, his camera lenses provide us an insight of how he sees the world.

Further, this Black & White film that is adapted from the novella Jana Aranya by Sankar. And like most of Ray’s other films that he has become renowned for such as Pather Panchali, it addresses major sociological concerns of that time. With The Middleman, he touches on the despair of the educated middle-class in 1970s India. The high unemployment rate makes it difficult for graduates like lead protagonist Somnath – who only obtained a ‘Pass’ certificate – to secure a job. Somnath becomes a businessman of the “middleman” sort (hence the title), attracted by the allure and glitz of entrepreneurship and business. He buys goods from a supplier, and resells them to a customer for a profit. The story takes an eventual turn as personal morals come into the fray when he runs into trouble with one of his deals, and the only way to make a profit and to pacify his customer is to engage in the sex trade, where a prostitute is the ‘item’ to be peddled. The latter turns out to be his friend’s sister, forced into prostitution due to the poor times, and the moral dilemma that ensues is harshly captured by Ray’s camera. The ultimate question appears to be an age-old one: “Does money guarantee happiness?”

As per movies of that era, it opens with the credits rolling, and silence. There is a weird scratchy sound in the background, and the camera cuts away to a scene in the examination hall. The scene gradually comes into focus, panning down onto the (sleepy) chief invigilator and zooming out to include the hall (1:46, Part 1). The comedic tone (I personally find it rather unfunny though I’d choose to attribute that to an unfamiliarity of the language with the jokes lost in subtitle translation, and that the era is different) of the movie is set right from the start, as we see that the students are not entirely serious about sitting for their final exam, fidgeting and talking to each other. The disconcerting scratching noises continue throughout the scene, though it seems impossible to determine whether it is diagetic or not. A sense of dissonance is conveyed as it does not seem consistent with any of the images on scene, yet a logical conclusion to be drawn is perhaps it is that of pen on paper.

Perhaps to draw relevance to globalization and the need to stay relevant, we hear the characters using a lot of English words in their language and dialogue, for instance “strongest subject”, “revise” and “negligent fools” throughout the entire movie, just to name a few.

Close-ups are used liberally to indicate fierce concentration on a task, for instance, at 8:49 (Part 2) where the camera captures a close-up of the lead character typing on a typewriter with close-ups of the keys as he types. “This needs great concentration,” he says, and his unfamiliarity with the technology is expounded through his attempt to use an eraser to erase the ink. The fierce competition for jobs is emphasized through a cutaway to the behind-the-scenes view of the post office. Hordes of envelopes is shown coming in, which staff go through manually one by one. Reality is blatantly discussed, that the post office will take 2.5 years to clear all the letters (and that does not take into consideration the bulk of new letters coming in day after day).

At 2:30 (Part 3) via a lower shot that captures his friend from the chin-up, thereby conveying a sense of power that he has his future mapped out – drawing reference from “MP friends”. Somnath on the other hand, through his slouched posture that is directly contrasted with the statue he is leaning against, conveys a defeatist attitude.

 

Cutaway techniques at 3:50 (Part 4) is used featuring similar images at different locales, of the man’s application letter and pin-up of his passport photo in numerous offices, an indication of the number of applications he had made.

A few scenes later at 4:14 (Part 4), we see a wide shot of a wall as Somnath walks past, the word “Victory” scrawled on it that is both a mockery and as the character cuts a small frame against the massive wall. It is also a foreboding sign as the camera captures his first job interview, with the interviewers asking questions like “What is the weight of the moon?” that are redundant to the job. This takes on two suggestions : (i) the need to stand out from the crowd transcends into the need to know even the most mundane information, and (ii) a mockery of the application system of that time.

Further semiotics is observed in 5:29 (Part 13) with the grilles of the gate indicating an imprisonment of Somnath’s own puritan values by the demands of the business.

By today’s standards, the film would perhaps even be considered sloppily edited. We see scenes like 6:11 (Part 4) where the talking Somnath was framed directly behind the pillar of the roadside stall –it might of course perhaps be a conscious, deliberate decision but the scene just serves to distract from my point of view. Further, zooming in and out techniques that are heavily frowned upon in cinematography today are heavily utilized, rather than the camera itself shifting towards the character it wishes to draw attention to. This results in many shaky shots throughout the film as the camera zooms in (and out) onto a certain focus. A further point of contention is the use of jerks and shakes of the camera so as to reposition a scene, rather than separate cutaways (1:37-1:39; Part 8). There is also abrupt discontinuity of sound (0:41 & 6:50; Part 10) where the sound source is abruptly cut off that even ambient noise is excluded from the scene. There is also a relative inconsistency in the shots, with the scene as Somnath walks down the street with his mentor at 8:46 (Part 4) being the only one that is extremely shaky, claustrophobic and nauseating as if out of a scene from Cloverfield. Yet it helps to support the scathing social commentary of the economic climate of India when the film was made.

However, the late Ray’s aesthetic is one that he can truly call his own, and by which nobody can fault.