Mother India (Bharat mata)

Mother India

This is life.

Man, what is it about Bollywood films and their extreme lengths? Bharat Mata, or Mother India, is pretty much the first real definitive Bollywood film, with the occasional song-and-dance number and melodramatic plot, but it seems grander than a mere Bollywood flick. Wikipedia, for instance, calls it a “Hindi epic”, a much more apropos title, as this one has scale to rival that of Lawrence of Arabia, or rather, Dr. Zhivago, but with musical numbers. Damn near everyone involved with this one must have been highly regarded, as most of them are listed in the credits by single names, including the main star Nargis, and the director, Mehboob Khan, here listed only by his first name. This would imply that the Hindi film scene was already thriving at this time, although this being the earliest Indian film on the list besides the Apu films, I don’t know very much about the rest of Bollywood in the 50s. Still, if this is any indication, they’d already well constructed their style of filmmaking, a style that was to rival Hollywood all the way into the present day.

The plot follows Radha as she is married to Shamu and begins a life with him. From there, the trials and tribulations grow and grow, from the money lender demanding his loans back plus interest to an accident that leaves Shamu permanently crippled. Eventually, sensing the burden he has become, Shamu leaves, and Radha is now forced to carry on with taking care of the family alone. This is an epic, all right, spanning the majority of Radha and her children’s lives, but it’s not just the scale of the story that makes this so. It’s the melodrama, the unbelievable amount of melodrama, that the film is saturated with; most of this comes from the score, which is swooping and grand and incredibly on-the-nose, and I was rightfully reminded a lot of Deewaar whenever it happened. As for the technicals, they were pretty grand, and damn well done for the 1950s. There’s a bit of a culture shock when you realize this film came out at the same time as Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy, what with the massive upgrade in equipment and quality, but that just makes Ray’s trilogy all the more splendid for what it was able to achieve with such a small budget. Khan is definitely a fan of hot color palettes. Radha is frequently dressed in red and orange, and Khan greatly likes to cut to shots of the rising or setting sun, the sky awash with orange as if it were on fire. Really, the whole color scheme for this was quite excellent, even in the middle parts where Radha spends much of her time in the mud; it reflects the character’s predicament at that point, albeit a little overtly so.

This was the most expensive Bollywood film up to this point, and adjusted for inflation, it remains one of the highest grossing films in India’s history. I can see why; there’s a lot about this film that is largely influential, and it acts as a watershed film, opening a new era in worldwide recognition for Hindi cinema. Films like Deewaar probably wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the ambition of Bharat Mata. But, down to business; is this entertaining? Very much so, if you’re open to films that take place wholly in a different culture. Otherwise, this will probably be just a giant chore for you to get through, especially at three hours long. For once, though, I wasn’t bothered by the length, so the film got some bonus points from me for that, but if I were to be especially nitpicky, the story could’ve just as easily been shaved down some, but to each their own. For what it was worth, I liked this, and if you’re open to films like it, I have a good feeling you’ll like it too.

Arbitrary Rating: 8/10

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