Mother India: Is Woman Only A Mother?

In Hindi cinema, arguably the first instance of a ‘lady oriented film’ (a term which recieved much attention lately, courtesy Pahlaj Sanskar Nihalani) is Mother India (1957). In the newborn nation with cultural sanitisation drive and aspiration of a nationalistic morality, Mother India was a film about a lone mother as the central character who makes her own choices, albeit in a ‘Bharat Mata’ package. The film is truly a testament of its time in terms of the political conscioussness and the tinge of communist ideals in the celebration of nationalism.

But is the film feminist?  Is Radha the single mother a model of the liberation of women, or is she manipulated, and used as a figure of oppression, sacrificed to the gruelling chores that only women will do? Not to mention the use of her sex-appeal, surprisingly present in the movie at key moments. It can be said that the film hints towards how woman should be a “good” mother, a “pure” woman and make the most horrendous sacrifices in order to be considered valuable by her community. This is exemplified by some of the lyrics lip-synced by Radha in the song “Duniya mein hum aaye hain”:
aaurat hai woh aaurat jise duniya ki sharam hai,
sansaar mein bas laaj hi naaree kaa dharam hai.

[A woman is a woman who has some shame
In this world, only modesty (or shame) is a woman’s religion (or prime duty.)]

Looking at this and calling it sexist and a celebration of oppression would be an escapist idea, as then we’d be taking the film out of it’s time, reality and context. For its time, Mother India is feminist. Imagine, Radha actually waits for her husband for the whole film! It would have so easy and so satisfying (from an escapist point of view) to have Shamu (Raj Kumar) come back, the desired male, the idol of the family, the focus of society. But he just doesn’t, and that’s one of the movie’s strengths: it doesn’t pander to the spectator’s desire in this respect. Radha remains alone, with her desire, her pain, her frustration, as the story says she should. Then there’s her denunciation of the religious support offered to women by “the goddess who carries the burden of the world”: Radha sneers at that fable, and taunts whatever goddess there is. She is indeed carrying everything, there is no goddess somewhere helping out.


(Poster: Soham Sen)


Dibyaudh Das for TheNewsmakers