Melodrama resonates in a consistent and desperate narrative throughout Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. During the initial scene, a shockingly modern shot of bulldozers and decimated farmland fill the screen with the grieving protagonist Radha, metaphorically known as Mother India kissing a clump of dirt and looking desperate is juxtaposed with a foggy flashback in which Radha is emotionally reminded of her initial experience of the joys of marriage shattered by the weight of poverty. The audience is made aware that Radha’s new mother in law had actually signed a deceitful mortgage of the land, which ensured that the miserly moneylender Sukhilala receives three quarters of the family’s harvest as interest for the loan that he issued them for the lush wedding.
Implications of this exchange provide commentary on both the power structure between literate wealthy figures and impoverished rural civilians as well as the significance of stature and wealth in societal expectations. A prominent example of the latter principle is when Shamu, Radha’s new husband, shrouds her in compliments and takes exaggerated pride in the bangles that are symbolic of her comfort, status as a bride and reputation among fellow village dweller. Not only are these of significance for Radha’s character and Indian female viewer alike but also to Shamu as a manifestation of his love and ability to provide and care for his new wife. He promises her a life of four strong and able children, comfort and elevated societal stature that is to be envied by the other women in the town. During the first part of the film, the expected roles of husband and wife are highly significant to the plot’s development.
Another perspective of import during the first half of the film is the visual use of the color red and the omnipresence of socialism and its implications on the agrarian community of India. Vibrant red is used in Radha’s wedding sari, during scene transitions, in the attire of the prime minister and gang who urge Radha to inaugurate the implementation of a new aqueduct in the town and the blood red water that flows at several key moments in the film. In Mother India, red almost always symbolizes an ardent change. The scene closely following the marriage in which a large group of civilians are farming in elaborate dress and with a hop in a skip appears to be an eerie reference to communism and the ease with which labor is performed in a group setting. This apparently prosperous and cooperative economic system is complimented by the birth of Radha and Shamu’s first son, Ramu whom Radha rejoices over with fervor and intense happiness. The joy of the family is over shadowed by a lurking evolution of the natural environment and economic ownership of land. Sukhilala’s character is integral and recurrent to the plot as the bad guy who exploits the family’s illiteracy and lack of control over their desperate situation.
Financial dilemmas concerning debt owed to Sukhilala and the heavy burden of private farming practices escalate as the film progresses and Radha births another son, Birju whose character evolves into a tragic martyr whom allegorically represents revolutionary youth in India. Shamu pushes his physical capacity to its limits in the fields, struggling to provide for his family and ideally dissipate the debt that has incurred between his beloved family and Sukhilala. Fantastical ambitions based on a false hope that the moneylender’s figures are in good faith push Shamu to an unfortunate accident in which he loses both his arms. Devastated by the prospects of a life of dependency and rendered completely helpless to aid in his family’s plight, he is deeply depressed and grieves for the societal reputation that his uselessness will cast upon his wife, three sons and unborn child. Made deeply ashamed by the ridicule of his peers and the knowledge that he is a burden to his family essentially forces Shamu to escape the village and abandon his family. Sukhilala pressures Radha to marry him and enjoy the benefits of his decadent lifestyle but she refuses to sell her self for comfort. As an audience, we are reminded of her inner strength and that her role as a representation of India as a nation and source for fertility and endurance in times of tribulation. The Hindi concept of dharma, a strong belief that if an individual acts in accordance with their self actualized path and avoids temptation all will evolve as it should, comes to mind in a critical reflection of Radha’s character and its preponderance in Indian ideals of morality.
Left in a state that would leave most weak and ineffectual, our Mother India rises above her circumstances and finds strength in sublime love for her children. She continues to work the land and provide for her children to the best of her ability while starving and without hopes of soon escaping her condition. A devastating monsoon flood rips its fiery red currents through the fields, destroying the crop and pushing the family further into debt and despair. Radha goes to Sukhilala to request food for her family but is resolute in her decision to remain true to herself and not sell her soul for any substantial price. During this scene, she also experiences an intense instance of darshan with a statue in his home. After an internal struggle that the audience experiences through her dialogue, she concludes that she has the strength to continue on her path of transcendence and continues to sustain her children and self on that which the Earth provides.
Birju, a child embodiment of the god Krsna, is significant because he represents the revolutionary force that is relevant and necessary to Indian economics. He is a paradigm of a character because he effectively denotes Sukhilala as a thief who is undeserving of his wealth and exploitative of the poor agrarian people who cannot read his contracts of servitude but still sign due to desperation and faith in the inherent goodness of humanity. However, Mother India tends to depict village life in India as a communal mechanism that only operates when all participating members cooperate and contribute. Birju, however, grows up embittered about the trickery that landed his family and poverty, unfair power structures, frustration with the lack of education and an omnipresent sulking anger. In early childhood, Birju is also significant to the development of the plot solely because he is a charming, intelligent youth who invokes empathy and sorrow for the misdirected youth of India.
Eventually, as the story progresses, Radha loses two of her sons and feels an internal pressure to kill Birju, her beloved son who has provided for her as much as she has for him when he murders Sukhilala after she has promised the village that he will do no more harm. This moment is critical to the film’s message because she is making the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of her community. Even though Birju’s deeply rooted need for revenge and satisfaction are legitimized, Radha is wise enough to realize the need for cooperation and peace is necessary for a modern India. The film concludes with Radha’s decision to inaugurate the canal system and allow for economic and environmental progress. The fields and flooded with a red flow of water that can be interpreted as the blood of India and the blood that is shed in the name of sacrifice for a just cause.