Times change but the issues remain

Aurat (1940 Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan) and Mother India (1957 Hindi film, directed by Mehboob Khan).

This review of one famous and one decidedly less famous Indian film of the past is a pendant to my reviews of the Kannada film Thithi because its intention to illustrate the way in which the same social concerns have always been the subject of Indian film as well as showing how the approach to those problems varies both with political change and cinematic fashion. The issue, present in Thithi, of the crippling financial burden associated with traditional festivals was already the theme of one of India’s most famous films, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, which narrowly failed to win a best foreign film Oscar in 1957.

While Mother India remains well-known – there are twenty-four reviews of the film on IMDB, Aurat, filmed seventeen years earlier, is relatively unknown and, until recently, was very difficult to find a copy of. It has only one review on IMDB, posted just last month, but the reviewer, apparently in the US but very possibly of Indian origin, describes the film as “a cultural masterpiece in every sense of the word and ought to be obligatory viewing in all film schools”. This language is not mine but I am broadly in agreement with the enthusiastic reviewer.

Yet Aurat and Mother India are in a sense one and the same film. The story-line is more or less identical. Although a certain amount of rewriting was done for the later film, the actual changes are very few. There are however extremely significant changes in tone and in the treatment of the subject that took place, turning Mother India into a kind of nationalist epic where Aurat had been a powerful piece of social criticism. India had of course become an independent nation in the intervening years, but there had been changes too in Mehboob himself as a director and in the aesthetic of his films. During the forties he was strongly influenced, as were several Indian directors, by the German (”expressionist”) and Russian (“social realist”) film traditions; as a result these early films have a rich and sometimes surprising combination of “naturalism” (what is often referred to as “neo-realism”) and occasional non-realistic montage, designed essentially to reflect the characters’ states of mind.

In later years Mehboob became increasingly enamoured of US cinema. He saw himself as the Indian Cecil B DeMille (the US director he most admired) and became obsessed with the notion of “breaking into” the US market, a campaign which began in earnest with the fantasy swashbuckler Aan in 1952 and culminated in the success of Mother India four years later. To achieve this, Mehboob replaced the gritty black-and-white naturalism of Aurat with a far more glamorous Technicolor depiction and abandoned any attempt at expressionism in favour of a stylistic “realism” that conformed with US practice. So, while Mother India is as technically proficient and as attractive to watch as any DeMille epic, it has none of the more subtle combination of effects Mehboob had used in Aurat and in his other films of the 1940s.

The title of the 1957 film is often considered to be intended as a reference to a controversial book of the same name by US journalist Katherine Mayo that had appeared in 1927. Mayo’s strongly pro-imperialist book has frequently been denounced, both then and since, for its racist assumptions that colour and deform her view of India. Yet this does not entirely invalidate her criticisms of social evils such as child marriage, oppression of women, infant mortality or rural debt, which are the main concerns of the book. Aurat can hardly be described as a response to Mayo although it was produced while that book was still controversial. The film itself is, after all, a vivid dramatization of one of those evils that Mayo stresses. To quote from her book, the “total rural debt of British India is estimated at approximately $1,900,000,000, in the main unproductive. This burden is largely due to the vicious usury and compound interest system….and the rest may be mainly attributed to extravagant expenditures on marriages.”

Mayo had been very critical in her book of the naivety of “Hind Swaraj” Ghandianism which she saw as preventing many Indian nationalists from seriously addressing the social problems that existed. In fact Gandhi’s friends and allies were not much politer about Hind Swaraj than she was. His own mentor, Gopal Krishna Ghokale, thought the book “crude and hastily conceived” while Jawaharlal Nehru dismissed it as “completely unreal”. But Ghandhian naivety about the virtues of tradition had in many ways its almost exact counterpart in Nehruvian naivety about the virtues of “development”. That naivety would be elevated to a sort of contrived “national consensus” in the years that followed Independence, something constantly reflected in the films of the period. So a famous addition to the 1957 is the frame-story that shows the building of a dam in the village, providing the falsely optimistic note on which the film ends. Although the story remained the same, this fundamentally altered the spin put upon it. Mother India now had the appearance of being a story about Indian problems of poverty which would be cured by the miracle of development.

This is simply not the actual story of the film (either film). The family portrayed is not poor. They are, like the family portrayed in Thithi, fairly well-to-do farmers in a prosperous agricultural region. The family becomes impoverished through imprudence (the extravagant marriage) and debt. The 1940 film, like its 1957 counterpart, shows scenes of drought and famine (if anything more vividly portrayed) but these are factors that aggravate the situation, not the root-cause of the problem. The building of a dam is no answer at all to the main social problems invoked in the film(s).

One of the few really major changes in the story in 1957 concerns the character of the husband Shanu, excellently played in the 1940 film by the actor Arun (father of the actor/dancer Govinda). In 1957 he is portrayed as being crippled by a farming accident, so that his abandonment of the family seems simply part of a “natural” disaster that has befallen. In Aurat it is the stress and worry of the economic situation alone (and the fact that his wife is again pregnant) that leads Shanu to desert his family and some of its finest and most “expressionistic” scenes of the film portray the manner in which he falls apart under pressure.

Since the failings of the father are in a sense reflected in a different form in the next generation in the recklessness of the delinquent son, Bijru, there is a strong thematic connection here that is lost in the 1957 version. The “irresponsibility” of the male – “the spoilt son” syndrome – which throws the entire burden upon the woman is a strong Mehboob theme (see also the 1946 Anmo Ghadi) and serves in Aurat to unite all the elements from the over-extravagant marriage with which the film begins to the tragedy of the bandit-son with which it ends, a moment represented, not as in 1957 as some kind of stoic heroism but rather as a final traumatic defeat for the unfortunate mother. Thus Aurat is, as the title implies, the story of a real woman and not of some hypothetical national symbol and is told with a coherence that Mother India lacks. For the sole IMDB reviewer it is “the superior of the two films” and I am in entire agreement. Despite its glossier look and more evident “international” appeal, Mother India lacks the truth of its predecessor.

People today tend to be more or less equally sceptical of Gandhianism and Nehruvianism, but we have inevitably replaced them by our own myths and illusions. The phenomenal development of metropolitan culture and the enthusiastic embrace of “globalisation” (really just a euphemism for neo-liberal economics) have often cast into oblivion the social problems that persist, particularly in rural India. In modern India shining, we have badly needed writers like Palagummi Sainath to remind us of submerged, if inconvenient, realities. Film-styles and fashions change over the years but, in film too, the need for a truthful approach to the problems of society remains constant.