Miss India to Mother India!


By Hindustan Times

Mumbai, March 6 -- In 2003, a weekly news magazine, Outlook, asked 25 Indian filmmakers, including Govind Nihalani, Aparna Sen, Madhur Bhandarkar, Ramesh Sippy, Subhash Ghai and Vinod Chopra amongst others, to draw up their personal Top 10 list of Hindi films made in independent India. The verdict was unanimous - Mother India topped the list with 15 votes, closely followed by Sholay (14) and Mughal-e-Azam (13).

Over the years, I've conducted my own poll, asking our actresses about their 'dream' role and inevitably the answer is Mother India. I often wonder what it was about Radha that makes her the quintessential Indian woman and Bollywood's eternal muse. Okay, so she was a female Job who braves draughts and floods, storms and starvation, desertion and destitution, and also the advances of the lecherous moneylender Sukhilal. Okay, so on her frail shoulders rested not just the plough, but also the fate of two young children and eventually, that of a village. Okay, so from a blushing bride, she metamorphoses into a sole breadwinner, from a hapless mother to Mother Earth, Mother India and eventually a Mother Goddess.

She grows in stature with every frame to win public sympathy, even after she guns down her errant son, Birju. Agreed Radha was an awe-inspiring figure but hey, she wasn't an original. The mother of all films was the remake of director Mehboob Khan's 1940 Aurat. So, shouldn't Sardar Akhtar - Mrs Mehboob Khan - be hailed as Mother India? But no, the crown dropped on Nargis' head.

I'd think it was because of her star power and the forbidden romance of her marriage with Sunil Dutt, her reel-life son. Or may be it was because at the age of 28, after bagging the Padma Shri and the Best Actress Award at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival for her portrayal in Mother India, Nargis took the bow to play a real-life mother to Sanjay, Namrata and Priya.

On September 5, 1957, at the film's premiere, she went on stage during the interval. An earthquake had ravaged Iran and expressing sympathy for the victims, Nargis appealed for donations to the earthquake fund. Eight white boxes were passed around, within minutes they were full. The Mother India magic had started working! Raj Kapoor's Lady in White turned up old and sans make-up on screen for her mentor, to deliver the performance of a lifetime. And no one ever forgot it. What they didn't remember was that just a few months before the release of this epic drama, that had drawn inspiration from Maxim Gorky's Mother and Nobel Prize-winning author Pearl S Buck's Good Earth, IS Johar had released Miss India with Nargis playing a comedienne.

When Mehboob Khan heard about Johar's "silly" parody, he warned him against approaching his heroine. When Nargis heard this, she immediately drove over to Johar's, telling him to finalise a contract for her to sign. "The fact that Mehboob saab has objected proves that Miss India is an important film," she reasoned.

Mehboob Khan was furious when he heard that his Mother India would first appear as Miss India. But he cooled down and subsequently, even attended the premiere of Johar's laugh riot. Mamma mia, Happy Women's Day!