Mehboob Khan, who produced and directed the immortal classic Mother India (1957) would perhaps have been shocked at the present situation of the peasant population in India 60 years after the film was released. Behind the glamour and the chutzpah of the packaging and a rather melodramatic storyline when read in retrospect, Mother India had a clear, political agenda – to promote and further the cause of farming, farmers and agriculture in keeping with Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s ideal in India’s First Five-Year Plan.

This article focuses on the agrarian development agenda by the government in a film that marked the first decade after Independence rather than on the “mother-nation” dyad and the idealised concept of ‘motherhood’ that sustained at the time the film was made. Mother India had a political context after the Independence of India in 1947.

Prime Minister Nehru announced his idea of socialism and human resource empowerment. At the time of the launch of the First Five Year Plan (1951 – 1956), India was challenged by major issues such as (a) the influx of refugees, (b) severe food shortage and (c) mounting inflation. Besides, the nation lacked equilibrium as a consequence of World War II (1939 – 1945) and the Partition of India. Top priority was given to agriculture to overcome the food crisis and to curb inflation. A country where more than 80 per cent of the population comprised farmers, a socialist theme of governance was essential to build the initial steps for future development.

Mehboob Khan showed his support of the Congress-ruled government of Independent India. Much has changed since then, for the worse so far as the destiny and lifelines of the farmers and their families are concerned. In 2014, the National Crime Records Bureau reported the death of 5650 farmers who took their lives. The highest number of suicides was recorded in 2004 when 18,241 farmers committed suicide.

The farmers suicide rate in India has ranged between 1.4 and 1.8 per 100,000 total population over a ten-year period through 2005, according to one study. In How States fudge the data on farmer Suicides (Rediff.com, 1 August 2014) P. Sainath writes: “Suicide rates among Indian farmers were a chilling 47 per cent higher than they were for the rest of the population in 2011. In some of the states worst hit by the agrarian crisis, they were well over 100 per cent higher. In Maharashtra, farmers were killing themselves at a rate that was 162 per cent higher than that for any other Indians excluding farmers. A farmer in this state is two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide than anyone else in the country, other than farmers.”

Mother India laid out how the protagonist Radha, without wallowing once in self-pity or shedding copious tears at the gamble destiny was playing with her, or, accusing even the evil moneylender, Sukhilala, chasing her relentlessly not only for the debt she owed him but also to literally gain his ‘pound of flesh’ from her, rose to become a successful and reasonably affluent farmer as her two sons grew up. This was not of her choosing.

Circumstances had created these conflicts she had not only to encounter but also to overcome – the floods, the droughts, the moneylender, the heavy interest that took away the family’s plot of land and her jewellery illegally, the death of two small boys – one of starvation and one washed away in the flood waters and the tragedy of losing the younger of her two sons, Birju who becomes a bandit.

She misses out on Birju’s agenda– he is determined to get his mother’s pair of gold kangans back, now worn by Sukhilala’s daughter Roopa who demonstrates this brazenly, triggering Birju right to the edge of dangerous anger.

Mother India points out that though Radha was strong, determined and powerful, she had no control over her life and the lives of her two sons. The older son is good but he has no opinion of his own. That is why he is “good.” Radha was not sure of her marital status till the film ended and we see the faint bindi still identifying her as a suhaagan – a married woman whose husband is alive. But is he alive?

She is one of the few working women on the Indian screen and that too, as a peasant, another force she copes with, while her husband runs away from family, responsibility, a pregnant wife with three kids as he gets deeply sucked into self-pity for his loss of hands. It is an optimistic story but it does not show an empowered Radha.

The film makes generous use of red beginning with the sindoor and the bindi and the bridal chunri Radha wears as a bride, through the red of the earth, the bronze tones the cinematography takes, till in the end, when the canal is opened, the water that flows down is red, a metaphor not of the Communist colour, but a symbol of the loss of blood that went into India’s independence. Soon after, we come across the picturesque landscape of tractors used to till “a verdant, thriving land set against the backdrop of a newly dug canal.

Asked to inaugurate the canal, an old Radha, seen in extreme close-up, shakes her severely lined, worn face in disbelief. Contemporary audiences would have immediately recognized the tractor and the dam as potent signifiers of the Nehruvian ideal of social progress. As villagers urge her to perform the prestigious task, memories of Radha’s traumatic past break through the waters of the canal” (Anuradha P Kapse in The Routledge Encylopaedia of Films). Radha’s situation in 1957 in a village in Gujarat is not very different from the fate of the farmers who are committing suicide every day by the dozens, across the country, be there rain or drought or a lush crop season or cash crops or food crops.

Radha is left in a state of flux – not an unmarried virgin, not a married woman whose husband is beside her, not a widow either but a single mother who, much ahead of her time, holds the plough and pulls it forward, a tough journey for any woman, much more for one who is a peasant. “The image of an anguished Radha literally crucified on the cross of Indian virtue eventually evolved into a yoke that female characters in Hindi films had to bear for decades.

Sadly, Mother India has been less attractive as the Survivor than as the Sacrificing Woman,” as Kapse noted. The same applies today to the farmer population in India that remains neglected and unaware of their rights that strips them of the power of direct selling and cutting out middle-men and agents who cheat them hollow and the deliberate lack of awareness that is sustained among them by the powers-thatbe of the technical and logistical details of the loans they incur along with interest.

So rereading Mother India is like looking at an India worse than what it was in 1957 so far as its farming population is concerned.

(The writer is a veteran film critic.)