#320. Mother India (1957)

This movie was hard to find in translation, and the DVD I finally got my hands on isn’t as comprehensively subtitled as it could be, but I’ll say for sure that Mother India is the first movie that (1) proved exceptionally obscure, (2) called for some elbow grease in its finding, and then (3) turned out to be exactly the kind of wondrous Lost Treasure experience I dream about whenever I’ve gotta excavate some movie from the bowels of nowhere. Angels with Dirty Faces was tough to find, as was The Bitter Tea of General Yen and Hill 24 Doesn’t Answer and The Crowd, and all four of those movies are very good, but none none of them gave me the feeling of discovering an obscure treasure, none were so galvanizingly enjoyable as Mother India—which as an Indian movie and a musical (is this the first proper Bollywood entry on the List?) seemed like something I’d feel totally disoriented in, same as I did with A Throw of Dice back during the silent era, or something as recent as An American in Paris, which was American and easy to follow, story-wise, but it became so indulgent with its ballet stuff, the dancing and the sweeping music, that I felt like I was tangled in the curtain of something that was made for someone who’s the opposite of me.

            But no, Mother India wasn’t disorienting or alienating or tedious. It was, in fact, on par with Pather Panchali in that it feels decidedly foreign, from my western perspective, but also communicates its values so clearly that…I guess those sea legs disappear after fifteen minutes or so.

            It’s one of the most beautiful family sagas on the List so far.

            On the note of disorienting foreign movies I wanna compare Mother India real quick to Tokyo Story, or Spring in a Small Town, or Story of the Last Chrysanthemums—because those movies, of which the first and third are Japanese and the middle on Chinese, are made with such nuanced cultural cues that, when the credits finally rolled, I was no less confused than I’d have been if the movies had run without subtitles. It can be frustrating if I’m trying to keep the Project moving at a certain momentum but, in reality, this is what’s required of anybody who’s tryna make a connection with a different culture. It calls for patience with that initial spell of confusion. I think it’s safe to say that most movies from a given nation are speaking directly to an audience of that nation, an audience of people who share a national history, a national identity, who’re familiar with certain cultural cues (invocations of political scandal, or popular TV shows, or episodes from their history). With those three Asian movies that proved so challenging, where it felt like I was eavesdropping on conversations between filmmakers and audiences from a different world, I did the necessary reading, I watched supplementary material, and finally felt like I’d gotten a grasp, however tenuous, of what they were trying to accomplish.

            But the grasp was always tenuous.

            And even if it isn’t, even if I really did finally come to understand what they were aiming for, I’m still so doubtful of whether I can trust my perception. Not only that: I wasn’t forged in that culture, its cues and sensibilities aren’t in my bones. I’ll only understand it either intellectually or in the most direct emotional sense. When I see a character who’s supposed to embody the conventional idea of a Chinese grandfather, I’ll be able to look at the depiction and understand it, but I won’t have the experience that a Chinese viewer will have of being able to say, “I grew up with such men, this is so true, so evocative of my childhood…”

            But anyway: Mother India is a generational epic that I think I understand, right off the bat, because its story is so simple and direct and relatable; but, still, I’m sure there’s a ton of shit going over my head.

            The movie begins with a love story, which I appreciate, because I’ve been having this crisis that dates all the way back to Ninotchka about how love stories where the courtship lasts the whole runtime and we’re supposed to interpret the start of the relationship, at movie’s end, as meaning Happily Ever After—when in reality, let’s face it, the commencement of the relationship more likely marks the end of the romance. The crest of the downslope.

            But no—Mother India opens with our protagonist, Radha (played by Nargis), as an old woman, reflecting on her marriage to Shamu (Raaj Kumar) and the life they built together with their children under the scrutiny and persecution of a slouched, shrill, mincingly loathesome moneylender who’s exploited their illiteracy, and their goodwill, by luring them into a contract for a loan that ends up exacting more from them than they could ever pay (interesting to see that the story of duplicitous moneylending, of debt that piles endlessly, of indentured servitude is…pretty much consistent all over the world).

            There isn’t much plot here. It’s all story. In other words: there isn’t a scenario, or a problem that needs to be resolved; it’s the story, rather, of how this young couple falls in love, gets married, has children, works very hard, tries to parent their children responsibly and stand abide respectfully by their ageing parents. As the years roll on and our characters age, as we follow the straightforward narrative thread of how Radha keeps her household together, it seems like the movie that’ll tell you new things as you watch it through the years.

            It’s a hangout movie, I guess, and a simple story that’s peppered with beautiful festive musical numbers (none of which were subtitled on my disk) and it’s got wonderful performances, none of which are subtle—I really like it, I’ll recommend it avidly, but I’ll caution you against its three-hour runtime. It needs to be watched in one sitting because, unlike Gone with the Wind or Dr. Mabuse, it feels like a movie whose color and tone gets richer and richer as it stirs. If that makes sense.

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