Mehboob Khan (1906-1964)
A man of humble beginnings and little formal education, Mehboob Khan, like many other filmmakers of his time, learnt his craft in the Theatre. Born Ramjan Khan in Billimoria, Gujarat, he ran away from home to Bombay and spent his earlier youth scrounging work in studios. He started his career with the Imperial Film Company as a bit player, graduated to acting then directing, to become one of India's greatest filmmakers. The common motif in his movies usually was the oppressed poor pitted against the oppressive rich, be it the poor peasant woman against the slimy zamindar in Aurat (1940), the poor tribal against the money-grabbing capitalist in Roti (1942), or the commoner against the prince in Aan (1952). Mehboob was a great lover of music and in all his movies he paid greatest attention to music. Manmohan (1936), his first big musical hit was inspired by Barua's Devdas (1935), and its leading actor Surendra, was declared Saigal of Bombay on release of the movie. Mehboob produced many musicals thereafter repeating his favorite singing star Surendra in most of them- Deccan Queen (1936), Jagirdar (1937), Alibaba (1940), Aurat (1940), Anmol Ghadi (1946), Elan (1947) and Anokhi Ada (1949). Anmol Ghadi created a stir because of its casting coup of three singing stars together, Surendra, Noor Jehan and Suraiya, besides all time great musical track by maestro Naushad. Andaaz (1949), his next masterpiece, also had a casting coup with three top stars, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor and Nargis coming together in the most modern movie even by today's standards. Mehboob followed Andaaz with Aan (1952), the first Bollywood film in technicolor, perfect in its technique, spectacular in its sets and fights. It was dubbed in French as the film Mangla Fille des Indes. His last greatest hit Mother India (1957), the remake of his most acclaimed film Aurat, was the immortal story of a woman's suffering and endurance while bringing up her children- harsh poverty, a runaway husband, a scheming moneylender, a wayward son whom she is compelled to shoot in the end. It was the first Indian movie nominated for Oscar and won him many awards including Filmfare Award 1958 for best film and best director. (Source: Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema (Oxford University Press), India Heritage.com
Aurat (Mehboob Khan, 1940): The original version of Mehboob's classic Mother India (1957), this stark epic was much more realistic and has the earthiness its remake lacks. It is one of the most widely acclaimed films focussing on the voice of women. There are elements in the film which go deep into the Indian psyche and touch a chord which no one has touched before. Radha, the mother (Sardar Akhtar), is a full blooded woman and equal partner in her husband's labors. She upholds the 'dharma' which the good son, Ramu (Surendra), follows. When the other son, Birju (Yaqub), transgresses it, she shoots him. Sardar Akhtar's extraordinary performance is one highlight of the film. The other is Birju's characterization of the bad son, which has a different but equally important side. He does not suffer patiently the landlord's extortionism. There is a great scene in the film. Birju now grown into an illiterate decoit, raids the moneylender's house and destroys his account books saying, "This is the knowledge that has destroyed us." Birju speaks for those who cannot speak, the deprived millions. In Aurat, Mehboob, the untutored genius, saw India with a clear, even ruthless vision.
Mother India (Mehboob Khan, 1957): A gem in the Golden Age of Indian cinema, this remake of Mehboob Khan's earlier classic Aurat (1940) was the first Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1958, which it missed by a single vote. The film also has the distinction of winning five Filmfare awards in 1958 - Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Nargis), Best Cinematography (Faredoon A. Irani) and Best Sound Recordist (R. Kaushik). Mother India is an epic tale of a mother's struggle against adversity and unscrupulous moneylender to retain her farm and feed her children. Radha, played by screen queen Nargis, is a strong, passionate mother, tilling the soil with the plough on her back when there are no oxen, raising her children alone and exploited by the local moneylender. Her son conceives a fanatical hatred for this man; his obsession, coupled with Radha's need to live within the boundaries of the law and common decency, ends in classic tragedy. As the film's publicity said, "The grain of rice on your table does not tell the grim tale of the toil that grew it", the film portrays with astounding success a powerful view of rural life in a small Indian village, with raw emotions and cinematic fineness.