Fifty years ago this day, it was a Diwali week. It saw the opening of a film that delivered everything we have come to expect since then from big festival Bollywood releases. It had big stars, a liberal dose of melodrama and the most melodious of chartbusters. Mother India was in the theatres.
But the film’s pungent social references are now lost in cinema's graveyard. The images of the usurious moneylender, the desperate mother grubbing in dirt for bits of grain and of peasants labouring with ploughs are too harsh to be sold at a profit today. But this heartrending tale filled Indians with hope and pride then.
Not just because of its enormous success in Nigeria, Spain, Greece, Russia and other countries. Not just because it became a serious contender in the best foreign film category at the Oscars, losing respectably to Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria. But also because it told a young nation that it would not remain destitute forever.
Even the wayward Birju's blood spilt by his mother transforms and gives the village a new life, heralding the big dam that would quench the thirst of its parched fields. So deeply did his film resound with Nehruvian idealism that Mehboob, when he needed financial assistance to travel to the Oscars, could write to the Prime Minister intimately: “You know I am a pure swadeshi product without any English education and… I should be able to show that our government is also backing me. Otherwise I will look small and lonely.” The money came through.
The film also marked the makeover for Nargis, till then known as Raj Kapoor's glamorous partner in films like Awaara. Mehboob's rural saga did not just elevate her from playing second fiddle to the hero, the director also backed up this faith in her with good money. At Rs 5,000 a month, her salary made Sunil Dutt's pay of Rs 800 seem like a pittance, when even this was not a trifling sum then.
Just one film old at the time, Dutt had been augmenting his income by working in a municipal bus depot and also as an announcer for Radio Ceylon.
In their recently released book, Mr and Mrs Dutt, daughters Namrata and Priya recount how the Mother India contract meant Dutt could buy himself his first car, a Fiat, number plate 1933, in which he was to go one day to propose to Nargis.
It is a different world today, in some ways and most of India still lives in villages. But filmmakers have lost faith in stories about the destitute millions. And Mehboob's chosen emblem, the hammer and sickle that stood for the proletariat and peasant, no longer seems an object of pride.