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Popular Hindi Cinema and the Conflictual Figure of the Mother/Nation: Radha (Mother India) and Sumithra Devi (Deewar)

By Swarnavel Eswaran

While it is not unusual to think of the landmark mother characters in popular Hindi cinema as signifying the larger community or nation, this essay is particularly interested in analyzing the tensions that arise out of the conflict between a mother’s desire to protect her son and to care for the community/nation at the same time. If we think of the larger sentiment surrounding the well-being of a nation as existing side by side with a mother’s emotion towards her son, the tension surrounding such coexistence sheds light on the split within the mother. Analyzing such a dichotomy, I believe, will help us understand the complexity of the mother figure on whom is superimposed the mythos of the (Oedipal) mother, whose life revolves around her son(s) and the ethos of a culture, which wants her to sacrifice herself for the laj (honour) or dharm (values) of the larger community/nation.

According to Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, the philosopher of emotions, the distinction between emotions and sentiments is often blurred, but in most cases “intense emotions are a response to temporary situations,” whereas for “situations which are of longer durations …different responses are required. Such responses can be either responses that are not affective at all or affective responses that are not emotional, such as sentiments (Ben-Ze-ev. 2000: 86).” Ben-Ze’ev also claims that emotions have a logic of their own. In the Indian context, however, particularly in trailers for popular films, sentiments and emotions are used broadly and interchangeably; sentiments are often used as adjectives to describe the larger rubric of the narrative, such as the commonly used label of ‘A sentimental love story’ or ‘A sentimental (family) drama’. But careful attention to the nuanced differences between sentiments and emotions, as detailed by Ben-Ze’ev, has significance for the analysis and understanding of popular Hindi films, like Mother India (dir. Mehboob Khan, 1957) Deewar/The Wall (dir. Yash Chopra, 1975), and Kahaani/Story (dir. Sujoy Ghosh, 2012) in the context of the representation/discourse of the nation. This essay, however, focuses mainly on Mother India, which is the archetypal film on nationalism. 

Maa Ka Pyaar and Aurat Ki Laj: Mother’s Love and Woman’s Honor 

Mother India’s narrative revolves around the lives of Radha and her two sons, Ramu and Birju. Radha (Nargis), a peasant woman, is married to Shyamu (Raj Kumar), whose mother Sunder Chachi (Jiloo-Maa) has borrowed heavily from the moneylender, Sukhi Lala (Kanhaiya Lal), for the sake of the lavish marriage ceremony of her son. Due to Sukhi Lala’s manipulation of accounts, the interest on the loan becomes a heavy burden on the family. Moreover, when Shyamu’s hands are crushed while attempting to make cultivable lands out of his unused ones, Radha has to struggle alone with her three young sons to pay off the debts. Shyamu disappears as he is unable to bear the taunts of the heartless villagers, and Sunder Chachi dies soon after to add to the woes of the lonely Radha.

The younger Birju (Sajid Khan) is defiant and violent, and as he grows up becomes the epitome of the dark past he had shared with his mother due to the evil designs of the usurer, Sukhi Lala. In contrast, Ramu (Rajendra Kumar) is obedient and well adjusted, and gets married to his beloved Champa (Kumkum) and has a son. The older Birju (Sunil Dutt), unable to come to terms with his predicament, takes out his wrath on the village women and, on attacking Sukhi Lala and his daughter Rupa (Chanchal), is forced out of the village and becomes a bandit. On the day of Rupa’s wedding, Birju returns to take his revenge and, after killing her father Sukhi Lala, takes her hostage, despite the pleas of Ramu and Champa. Radha intervenes and requests Birju to leave Rupa but he refuses, and to save her honour Radha shoots and kills Birju who dies in her arms.

The narrative is framed through a flashback when the old Radha inaugurates the flow of water to the village fields through a canal, whose water turns red when the narrative reverts back to interrupt the vivid memories of Radha, who is overwhelmed with the thoughts of her beloved son Birju, whom she sacrificed for the honour of a woman from her village.[1]

Although Radha loves both her sons, her predilection for Birju is clear right from the beginning, as exemplified by their relatively longer presence in the diegesis together, and by the spectacular scenes such as the one in which Birju saves his mother’s life when she gets unexpectedly trapped in a fire. The elaborate fire sequence is set up through the Holi (the spring festival of colours) song when the entire village is in a festive mood and Birju, on spotting his mother’s bangles on Rupa’s hands, tries to snatch them. This is perceived as the violation of her honour by the villagers and Sukhi Lala’s family urges them to cast Birju out of the village. As Radha and Ramu try to defend Birju, the irate villagers beat him up badly. The inconsolable and angry Birju steals a gun and, when Radha pleads with him to give it up, he does not respond. Subsequently, Ramu and Birju get into a fight hurting each other seriously and, as an unrelenting and alienated Birju leaves the village, Radha falls at his feet and begs him to stay.[2] An obstinate Birju escapes and disappears into the haystack. Later, through the blood in Radha’s hands (she had got it from Birju as he was shot while stealing the gun), the villagers come to know of Birju’s hiding behind the haystack, and set it on fire on the provocation of Sukhi Lala. Radha runs desperately into the fire to save her son but instead is saved by Birju when the fire turns wild due to the wind and engulfs her.

The uniqueness of this sequence is its dramatic intensity that is not subsumed by the climactic moment of the spectacle of the wild fire, which is shot in exquisite colors at dusk, marked by the reddish orange sky and the silhouetted haystacks, by the iconic cinematographer, Fardoon Irani. In the beginning of the sequence, the conflict centered on Rupa’s honour and its transgression is structured through the villagers on one side and the outlaw Birju on the other, and Radha as the in-between figure, who is torn between the two worlds: she loves Birju but wants him to be on the right side of law. The profundity of the melodrama here, however, lies in the representation of the conflict within Radha as it is revealed through her words and displayed through her mercurial emotions: as a mother she tries to protect her son from Sukhi Lala and the volatile villagers. Initially she pleads with Birju to give up his impulsive ways, and is angry when he refuses; she begs at his feet as he is leaving, and she desperately runs into the blazing fire to save him. These emotions, however, attain their poignancy due to their juxtaposition with Radha’s pensive statement: she pleads with Birju when she notices him hiding his gun, “The gun will never feed a mouth, cover the head of a woman, produce crop. What good is the gun?” These sentiments against armed violence come from Radha and not Ramu [emphasis mine] (Chatterjee, 2002: 67). Here a statement on the dichotomies of hunger/food, dignity/honour, and labour/perseverance, which could be claimed as the subtexts of the film driven by the ideologies of its socialist auteur Mehboob Khan and his investment in the mythos surrounding the dignity of the persevering Indian village woman, who signifies a colonized nation, comes through as a discourse of sentiments by the contemplative Radha. Ben-Ze’ev observes, “In describing sentiments we assume their continuous existence, not merely their frequent occurrence, although frequent occurrence of the corresponding acute emotion is typical of sentiments” (Ben-Ze’ev, 2000: 85). For instance, anger directed toward children “does not necessarily imply a sentiment of hostility,” rather it signifies “the affective traits of nervousness or caring for them” (Ibid).

The emotion of Radha’s acute concern for Birju as a mother coexists with her sentiments as a woman regarding the futility of violence to uphold the dignity of women or to solve problems regarding hunger or labour or her preoccupation with the larger community/nation. It is the dynamics of the relationship between her intense emotions regarding the well-being of Birju and the disposition of a long-term sentiment like respect for law of the land/nation, which makes the conflict all the more powerful by drawing us into her interiority. The external tension in the narrative symbolized through the physicality of the fight between Ramu and Birju seems only a ritual to force our attention into the split at the very core of Radha/Mother India between her unconditional faith in law/values surrounding community/nation and her deep affection for her lawless/revolutionary son/family.

Additionally, while her subjectivity informs us of the tumult inside her in defending and caring for her son while simultaneously being angry and bitter over him, it is the sentiment of laj (honour of woman) that renders the conflict intense, when juxtaposed with her vacillating emotions. Moreover, there is no distinct division between emotions and sentiments, “Many emotions may take the form of long term sentiments,” particularly an emotion like (mother’s) love, hate, regret, sorrow, grief, etc., since the “concern of these emotions can have the same general and stable features which enable” their transformation into sentiment (Ben Ze’ev, 2000: 83). Therefore, Radha’s interiority and sentiments are complex and dense and her statement against guns is not just empty rhetoric about dharma or values but also includes the wellbeing of her son as part of her community/nation, as “enduring emotions” or sentiments “are concerned with more profound, existential issues, and should not be characterized as merely aggregates of (the outbursts of) emotions” (Ben-Ze-ev, 2000: 84). Radha’s sentimentality as a mother includes the existential anxiety concerning women’s safety – the wellbeing of Rupa in particular and the incommensurability of her deep affection for her son as well as her commitment toward Rupa’s laj. Nonetheless, the palpable binary of her emotions and sentiments have been visually punctuated through colour, lighting, camera angles, and editing, leading us into her interiority.

Consider, for instance, the most famous sequence during the climactic moment in the film when Radha shoots down Birju: when Birju abducts Rupa and is riding a horse, he is stopped by Radha, who gradually reveals the gun in her hands:

Rupa: Radha auntie, Radha auntie, save me!
Mother (Radha): Birju, leave Rupa alone or else I’ll kill you.
Birju: You can’t kill me, you are my mother.
Mother (Radha): I am also a woman.
Birju: I am your son.
Mother (Radha): Rupa is the daughter of the entire village, she is my honour, too.
Birju, I can lose a son. I cannot sacrifice my honour (Mishra, 2002: 86).

When Birju does not relent and tries to speed away on his horse with the abducted Rupa, Radha screams, “Birju,” and fires the gun, and he collapses on the ground. Here, the conflict between Radha’s sentiments as a woman, who wants to safeguard her village/nation, and emotions as a mother, who loves her son, is both verbally expressed and visually punctuated. Gayatri Chatterjee draws attention to Mehboob’s acclaimed editing style: immediately after Radha’s shooting, Birju (framed through longer shots initially) is juxtaposed with Radha’s increasingly tighter frames beginning with a mid-long shot. Thereafter, she rushes toward the dying Birju, who offers her the bangles, which were pawned to Sukhi Lala, and takes him in her arms – “this return to their final bonding, is a cinematic tour de force” [italics in the original] (Chatterjee, 2002: 70). The power of this sequence, nonetheless, derives from the closer shots of the determined woman Radha, who epitomizes the stable sentiment of laj, symbolizing the larger community/nation, and its juxtaposition with the initial shots of her pleading with Birju and her later shots as the inconsolable mother who has shot her own son.

Scholars like Rosie Thomas, who paved the way for the discussion of popular Hindi cinema in Western academia through her seminal essay on Mother India, discuss the above scene within the western psychoanalytic discourse of the male fear of castration. But according to Chatterjee, “since Oedipal drama abounds in Indian cinema, such discussions seem to explain only part of the story” (Chatterjee, 2002: 71). Vijay Mishra, too, says that “(t)he final triumph of the Mother confuses and places into disarray the revolutionary act essential for postcolonial reconstruction…” (Mishra, 2002: 86). But if we focus on the split within Radha as a mother and a woman, the narrative of Mother India unfolds as an outward manifestation of her inner conflict between (long-term, stable) sentiments like honour and (short-term, intense) emotions like anger and attachment. The critical acclaim of Mother India as “the greatest picture” made in India, or its invocation “as the ‘definitive’ film text” (Mishra, 2002: 65-66), rests on its uniqueness as an epic spectacle, written on the body of Radha as the conflict between an affectionate mother (of Ramu and Birju) and a dharmic (just) woman – the mother of the nation. The other characters, including Birju, are ploys to play out the irresolvable tension between eternal values like endurance and tenacity/the need for stability on the part of a young nation, and the immediacy of the revolutionary impulse to usher in change/the desire for swift transition from the vestiges of the past/darkness of colonialism/feudalism symbolized by the moneylender Lala. The classic western binary of culture vs. nature is visualized through an iconic posture as described by Chatterjee, “Radha’s stance is that of an American Western hero: legs apart, feet planted on the ground, head and gun held high” (Chatterjee, 2002: 70). But what is unparalleled about this scene is the close-shot of Radha after she shoots Birju: it is composed from a low angle and for a moment there is no emotion from the understandably stunned Radha, and thereafter she slowly moves the gun across and gradually regains her (emotional) self.

Equally significant is the moment of the shooting itself: Radha sternly warns Birju, “Birju, I can lose a son but cannot sacrifice my honour” (Mishra, 2002: 86), and as Birju speeds away with the abducted Rupa in a long shot, we see Radha, as Mother India, entering the frame and running away from us/camera toward Birju, aiming and shooting him down. Normally, the subsequent shot would be the closer shot of Birju from Radha’s point of view. But here, the space, which was collapsed by Radha’s running behind Birju is expanded, and Radha’s aura as symbolizing the community/nation further augmented, by cutting (again) to Radha through a frontal, medium-long shot, thus, delaying the reaction to her gun shot, and underscoring the predominant motif of the binary conflict within Radha, as Mother India and the poor mother of Birju, the driving force behind the narrative.

The mother figure undergirds Deewar’s narrative conflict, too: in fact she literally becomes the site of contention between the brothers. Deewar invokes Mother India, when the urban mother, Sumithra Devi (Nirupa Roy), is caught between her conscientious police-officer son, Ravi Verma (Shashi Kapoor), and her elder son, Vijay Verma (Amitabh Bachchan), who is on the other side of the law. Toward the climax, she hands over the pistol to Ravi and asks him to be steadfast in discharging his duty, and is about to depart for the temple where she has promised to meet Vijay when Ravi interrupts: “You’re going, mother.” She replies: “Yes. The woman has discharged her duty. Now the mother goes to wait for her son.”[3] Here, too, an affective response of a woman centered on the sentiments of duty and justice as she hands over the pistol, which will later take the life of her beloved son Vijay, is juxtaposed with the words of an emotional and disconsolate mother, to draw us into her interiority where the eternal conflict centered on law/nation and her profound affection for her unfortunate son/family is played out.

What is significant in the above scene is its staging within the confines of the modest home of the police-officer, Ravi. Towards the end of the scene, the mother is almost rushing to the temple out of the constraints of the domestic sphere which, in the case of Ravi’s home in Deewar, is permeated with law through his uniform and steadfast belief in what is written in the book. In Mother India, however, Radha’s final encounter with Birju and her shooting him down is staged at the borders of the village/larger nation. It is in that blurred area that Radha’s interior battle as a mother of Birju and the mother of the nation is staged. More important, however, is the shifting of the locus of the mother: in the 1950s in Mother India, Radha’s movement is from the village to its boundaries, whereas two decades later, Sumithra Devi as the mother in Deewar migrates to Bombay, which entrenched itself as not only the industrial capital in the 1970s but also as the center of Hindi film industry. Almost four decades later, when Bollywood started looking westward towards the diaspora to augment its market, in Kahaani, the locus of the mother shifts to London even if her revenge drama is enacted mainly in Kolkata. The shifting of the mother’s locus has implications for her enunciation about the nation. If Radha was preoccupied with her village and the evil designs of the local villain – the feudal moneylender Sukhi Lala – Sumithra Devi is overwhelmed by the dark abyss at the heart of the exploitative factory owner in a small town and the smugglers and underworld mafias in Bombay – villains (of the nation) in vicinity, yet far removed and away from her quotidian world. The villains become further removed and are at a longer distance to Vidya Bagchi (Vidya Balan), since as a mother of contemporary times in Kahaani, she is preoccupied in settling scores with terrorists and their technology. The major difference in the case of Vidya Bagchi is that, unlike in the case of Radha and Sumithra Devi, her trauma of having lost her husband is subsumed by her fear and vendetta regarding the long-distance enemies: not only are the tanned skin (Birju) and the tattoo mark (Vijay) are missing as emblems of insurmountable trauma but the haunting specter of the dissenting son himself, who transgresses, as exemplified by Bagchi’s conspicuous but feigned/fake pregnancy, reminding us of the ubiquity and the ungroundedness of the fear regarding the Other in contemporary times.

[1] Radha’s inauguration of the dam or water reservoir, at the behest of and surrounded by the leaders of the Congress, exemplified by the white topi/cap on their head, symbolizes the Nehruvian impulse towards socialism in the young independent nation. The trope of the absent father and the mother, who toils hard to bring up her two polarized sons, is common to Mother India and Deewar.

[2] For a detailed reading of this scene, see, Gayatri Chatterjee, Mother India: Madara Iṇḍīya (London: British Film Institute, 2002), 66-8. Chatterjee’s monograph on Mother India is unique in its blending of primary materials and narrative analysis.

[3] See, for details on the narrative of Deewar, Philip Lutgendorf, “philip’sfil-ums: notes on Indian popular cinema,” accessed 14 October 2016, <;.


Works Cited

Ben Ze’ev, A. 2000. The Subtlety of Emotions. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Chatterjee, G. 2002. Mother India: Madara Iṇḍīya. London: British Film Institute.

Mishra, V. 2002. Bollywood Cinema: Temples of Desire. New York: Routledge.


Swarnavel Eswaran Pillai
is an associate professor in the Departments of English, and Media and Information at Michigan State University. His recent documentaries include Migrations of Islam (2014), and Hmong Memory at the Crossroads (2015) and books, Cinema: Sattagamum Saalaramum (Nizhal, 2013), and Madras Studios: Narrative, Genre, and Ideology in Tamil Cinema (Sage Publications, 2015).


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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