India’s DeMille: Remembering Mehboob Khan on his 57th death anniversary

Mother India is a valentine to Indian womanhood. On International Women’s Day and in particular, Mother’s Day, film journalists (mea culpa) cheerfully list it as a must-watch. Whether or not young audiences are drawn to it despite all the good press is hard to guess. But thanks to Nargis’ mother of all performances in the mother of all Hindi movies, the 1957 classic has a secured place in Bollywood’s rarefied sanctum. In addition to giving us Nargis’ ballsy act, Naushad’s magnum opus music, Sunil Dutt’s devilish rogue performance, the evil Lala and the milky river of melodrama that has only served to sweeten future Hindi films, Mother India has one main contribution that has outlasted everything else — the ‘mother’ trope, obviously.

Also, it gave us Sanjay Dutt. Nargis and Sunil Dutt’s famous romance began on the sets of this picture, as Dutt saved his co-star from a near-fatal fire and nursed her to recovery. In the film, of course, an entirely different fate awaited the on-screen mother-son duo. The long-suffering mother Radha (Nargis) had to channel her inner Kali and bring herself to shoot her favourite son (Dutt as Birju), a demon who keeps haunting the village. Radha kills her own boy to save the honour of another woman. In real life, Sunil Dutt was quite the gentleman. And so, a year after Mother India’s release, Dutt and Nargis were happily married. And in 1959, Sanjay Dutt was born.

For trivia buffs, there’s much to celebrate about the epic, which was India’s first Oscar nominee while for the good ol’ viewers, there’s the film itself whose lingering influence has been felt decades after it was made, most notably on Salim-Javed’s Deewaar. There’s one man to thank for it. Mehboob Khan — who has been described as a ‘showman’, ‘ziddi and ambitious’ by actress Nimmi (courtesy, Guftagoo on Rajya Sabha TV), ‘hidayat kar-e-azam’ (director par excellence) and in old-time journalist Bunny Reuben’s view, ‘India’s Cecil B. DeMille.’

Mother India starred Sunil Dutt, Nargis and Rajendra Kumar (Photo: Express Archives)

Khan not only fits those descriptions but owns it. Whether you love it (like Javed Akhtar, one half of Salim-Javed, who admits in Talking Films: Conversations on Hindi Cinema, “Mother India and Gunga Jumna were Salim sahib’s and my favourite films) or find it to be one giant cornball, Mother India has been a boon and bane for its maker. Having burnt his finger with The Front Page, the incomparable Billy Wilder lamented, “Never do a remake.” In Khan’s case, the opposite happened. Mother India was a rehash of his own Aurat of 1940. Only improved and with some better acting, especially by Sunil Dutt who replaced a bald-headed Yakub as the anti-hero character Birju. Aurat flopped. Mother India was a resounding hit. By far Khan’s most remarkable and successful film, it has overshadowed his other work which is unfortunate. Because the truth is that Mehboob Khan is much more than just Mother India. In a career spanning three decades, he made around 25 films — many studded with chartbuster music, often by his friend and close collaborator Naushad. He directed some of the biggest stars of his era, and his own name was ranked alongside the Golden Age magnates like Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, V Shantaram, K Asif and Guru Dutt.

Acting to direction

Mehboob Khan was born in what is now Gujarat in 1907 and had to work his way up from a modest background. Not formally educated, he didn’t let any of that come in the path of pursuing his dreams. Acting, and not direction, was supposedly his first love. He ran away from home twice to try his luck in the movies — and was second time lucky. In Bombay, the 20-something initially found a job as an extra with stalwart Ardeshir Irani in the heyday of the Imperial Film Company and did not get a shot at direction until Al Hilal in 1935. This is where the Cecil B. DeMille comparison makes sense. The swashbuckling historical was his answer to DeMille’s The Sign of the Cross, released in 1932.
Some reports claim that Mehboob Khan was one of the contenders for the leading role in Alam Ara (India’s first talkie in 1931) which finally went to Master Vithal. Khan may not have made it in front of the camera but the ‘actor’ in him, it seemed, didn’t die even after he turned director. Dilip Kumar, who worked with him in Andaz, Aan and Amar, reveals in his memoir The Substance and the Shadow that Mehboob Khan was “well-known for depicting facial expressions and body movements before actors.” Which is to say, he was acting out scenes which helped his stars bring alive the characters that the director had in mind.

Those who think of Mother India as his only calling card must make it a point to watch Andaz, Aan and Amar. Common to all three titles are actor Dilip Kumar, music composer Naushad and cinematographer Faredoon Irani. You could call it a loose trilogy even though the director didn’t intend it that way. In 1949’s Andaz, Khan pulled off a casting coup by bringing together Nargis, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor. The film starts off as a love story, turns into a love triangle but ends in tragedy. This was Raj Kapoor-Nargis’ first cinematic pairing.

The same year, one of Hindi cinema’s greatest on-screen couples would go on to break box-office records in Barsaat. A central theme in Andaz is that of infidelity. Rajan (Raj Kapoor) suspects his wife Neena (Nargis) of having an affair with her friend Dilip (Dilip Kumar). But it’s all a misunderstanding, as Dilip’s letter towards the end makes it clear. What’s remarkable is that there’s no happy ending for the trio. It’s a rare commercial Hindi outing (remember this is just two years after Independence) where the heroine is sent to the Kalapani jail on charges of murder, leaving behind not only her husband but also a young daughter to an uncertain future.

Filmmaker Mehboob Khan along with Dilip Kumar and Nargis on the set of Amar. (Photo: Express Archives)

Mehboob Khan and Nargis shared a protégé-mentor relationship. The all-time great Nargis had started out as a child artiste. When she grew into a teenager it was Khan who gave her a break as a heroine in Taqdeer in 1943. After Andaz, he wanted to sign her up again for a role in Aan (1952). But when she declined, the debut-making siren Nadira was brought in as a replacement. Too hot to handle, Nadira plays a sultry princess who falls for a brash commoner (Dilip Kumar). On the surface, the film is a sort of ‘taming of the shrew’ with Kumar’s character reforming, or shall we say reining in, the horse-riding, sword-carrying monarch. But there’s another message: of love, equality, justice and a world sans dynasty and monarchy. The ruler (played by Murad, a popular supporting player of the time and Raza Murad’s father) has the welfare of the villagers at heart. Despite objection from his own family which includes Nadira and the hunky Prem Nath, his longtime wish is to hand over the power back to where it belongs — to the people. Shot in B&W as well as colour, Aan represented both a gamble and departure for Kumar, “in total contrast to my public image at that time of a tragedian,” writes the thespian in The Substance and the Shadow. Similarly, 1954’s Amar deals with rape. That, too, committed by the protagonist (Dilip Kumar). The film teams Kumar with Madhubala and the two lovebirds radiate a great chemistry. On the other hand, Roti (1942) is a powerful statement against the pitfalls of capitalism and greed and of favouring riches over roti. Go further back into his 1930s filmography and you find Ek Hi Raasta, Deccan Queen and other socially relevant movies that had a strong commentary on life, society and the world at large.

Speaking through music

Fun fact: Mehboob Khan directed Govinda’s father Arun Kumar Ahuja in Ek Hi Raasta and Aurat. Besides his regular Dilip Kumar, Khan also worked closely with other male leads such as Surendra and Ashok Kumar. A young Dadamoni features in Humayun (1945), in which he plays the Mughal emperor torn between war and love. One of the joys of this film is purely aural — Nargis and Ashok Kumar holding forth in Urdu. Take this court spiel by Kumar, for example, “Humko takhto taj ki haajat nahin. Saltanat-e-Mughliya ka naam qayam rahe, agar Badhshah nahin to sipahi ki haisiyat se apna farz anjaam dete rahenge.” Urdu lovers, in fact, will find much in Mehboob Khan’s films to appreciate in terms of the sheer eloquence of the language and its literary sophistications. This was an era, after all, when Urdu was the lingua franca of Hindi films. Later, you see the same politesse and romance of the Urdu language in Anmol Ghadi, the 1946 musical hit about two childhood friends forever lost to each other. All they have as a mark of memory is the gold watch of the title.

Featuring a triumvirate of singing stars, Noorjehan, Suraiya and Surendra, Anmol Ghadi is a quintessential Mehboob Khan movie. It is sympathetic to its underdog hero, who is persuaded by his rich friend to come over to Bombay and look after his shop selling musical instruments. Hence, the backdrop is that of music and it’s a love triangle. But unrequited, from the hero-heroine’s perspective. Khan’s filmography proves his fascination for ménage à trois, even though much of his work dealt with social issues, too. Feudalism, capitalism, poverty, injustice, patriotism, caste oppression and more fundamentally, a strong female character at the heart of it — which started with Deccan Queen (1936) and Aurat (1940) and culminated in Mother India. Khan’s job didn’t require him to participate in the making of a new India, but in fact, merely to give it a voice. And he did so not via his films alone but through his music.

If the history of Bollywood could be told through the history of its music, then the history of Mehboob Khan could be just as easily told through his cinema’s music. The very best essence of Mehboob Khan’s commitment to the ideas of love, justice and social good could be found in his music. He teamed up with Ghulam Haider and Anil Biswas though it was Naushad and his Midas touch that was critical to Mehboob Khan’s cinematic success. He was lucky to have poets like Shakeel Badayuni and Majrooh Sultanpuri at his disposal. The songs expressed the film’s core themes, rendering their philosophical import in a populist tone that every Indian could understand. A refrain in Roti evokes the helplessness of poverty with these powerful lines, ‘Bhookhe gagan ke taare kha, aag khaa angarey khaa.’ In Amar, Mohammed Rafi’s velvet voice sings the virtues of justice: ‘Insaaf ka mandir hai yeh Bhagwan ka ghar hai/ Kehna hai jo keh de tujhe kis baat ka dar hai.’ In Aan, Shamshad Begum’s call for abolishment of monarchy echoes throughout the village, ‘Aaj koi raja na aaj koi rani hai/ Pyaar bhare jeevan hi ek hi kahani hai.’ Rafi’s first major breakthrough, ‘Tera khilona toota baalak’ reflects Anmol Ghadi’s doomed childhood romance whereas ‘Awaaz de kahan hain’ from the same film captures the intense love and hope the young lovers hold out for each other. Dilip Kumar’s piano numbers in Andaz (Mukesh’s ‘Tu kahe agar’ and ‘Toote na dil toote na’) are the ultimate ballads of love and longing. Then there’s Mother India’s anthem, ‘Duniya mein hum aaye hain toh jeena hi padega.’ And these searing lines, ‘Aaj ek bhakt ne Bhagwan ka mandir loota, ek beimaan ne masjid mein churaya joota,’ from his valedictory film Son of India in 1962 (whose claim to fame was the patriotic song ‘Nanna Munna raahi hun’). Sung by the child actor Sajid Khan, it exposes the compulsive moral rot of the shimmering modern world.

No wonder, many Mehboob Khan films open with the rousing sound of ‘Muddai lakh bura chaahe toh kya hota hai, wohi hota hai joh man’zoore khuda hota hai’ as the Mehboob Productions banner grandly pops up. Mehboob Productions’ logo is telling. It has a communist hammer and sickle. And that slogan. Loud and booming, it could well sum up Khan’s own life and journey. Born into unremarkable circumstances and look, where he ended up, isn’t he destiny’s child? Instead of ‘man’zoore khuda’ you could well and truly say, ‘man’zoore Mehboob,’ though the god-fearing man himself would’ve roundly disapproved. In the all-powerful studio era, Mehboob Khan was fortunate to have a studio of his own. Production was a prerogative of the few and Khan was an intrinsic part of that platinum club, which allowed him greater control over his content and above all, gave him power to mount indelible extravaganza and spectacle that hardly has any contemporary equals. From today’s vantage point, only Sanjay Leela Bhansali comes close.

In his short life and even shorter creative career, the filmmaker worked with obsessive passion and strove to combine popular entertainment with socialist strands that run through his films, making them both realistic and escapist and rural and urban at the same time. Which isn’t to say that all are great, or even watchable for that matter. Just take the example of Son of India. It was a bungled attempt at recreating the Mother India magic, this time by having a child protagonist (a blissfully hammy Sajid Khan). Released in 1962, just two years before his untimely death, it was his concluding film and it seems appropriate, though, that the director who made Mother India would end his innings with Son of India. Not a worthy send off, but then life isn’t perfect.

When Khan died in 1964 he was only 56. Alongside a pile of debt, he also left behind the movies that matter — and sure enough, the disputed Mehboob Studio (founded in 1954) in Bandra, a temple of cinema as well as an enduring Mumbai landmark. In case you lose your way along Bandra’s many heritage gaothans, ask for Mehboob Studio. And every time you do that, the name Mehboob Khan remains a little alive.

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