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‘Mother India’ at the Oscars: ‘The audience laughed with the characters and cried with them’

Mehboob Khan’s celebrated epic was the first Indian film to be nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 1958.

For Mehboob the crowing moments of glory followed one after another in quick succession. Following the sweeping victory of Mother India at the “Flimfare” awards, Mehboob received the finest news he had ever received in his entire life – his film “Mother India” had been nominated as the Indian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Awards in Hollywood. It was the first ever Indian film to have received this signal honour.

His pulses pounding with the taste of impending glory Mehboob knew that the time had come for his third visit to Hollywood. This time he would attend the Academy Awards ceremony in person – because this time he and wife Sardar Akhtar were invited as guests of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles.

During my tenure at “Filmfare” we had an excellent Hollywood correspondent, Sylvia Norris. And well in advance of Mr and Mrs Mehboob’s departure for Hollywood we had briefed her to personally look after them well, to fix up whatever appointments Mehboob wanted with the people he needed to meet in Hollywood, and to file a detailed report on it all.

Here’s what Sylvia Norris wrote (“Filmfare:” June 6, 1958): The day Mehboob Khan met Cecil B. DeMille in Hollywood, he was referred to as ‘The DeMille of India’. This is a title he richly deserves, not only for his latest spectacle, Mother India, but for the thirty years of devotion he has given the Indian film industry.

“When the producer and director, Mehboob Khan and his wife arrived in Hollywood as guest of the academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences, they caused quite a sensation. They were the centre of attraction at every press conference and party they attended people kept asking if Mrs Khan was the star of Mother India.”

“Later, I learned that she had indeed starred in the original version in 1993, an ambitious young man had produced and directed Woman, as it was then titled, starring Sardar Akhtar. A short time later he married the lovely girl.

“And what did Mr Mehboob think of Hollywood?

“A very delightful, interesting city. I was here a few years ago when my picture Aan was screened. It has changed quite a lot. It seems much bigger than it was before – it spreads out for so many miles. In New York the city grows upwards, here…” he spread his hands. “It is like so many towns joined together.”

“What did he think of the studios in Hollywood? Mehboob has pursed his lips slightly. “Picture studios – They are the same everywhere. Of course the studios are much larger here than they are in India. The stages are bigger. The sets more elaborate. Sometimes, more time and money is spent on a sequence that may be on the screen for no more than a few minutes…” and then he had smiled.” But who am I to talk of the Hollywood studios?”

“In speaking of the main differences as he saw it between Hollywood and India. Mehboob had said that in Hollywood it was like a machine – it was very business-like, whereas in India it was more of a family affair and a producer would have great personal interest in the welfare of the people working for him.

“I believe I found a good example of this while going through the illustrated brochure on Mother India which the academy gave me, when Mehboob’s picture was nominated.

“One whole page is given over “In Gratitude to Friends.” There are also pictures of them and Mehboob says: “When a producer requires 300 bullock-carts, 2000 farmers, scores of horse, tractors and ploughs and 500 acres of paddy fields to be flooded – not to mention the sympathy and active support of scores of villages – to produce a spectacular picture like Mother India, money becomes a helpless instrument of negotiation.”

“This is the difference.

“In Hollywood, a producer’s main consideration is to have the money or find a group of persons or a bank to finance him. Then he will go out and buy what he needs in the way of equipment, rent the land and hire the people.

“Further, says Mehboob: “Money cannot buy these things in India .But the love and sentiment of our beloved peasants can place all this and more at the disposal of the producer.”

“The two private screenings of Mother India were well-attended. General reaction to the film was that the music, the story and the photography were of top quality, and the acting and directing superb – especially that of Nargis, and of Master Sajid who played as a young boy.

“I noticed that the audience laughed with him and, at times, cried with him. The boy is remarkable. He has star quality.

“And,” Mehboob told me, “he was only four year old when we made the picture.”

“Fortunately, I was able to view Mother India in the long version. “I wanted to show my cut version,” said Mehboob, “It runs just under two hours – but Technicolor had the print and told me they could not have it ready in time for the Oscar voting.

“He is modest. Mother India is too great a picture to cut down to half its original playing time.

“Mehboob Khan’s modesty was evident in many ways. For instance, he did not notify anyone in Hollywood of his arrival. The Academy was still sending cables to India, asking when he was expected, when he was safely ensconced in the Beverly Hills Hotel and looking around quietly at everything.

“However, when asked, he was quite willing to return to the airport – a round trip of about twenty-five miles – for his official arrival, after he had already spent a whole week there!”

Mother India did not win the Academy Award that year. It lost by a single vote at the third poll. The Best Foreign Film Award went to the Italian Producer Dino de Laurentiis’ Nights of Cabiria.

It was a severe blow but Mehboob put a smile on it and laughed it off. What he did win however was a marked respect as a great film showman from India. And above all, when his guru Cecil B. DeMille saw the film he was all praise for Mehboob yet again and confessed to having come to know the real India better after seeing the film.

Excerpted with permission from Mehboob...India’s DeMille by Bunny Reuben, HarperCollins India.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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