BOOK EXCERPT

‘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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.