Aurat (1940)

In the decade that Aurat (1940) was released, Indian filmmakers made films primarily based on Hindu mythological stories. However, it was also when studios started toying with scripts that focussed on socialist themes.

They opened up to scripts that told the story of what they felt reflected “real India”. Aurat was one such film that supposedly reflected the woes of India’s rural agrarian society. It was remade 17 years later as Mother India (1957).

There was a strong reason why these pro-socialist filmmakers couldn’t make films about the freedom movement in India. The British government censored anything that they felt promoted the idea of India’s freedom from British or promoted M.K Gandhi (or his followers) in a favourable light. It wasn’t possible to show the British as villains or promote any pro-freedom message.

It was also the decade when the left-leaning Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), affiliated with the Communist Party of India, started wielding considerable ideological influence in Bollywood. In later years, their hegemony ensured that the mythological themes disappeared in favour of “social themes” demonising the Hindu way of life, especially their caste system, and eulogised the invaders who came before the British.

Along with them, the “Muslim Lahori” group supported Jinnah’s idea of a separate country for Muslims. Mehboob Khan had close links with the “Muslim Lahori” group, formed by the presence of his brother Abdul Rasheed Kardar. Kardar is considered the pioneer of the Lahore film industry. He set up production in Bombay in the 1940s.

Khan had worked with a dialogue writer named Wajahat Mirza in his earlier films. Mirza eventually became Khan’s right-hand man in filmmaking and made several successful movies together. In 1940, they decided to make a film called “Aurat”.

Mirza’s films had a few marked characteristics. The dialogues he gave to his Hindu characters would lead the audience to believe that the average Hindu is a girl-child-hating, wife-oppressing, depraved weakling who would rather cling to his ancient beliefs than take up arms against the oppressive Lala/Thakur/Pandit. These three members, Mirza felt, represented the worst of the Hindu community and must be disfranchised. Aurat was no different from his other movies. It is also important to remember that going to the movie theatre was a privilege that only a handful of people could afford during this time.

The ordinary Indian was among the poorest people in the world. The educated elite that saw these films believed that this probably was how Baniya/Brahmin/Thakur created a “Hindu Hell” in the countryside.

Aurat starred Sardar Akhtar, Surendra, Yakub, Kanhaiyalal and Arun Kumar Ahuja (father of actor Govinda). Its central theme was used in pro-communist literature around the world, linking feminism to nationalism. It was popularised by Maxim Gorky, who was the face of Soviet Literature as far as the West was concerned. 

This theme involves a poor village mother whose life is filled with hardships; her only joy is her son(s). As the story progresses, this woman struggles to balance her traditional values against the new anarchist ideals that her children endorse. It is also one of those few films that dealt with the issue of filicide. This film was a hit at the box office, and Khan was so sure of the repeat of this success that he remade it 17 years later as “Mother India.”

Mehboob Khan had been inspired by Pearl S Buck’s ‘Good Earth’ and ‘The Mother.’ Both these books shared the “struggling mother” theme and were written by a pro-missionary author. Khan, a firm Marxist who chose the hammer and sickle as the logo of his production company Mehboob Studios, decided to use these influences and remake his 1940 success as Mother India.

Aurat and Mother India had the same plot -Radha is an indomitable woman, toiling away to
feed her sons and to pay off Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal in both the films), the village’s greedy
moneylender. Her husband Shamu runs away when times get tougher, leaving her to fend
for herself against poverty and Sukhilala’s lecherous advances. Later, the two eldest
children die, leaving her with only two sons: the strait-laced Ramu and the wild Birju. Birju
becomes a bandit. Eventually, Radha kills Birju for dishonouring her.

This film is still available on YouTube.

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I watch how Bollywood engages with and represents Hindu society. A non-Marxist film critic writing in English.

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