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Mehboob Khan, director of ‘Mother India’ who actually wanted to be an actor

On his 55th death anniversary, ThePrint recalls the career of Mehboob Khan, a ‘son of soil’ legend who believed in Nehruvian socialism.

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New Delhi: Mehboob Khan will always be known as the ‘director of Mother India’, the first Indian film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It has remained iconic for every generation of film watchers for its portrayal of the class divide tinged with Nehruvian socialism, and for having prominently put Indian cinema on the world map.

But Khan’s profound legacy is too vast to be reduced to just one film, which itself was a remake of one of his earlier works. Of his close to 20 films, many stand out for a variety of reasons — most notably, Aurat (1940), Andaz (1949), Aan (1952) and Amar (1954).

On his 55th death anniversary, ThePrint recalls the career of Mehboob Khan, a legend in the annals of the Hindi film industry.

Early career

Born Ramzan Khan in 1906 in a small village near Baroda to a police constable, Mehboob Khan was introduced to the world of cinema through touring cinemas. After he started travelling to nearby towns to catch a film or two, he became convinced at a very early age that he was meant to be a hero.

He ran away from home at the age of 16 to Bombay (now Mumbai) but his policeman father tracked him down and took him back. To ensure that he didn’t run away again, he forcibly got him married to a child bride from the neighbouring village. The couple had three sons together. However, Khan tried again at 23 and finally found his way to the city of dreams with just Rs 3 in his pocket.

Initially, Khan did a bunch of roles as an extra with the Imperial Film Company. In 1931, director Ardeshir Irani was about to give him his break as a leading man in India’s first talkie, Alam Ara. But Khan lost out to Master Vithal.

Between 1931 and 1935, Khan tried to land acting jobs but had to contend with supporting parts in the films of Sagar Movietone productions.

Also read: Ismail Merchant, the filmmaker who gave the world a new lens to look at Indians

Rise as director

In 1935, he got his first big break as director with Al Hilal, or The Judgment of Allah, an action-packed film about the Roman-Arab confrontation. It was inspired by The Sign of the Cross (1932), made by Cecil B. DeMille. Khan was later called the ‘DeMille of Indian cinema’ for making his own epics.

He went to direct Manmohan (1936), based on P.C. Barua’s adaptation of Devdas, Jagirdar (1937), and Ek Hi Raasta (1939).

Khan was known to make cinema that reflected his social beliefs and his ‘son of the soil’ philosophy, but was also commercially viable.

Of the films he made in this early part of his career, Aurat (1940) — a paean to a peasant’s love for his land — turned out to be the most significant. The film featured actor Sardar Akhtar in the lead. Khan married her two years later and the couple adopted a boy, Sajid Khan.

In 1942, Khan founded his own Mehboob Productions — with a logo which is a combination of a hammer and a sickle. Appropriately, his films, like Roti (1942), focussed on the inequality between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’.

Prominent films

Under his own banner, he made Andaz (1949) which starred a rare combination of actors who went on to define an era — Dilip Kumar, Nargis and Raj Kapoor. The love triangle was a breakaway from his social commentaries and spoke about platonic love between a woman and a man.

He went on to make two more films with Dilip Kumar, both diametrically different from each other.

First came the swashbuckling fantasy Aan (1952), a ‘retelling of the otherwise standard The Taming of the Shrew story’, as film website Upperstall noted.

Then came the more complex Amar (1954), which featured an unusual story about a man who rapes a woman taking shelter with him. The film had a bravura performance by Kumar, but the audiences couldn’t take to a negative hero. Mehboob Khan is believed to have regarded this one as his favourites.

In the same year, the director founded the famous Mehboob Studios in Bombay.

Mother India & legacy

A reworking of Aurat (1940), Mother India in 1957 came to define the Mehboob Khan oeuvre and a certain vintage of Hindi films.

Starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar, Mother India was the story of a poverty-stricken woman who raises her two sons through many trials and tribulations. In the film, Sunil Dutt played Nargis’s son. The couple got married after the film’s release.

The highest grossing Hindi film at the box office for over two years — before the release of Mughal-e-Azam in 1960 — Mother India had everything to deserve the epic sweep of its title.

Khan gave the film a contemporary touch, blending the individual with the universal.

In a detailed interview on the film’s 60th anniversary, film writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar said, “Mother India is a saga that transcends its time and space.

“Doubtless, the history of Indian cinema cannot be complete without this timeless classic. Its characters are so dramatic and the situations so grand, be it the tragedy, the drama, the vendetta or the sacrifice. Everything is in a way so real and, at the same time, larger than life,” said Akhtar.

Film critic Rajeev Masand once said that Mother India “didn’t just put India on the world map, it also defined Hindi cinema for decades that followed”.

Apart from its nomination at the Academy Awards in the US, where it reportedly lost by just one vote, Mother India won 5 Filmfare awards and two national awards.

Khan’s next and last film, Son of India (1962), turned out to be a disaster.

He died two years later on 28 May 1964. The New York Times reported at the time that Khan had a heart attack upon hearing the news of then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s death on 27 May.

Also read: Mrinal Sen, the cinematic genius who had the courage to bring social realities on celluloid


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  1. A lot of what you have written is not factually correct.Please meet Mehboob Sahab’s son Shaukat at Mehboob Studios and he will give you some of the facts.

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