Mehboob Khan's vast state-of-the-nation address was first shown in 1957 and has been playing pretty much constantly ever since. The first great Bollywood blockbuster, Mother India (Bharat Mata) a purposefully melodramatic musical, liberally laced with action, wit, humour and also a strongly socialist strain.
Told in one long flashback, the story follows Radha (Nargis) through marriage, motherhood and into old age. As a girl she falls for Shamu (Kumar) but even before their wedding the couple owe money to merciless lender Shukhilala (Kanhaiyalal). They start a family, but debt repayments barely cover the interest. Shamu loses both arms in a farming accident and walks out leaving Radha to face famine, flood and the death of a baby alone. Worse, her oldest boy Biju (Dutt) grows into a chillum-smoking bandit, seething with resentment at the way Shukhilala has exploited his family.
Much of Khan's work dealt with the strain of a country struggling to make the transition from rural economy to modern state. Radhu is emblematic of that struggle, torn between her love for her rebellious son and her determination to uphold the family's honour. It's a demanding role - Nargis is rarely off screen - but her unrepeatable performance elevated her to the status of national icon. Even Indira Ghandi recognised the power of Nargis' performance and later cast herself as the real life Mother India.
The songs by composer Naushad operate as a sort of chorus, and Khan's sharp direction means that though the film is long (it's generally shown with an interval) it never drags. A blazing fire stands up against plenty of contemporary action footage, but the most memorable moment comes right at the end, with a time-ravaged Radha opening the government's new dam and watching the water, blood red with clay, slowly wash away.
A supreme achievement.