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Reclaiming Mehboob's Roti: A Key Work of 1940s Pre-Independence Indian Cinema

 | Canon |

  BY Omar Ahmed

It is not difficult to classify director Mehboob Khan as an auteur but studies of his work and status as an auteur (see Mishra: 2002 and Chatterjee: 2001) are problematic when it comes to fully appreciating the breadth and dynamism of his work. If the auteur theory re-imagines a director as one with an identifiable voice, signature and recurring preoccupations, be they stylistic or thematic, then in some instances like the work of Mehboob Khan, an authorial approach can be useful in trying to ascertain patterns, rhythms and tendencies characterizing an oeuvre in need of close critical re-appraisal. The academic discourse on Mehboob favours populist films like Mother India (1957), Andaz (Style, 1949)or Aan (Pride, 1952) but does so at the expense of other supposedly minor works. One such film that seems to complicate both Mehboob’s status as an auteur and the way we perceive pre-independence Hindi cinema is Roti (Bread, 1942).

In this essay, I want to undertake a closer appreciation of Roti, examining it from a range of perspectives. This will include studying both form and ideology. A formal analysis will focus on the fusion of stylistic influences such as German expressionism, New Soviet Cinema and Social Realism. In terms of ideology, I will concentrate on representations of capitalism, Marxism, gender and mythological readings. Intertwined with both formal and ideological elements will be an attempt to undertake a reading of Mehboob’s authorial preoccupations and how Roti can be situated as a film within his oeuvre. Before I take a closer look at Roti, I want to provide a brief insight into the wider historical context in which the film was made.

Roti is a film primarily about the social problem of hunger, framed against a 1940s backdrop of ‘industrial activity’ (Barnouw & Krishnaswamy, 1980: 127) in which ‘India was moving rapidly towards capitalism and modernisation’ (Gokulsing & Dissanayake, 2004:17). The narrative of Roti draws from a reality that saw the emergence of a new capitalist class ‘increasing its strength’ (Chandra, 1988: 376) while the problem of hunger depicted in the film is borne out of the ‘Depression’ (Bose & Jalal, 2002: 157) of the late 1930s and early 1940s, culminating in the Bengal famine of 1943-4. Mehboob’s socialist beliefs manifested in Roti can be traced to the rise of a left wing movement in India in the 1920s and 1930s influenced by ‘a new Soviet regime that electrified the colonial world’ (Chandra, 1988: 296). During 1933-36, Nehru’s emphasis on ‘the role of class analysis and class struggle’ (Chandra, 1988: 296) indubitably exhibited itself in the Marxism of Roti. In many ways, Roti refracted the political crisis of the time, participating in a collective filmic dialogue, speculating on a prospective postcolonial India in which industrial capitalism is represented as an evil.

Form, Style and Influences

By the time Mehboob Khan made Roti in 1942 he was an established director working in the mainstream of Hindi cinema. At first, Roti may seem like a singular work(1), but a closer examination points to visual and thematic links to Mehboob’s later films such as Amar (1954) and Mother India (1957). What separates Roti from Mehboob’s other films is the political content, ‘counterposing capitalism and primitive tribal communism’ (Rajadhyaskha & Willemen, 1994: 276). Even more striking is the heterogeneous fusion of film forms. A complex hybridised aesthetic and visual address is ‘articulated through different sites, styles and discursive forms’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 39) such as German Expressionism. In this part of the essay, I want to focus on the opening to Roti, providing a close textual analysis, exploring the assemblage of form, style and influences.

German Expressionism sought ‘a desire to represent subjectivity through the use of distorted imagery’ (Aitken, 2001:52), an influence visible in the mise-en-scene of Roti. Rachel Dwyer (2011: 149) contends German Expressionism 'shaped Indian cinema in the 1930s’ primarily through the Bombay Talkies film studioestablished in 1934 by Himansu Rai with a ‘technical team imported from Europe’ (Rajadhyaskha & Willemen, 1994: 276) including Germans such as cinematographer Josef Wirsching. I would reason Dwyer’s claim that Mahal(2)(The Mansion, 1949) draws from German Expressionism could also apply to other overlooked Indian films from the 1940s pre-independence era including Roti and Neecha Nagar (Lowly City, 1946)(3). In the 1940s, debatably an experimental phase, Indian films used a mixture of forms looking forward to the 1950s consolidation of Expressionism in popular Hindi films such as Awaara (Vagabond, 1951), Kagaaz Ke Phool(Paper Flowers, 1959) and Do Ankhen Barah Hath (Two Eyes, Twelve Hands, 1957). In many ways, Roti was one of the first to deploy the style of German Expressionism in a mainstream political context, re-imagining India as a capitalist nightmare.

Roti opens with titles against the image of the world as a globe spinning perpetually; suggesting while this story is about India it has universality to its political address. When the titles finish, the spinning globe come to a stop on the map of India made from roti/bread, expressing egalitarianism while underlining a key motif; hunger. Next a mid shot of a farmer ploughing afield dissolves into a wider shot of the field, soon replaced by a field of wheat. A medium close up of the wheat swaying in the wind is juxtaposed to gentle folk music, underlining a sacred harmony between the peasants and the land, and defining ruralism as both spiritual and productive, as witnessed in Mother India. The sociopolitical relation between labour and product establishes a Marxist precedent about the proletariat, framing the narrative in a wider communist context. Moreover, the pastoral imageryalludes to 1920s new Soviet Cinema, reiterating a fusion of styles and a hybridity of film form. The ideological relationship to Soviet cinemacan be traced tothe emergence of the Progressive Writers Association and later The Indian People’s Theatre Association (4), of which many members were also film artists with ties to the Communist party of India. In terms of form, Vsevolod Pudovkin’s work, namely Mother (1926) isone of the ‘creative antecedents’ (Mishra, 2002: 81) on Mother India(5)and saw Mehboob‘s drawing from a Pudokovian vision of land and labour’ (Sen, 2003). Another filmmaker, and less discussed, Alexander Dovzhenko(6), also had a patent influence on Mehboob, and his 1930 film Zemlya / Earth is palpable in Mehboob’s utopian imagining of ruralism in Roti. Later, Dovzhenko’s cinema would also be felt in the work of Raj Kapoor. The opening song to Awaara titled ‘Naiya Teri Manjhdar’(Watch How You Row) is striking in its choreography of human figures against rural landscapes like the sky and hills.

Next, the sequence establishes the city as a dehumanizing place. A high angle shot of an ornate banquet table framed on each side by statuesque waiters shows an anonymous urban elite eating industriously. The music changes key, favouring a modern rambunctious tempo, exposing the indifference of the rich. This shot dissolves into a mid shot of servants starkly clearing the plates of the food from the banquet into a large bowl. The bowl is then emptied into an alleyway from a window where starving people are waiting to collect the food. Unlike the rural, the urban is a site of hunger, poverty and ‘in need of humanization’ (Mishra, 2002: 108). Ideologically, the film maps out a journey of the poor oppressed peasant who not only offers their labour for the food the rich eat but is also at the mercy of a capitalist system that denies them food. In the sequence, the proletariat appears in many guises: the farmer, the servant, and the poor. Yet the montage explicitly tells us that without the proletariat the capitalist system could not function. It is the peasant farmer who ploughs the land, tends to his crops and grows wheat; he is the one who holds real power.

Nonetheless, in the city, power relations are reversed, whereby the proletariat is in a constant state of oppression. Roti’s depiction of the city as site of class struggle, a popular criticism of modernity, would resurface against a Nehruvian context in the films of Raj Kapoor with Awaara’s ‘tramp brutalized by the sophistication of the city’ (Mishra, 2002: 107) and in Shree 420’s critique of ‘the commodification of labor’ (Mishra, 2002: 107). Mehboob’s imagining projects a future post-independent India as a disproportionately unequal capitalist state. Criticisms of capitalism are accentuated, brought to an allegorical plane with the entry of an unnamed commentator, played by Ashraf Khan. We are first introduced to the commentator, a ‘Brechtian device’ (Rajadhyaskha & Willemen, 1994: 276) borrowed from Epic Theatre, framed in a low angle shot against a lamp post laughing malevolently at the fate of an impoverished underclass. The entrance of the commentator is also marked by acceleration in the expressionistic style with the imagery becoming more nightmarish. One medium long shot in particular shows a family made up of a mother and her children, with their naked bodies creating deep shadows, starkly photographed using ‘chiaroscuro effects’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 52) creating a potent image of hunger. Mehboob would return to expressionistic preoccupations in Amar (1954). A key sequence in Amar depicting a rape is photographed using deep shadows, silhouettes and lanterns as a violent psychological manifestation. This ‘new architecture of narrative space’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 35) is an aesthetic feature that would reverberate into late 1950s Hindi cinema.


The next part of the opening dissolves to a map of India made from roti(7)specifying the problem of hunger is a social concern intrinsic to all of India. Over this map are laid a series of shots featuring trains and factories conveying the accelerated pace of industrialization and impact of modernity, a key authorial preoccupation of Mehboob’s work. This is followed by imagery of enslavement. Men carry sacks of wheat on their backs in a uniformed action, recalling the opening of Lang’s Metropolis(1927) depicting the proletarian worker as a zombified, inhuman mass and ‘entailing the complete abstraction of the individual’ (Eisner, 1969: 12), a major feature of German Expressionism. By delineating the gulf between the rich and poor, the opening to Roti also references the dystopian class divisions of Lang’s Metropolis.

With the introduction of the commentator, the film repositions itself along more conventional formal lines. The commentator’s presence is communicated through the interruption of the film’s first song typically characterizing the melodrama form in Hindi cinema. Mehboob uses the first song innovatively, politicising the lyrics and juxtaposing them to the final part of the opening sequence that descends now to the iconography of the slum, recreating ‘the remembered village in a new guise’ (Nandy, 1998: 6) and offering starker imagery of hunger. The commentator asan imaginary metonym of discord looks down at the slums saying devilishly: ‘Why do you cry “bread, bread”! Are you hungry? Are you hungry?’. The next shot cuts to an old, gaunt man hobbling through the wretched slums. We hear a hushed response from an oppressed, silent majority replying, ‘We are hungry!’. The representation of the slums as a semi realist space (the reliance of studio sets) can be traced to ‘the influence of the radical theatre movement’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 52) in the 1940s that ‘indicated a new capacity to explore the city, its social life and its moral ambiguities’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 52). If the slums and the impoverished are photographed in a semi realist style we find the opposite with the commentator who is framed using conventional expressionistic techniques. The canted shot is used in one instance, creating a sense of disorientation but more importantly, his body fills the frame, exaggerating his uneasy presence. The sequence concludes with a desperate old man running after a dog who has stolen his bread only to be indiscriminately run over by a car. As the man lies dying in the road, the commentator berates him, ‘Reduce the burden of this earth. Die, die, die, die!’. The camera zooms in on the bread clutched in the hand of the dying man with the commentator having the last say in his deeply pessimistic tone: ‘Their life meant nothing, their life meant nothing!’. Although the commentator seems to be addressing the impoverished, his words reach beyond the fictional boundaries of the cinema space, addressing the nation in a way that is ‘public rather than individuated’ (Vasudevan, 2011: 43). Melodrama as intervention, articulating the nation state is certainly the case with the first song critiquing hunger, death and indifference.

The commentator’s role in the narrative can be interpreted multiply, framing a national discourse. Firstly, his indifference to the plight of the impoverished is a symbol of social apathy symptomatic of modernity. Secondly, he clearly functions as a narrative device, instigating discord by manipulating Laxmidas(Chandra Mohan) and creating melodramatic conflict. Thirdly, and most ideologically, his presence in the context of imperialism can be viewed as an allegory of British colonial rule. A potentindicator of an allegorical imperialistic interpretation is the pith helmet worn by the commentator, a symbol of colonialism and traditionally worn by military personnel. In the changing historical contexts of Gandhi’s Quit India movement inspiring self-determination, the commentator’s disheveled appearance, tatty suit and decrepit umbrella could be a further allegory for declining British power. In a way his hideous laughter, condemnatory attitude and contempt for the poor enunciates not just the indifference of the rich but British imperialist ideology.

The opening of Roti is particularly exceptional when seen in the context of mainstream Hindi cinema today, challenging a consensual view about the way 1940s Hindi cinema was wholly dependent on melodrama as a homogeneous formal style. In fact, Vasudevan (2011: 51) criticizes Biswas’ argument concerning a ‘studio style of the 1940s’ which he says was not ‘uniform’, citing Devdas (1935) and Mukti (1937) as films exhibiting a dynamism in ‘camera movement, cutting rhythms, and expressionist lighting’. To isolate such a creative engagement with film form to the early 1940s would be presumptuous. We then need to situate Mehboob’s development as an auteur in the context of his work in the 1930s, an area that requires elucidation, and which found a formal and ideological crystallisation with Roti.


The Politics of Roti

A politicised work like Roti is complicated by the contradiction of its status as a mainstream film. This raises the question: is Rotidefiantly subversive’ (Mishra, 2002: 87) cinema disguised as mainstream entertainment? The film’s anti capitalist message certainly testifies to this claim, which is vehement throughout, personifying a capitalist system as one predicated on greed, exploitation and patriarchy. I want to begin by addressing the way Mehboob uses Laxmidas to embody the politics of capitalism. When the commentator first stumbles upon the man who will impersonate Laxmidas, he is both nameless and homeless: a cipher. His ordinariness gives him an everyman status undercut by the corrupting force of the commentator who teaches the cipher that to acquire power one has to learn to deceive, a quality necessary to subvert the laws of social mobility. As Laxmidas, his first action is destructive; he kills a business magnate and takes charge of a wealthy cotton empire. Laxmidas functions as a caricature(8) and like the commentator his behavior and appearance is hyperbolic, remarking on the dissipations of capitalism.

The refusal of Laxmidas to show any compassion to his workers conveys a pessimistic vision of capitalism. Two sequences stand out in particular in this regard. The first sees Premchand, a rival mill owner, begging for a loan so he can salvage his business. However, Laxmidas rebukes Premchand saying, ‘Maybe you do not know that buildings of gold are built on the bodies of fools, the weak and workers’. The proletariat as an expendable part of a capitalist system espouses an oppositional political address in a mainstream film. Furthermore, the unchecked power of Laxmidas looks forward to the reality of today’s corporate world in which market economics create a psychopathic condition (see Bakan: 2005). The psychopathy of Laxmidas is extenuated through the commodity fetishism of gold. Since the possession of gold is the ultimate capitalist aphrodisiac it comes to define the very existence of Laxmidas who worships gold as his religion: ‘In this country, god is gold. And we rich men are its true worshippers’. In fact, before Laxmidas and Darling’s (Akhtari Faizabadi) plane crashes in the jungle, it is a journey predicated on finding gold on tribal land. Balam(9) (Sheikh Mukhtar), a virtuous tribesman dissuades against even touching gold, evoking portents from his ancestors about man’s enslavement to materialism. The film prophesies India after independence: neo colonialist capitalist exploitation of tribal communities and the erosion of their way of life. Since Laxmidas fetishises gold, his masculinity is undermined and he is presented as an impotent male. The failure of Laxmidas to attract the affections of Darling restates an impotency whereas his antagonism with Balam comes from an animalistic sexuality that he feels threatened by and later tries to suppress. In many ways, capitalism is a force of sexual corruption rendering the body a mere instrument of materialistic desires.

The second sequence exemplifying the metonymic function of Laxmidas sees him clash with workers threatening to strike. Acts of resistance find a precedent in the strikes occurring in India at the time: ‘Between 1919 and 1940, the industry witnessed eight general strikes’ (Chandavarkar, 1994: 5), making Bombay ‘the most dramatic centre of working-class political action’ (Chandavarkar1994: 5). However, Rotibestows an ineffectual situation for the workers since the despotism of Laxmidas is prodigious. When a union leader demands that a reduction in the price of wheat will help elevate the economic crisis faced by the workers, Laxmidas responds by buying all the wheat stock from the market and then selling it at extortionate prices. The extent of Laxmidas’ manipulation of the market and subsequently the lives of the workers encapsulates the basics of neo capitalist market economics, pointing to both a Marxist critique and a warning about the role of the market in a new India.

The characters of Balam and Kinari are also used symbolically, standing in for rural ideologies, reflecting Mehboob’s personal attachment ‘to his village and its community’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 31). The village is a tribal(10) one and the collective will of the village resisting modernity is first exemplified in the moment when Balam, a stoic figure, uses his spear to bring down the plane carrying Laxmidas and Darling. If the plane symbolises ‘technological progress’ (Schulze, 2002: 80) then its destruction by a spear, a primitive tool, brings into ideological clarity the perpetual collision between tradition and modernity, and their incompatibility. Schulze argues (2002: 81) Mother India works to ‘legitimise Nehru’s process of nation building’. Yet Roti seems to express a pre-independence oppositional political position, skeptical of modernity while restating the ‘tribal communism’ of the village as a ‘metaphor of the true national and social values of India that are to be upheld’ (Schulze, 2002: 83).

One of the first incidents of egalitarianism witnessed by Laxmidas and Darling occurs with the allocation of grain amongst the villagers. In a long shot Mehboob strategically frames the villagers around two mountains of grain, connecting the workers with their labour as a natural occurrence. As they begin distributing the grain, Darling asks Balam for an explanation, testifying that regardless of gender and age, ‘everybody gets an equal share’. This comes as a shock to Darling since equal distribution eradicatesthe problem of economic division but more notably the disease of hunger. Community, gender equality, the distribution of wealth may seem like utopian ideals but they tap into a socialist ideology connecting the people to the earth on a physical and spiritual level. As a means of celebrating the metaphysical connection between the villagers and nature, a song is used in which we see the villagers ask for rain for the harvest. In many ways, the pictorial elements of this song require further analysis. The song begins with a long shot of Kinari framed against clouds, her proud face and body pointing upwards creates an image of nobility. She sings, ‘May the clouds gather!’. Although Kinari and Balam alternate with the singing, we also hear the villagers in the background working as a non-diegetic chorus reflecting the ‘voice of the community’ (Rag, 2004: 85). Anil Biswas, composer of the music for Roti pioneered ‘community songs as a centerpiece of musical creation in a film’ (Rag, 2004: 86). This song in particular expresses a solidarity, integrating Darling, a symbol of the city, into the village but by accentuating ‘the supreme importance of the people over the individual’ (Rag, 2004: 86), the song also denounces capitalism. Throughout the song a series of medium close ups of Balam and Kinari are especiallysalient in the use of high key lighting to produce an idyllic ruralism contrasting starkly with the expressionistic harshness of the city. Towards the end of the song, Kinari is seen in a number of mid shots, singing as she reclines in a tree, illustrating her synchronicity with nature and conjuring imagery recalling ‘the earth goddess’ Prithvi (Sen, 2002/3: 159). It is clear to see the impact Roti had on the development of the community song in 1950s Nehruvian cinema such as Do Bigha Zamin (Hariyala Sawan Dhol Bajata Aaya) and even more contemporary films like Lagaan/Land Tax (Ghanan Ghanan).

If community characterises the village then Balam and Kinari’s time in the city explores the politics of modernity. However, it is important to stress their journey to the city is not motivated by money or curiosity but by the loss of their sacred bullocks; Changu and Mangu. In terms of Hinduism, ‘animals are considered divine’ (Jacobsen, Basu, Malinar& Narayanan, 2009: 711) so bullocks in the village maintain an equilibrium between man and animal.The requisite to reclaim the bullocks since ‘every village has its own deity’ (Jacobsen, Basu, Malinar& Narayanan, 2009: 460) is also the way Balam and Kinari’s identity as indigenous farmers has been threatened by Laxmidas, a symbol of corrupt modernity. This theme of corruption is extended further when Balam and Kinari go to the city in search of their bullocks. Their arrival in the city is prefigured by another Brechtian song that sees the commentator re-appear. This time the wealthy elite is a target of his vitriol:

‘You show mercy on the poor and you think you do them a favour’

‘You are only helping them to turn into cowards’

‘You first loot them then you dole out charity’

‘Oh, you are such noble men’

‘You do such good deeds’

‘Fear that moment...when the tide of society will change’

‘They will take revenge on you.’

The song juxtaposes quasi-documentary footage of the rich handing out alms to the poor to lyrics with political connotations (the lyrics hint at an oppressed rising up to take revenge) creating a portrait of hypocrisy plaguing a purportedly modern city. The city is the same space of social inequality into which Balam and Kinari enter, confronting a series of new realities; hunger, poverty, division, degradation, sexual exploitation, to name a few. Upon their arrival in the city Balam and Kinaru are led astray by the commentator forcing them to spend what money they have. The rationale behind this other than exposing the susceptibility of people from the village is to bring into clarity the problem of hunger, which now Balam and Kinari are faced with. This point in the narrative signals the start of Balam’s dehumanisation.

The oppression of the proletariat by the modern, industrialised capitalist city would materialize as a key political theme of the 1950s. Balam’s loss of dignity takes place through a downward spiral of humiliation instigated by Laxmidas. Nonetheless, Balam resists and though he does eventually leave with Kinari, pointing to the way films like Rotisituate themselves in the midst of debates between tradition and modernity’ (Mishra, 2002: 17), the city never wholly claims him as a victim. In perhaps a defining moment, Balam goes to work in the factory only to be faced with machinery that is to replace him. Balam retaliates, destroying the machinery, opposing technological change and disrupting a hegemonic flow. Whereas the ideological symbolism of industrialised capitalism battling primitive tribalism is overdone, it is also a prophecy for modernity’s erosion of tradition and the subsequent loss of identity. This loss is exemplified when Balam is thrown in jail by Laxmidas. When Balam leaves prison, he is duped by a low life criminal to steal money and also coerced into drinking alcohol (framed as yet another urban affliction). Thus, Balam’s dehumanisation takes place on both a psychological and physical scale.

Mehboob’s savage view of capitalism is one that also leads to a singular narrative trajectory: death. The end of Roti sees Laxmidas consumed by greed. After the market renders Laxmidas bankrupt he abducts Darling and flees the city taking his gold with him. The car stalls in the desert, they get lost and are desperate for water. When Balam and Kinari stumble across Laxmidas and Darling, they try to help them. While Darling could still be saved, Laxmidas, out of pride, refuses their help, preferring to die in the desert with his worthless gold. If Mehboob leaves us with the overly edifying message that capitalist greed makes a man blind to the generosity of those around him, is it ineludibly a revolutionary one for 1940s mainstream Hindi cinema? A radical anti-capitalist argument rejects modernity, but by placing faith in a sentiment about the village as ‘virtuous’ (Schulze, 2002: 80) excludes the painful social problems of exploitation, land, caste, illiteracy, and gender inequity that were being challenged with ‘land and social reform politics’ (Schulze, 2002: 80) of the late 1930s by the Indian National Congress, culminating in the Telangana movement(11)


Gender & Mehboobian Femininity

I have already argued that both formal and ideological properties of Roti also find links in his later films. I want to finish by spending some time on the film’s two female characters: Darling and Kinari. Mother India is Mehboob’s most iconic work and brought to fruition his interests in female characters and respective narratives in the framework of the melodrama. An analysis of the way Roti constructs femininity is crucial if any attempt is made to situate the film in Mehboob’s oeuvre. As a symbol of femininity, Darling is a woman of the city and the daughter of a rich capitalist. She shares none of the altruism of Laxmidas, arguing for justice, equality and fairness; socialist values that share a common link with the sacred village utopianism and innocence of Kinari. Unlike the male characters that are at war with one another, creating a discordant image of masculinity, Darling and Kinari come to represent elements of the ideal, eternal feminine.

Chatterjee’s reading of Radha in Mother India who ‘is identified with three goddesses’ including ‘Dharti-Mata or Mother Earth: productivity and stability’ and ‘Lakshmi: beauty, wealth and prosperity’, is a mythological interpretation relevant to Darling and Kinari. Mehboob may have used aanalogous mythological representation of femininity in Aurat, evidencing an ongoing preoccupation with gender, culminating in Mother India. In the context of Chatterjee’s mythological reading Kinari as ‘Mother Earth’ and Darling as ‘Lakshmi’ may at first represent an ideological opposition of the rural vs. urban. Indeed, the understanding between Darling and Kinari and their affections for Balam suggests the ideal Indian woman is a heterogeneous embodiment of mythological and socialist ideals.

In Lang’s Metropolis, Maria prophesies a mediator will bridge the divide between the ruling capitalist elite and working class; the mediator transpires to be Fredersen, the son of the industrialist. In some ways, Darling occupies a similar role of mediator, as she is also the child of an industrialist. Having discussed the formal influences of German Expressionism on Roti, the connection with Metropolis is also paralleled ideologically. Unlike Metropolis, which succeeds in its mediation, Roti presents a far bleaker imagining in which arbitration is impossible. Another departure from Metropolis is that in Roti the mediator is a woman, reiterating Mehboob’s authorial interests with presenting women as active agents in the narrative of his films. Darling’s final betrayal of Laxmidas is predicated on revenge but in the wider context of Mehboob’s work especially Mother India it could be viewed as a form of ‘heroism’ (Sen, 2002/3: 156) that prefigures Radha’s ‘power (shakti) to control her own destiny and that of the village’ (Sen, 2002/3: 156). Roti is a pre-independence film and so cinematic imagery of the progressive woman is less prominent. Nonetheless, Aurat, Roti and Mother India all share in common ‘the selfless sacrifice of the individual for the nation’ (Schulze, 2002: 84), mapping an oeuvre that imagines an interventionist feminist political dialogic ‘from a restrictive feudalistic or patriarchal order’ (Schulze, 2002: 84).

Differences exist though in the way Mehboob represents the two female characters. For instance Kinari is a spectacle, dancing and performing for the camera. In the village, her dance is part of a tribal ritual reiterating a connection to the earth while aligning her mythologically with Dharti-Mata. In contrast, in the city, her dance is filmed in an erotic style, heightening her sexuality. In this second dance sequence, Kinari performs outside the bustee (slum-dwelling) as women look on ambivalently. Since the women are ‘looking at’ Kinari, it also points to her uninhibited nature; she is at one with her sexuality. Chatterjee (2002: 55) argues ‘the most discussed sequence of Mother India’ is when Radha goes to see Sukhi-lala, a lecherous moneylender, to sell her body in exchange for food. A similar moment in Roti with Kinari and a brutish foreman repeats a thematic authorial interest, started with Aurat, concerning the sexual exploitation of women.

The parallels with Mother India are striking. Since Laxmidas is the villain of Roti, the foreman occupies a more peripheral role but the threat he presents is just as significant. Similarly like Sukhi-lal in Mother India who ‘exercises control and power over the village by harassing the women’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 44); the foreman tries to rape Kinari. The sequence lasts for under three minutes, unfolding sparsely in three shots. The first shot positions Kinari in the bottom right of the frame, extenuating her vulnerability. She is sat down, sorting the cotton while the foreman appears in the middle of the frame, looming over her, establishing his dominant position, and saying ‘In our land, what you do not get by asking you take by force’. Slowly Kinari rises to her feet, takes out a knife and threatens to kill the foreman who sheepishly retreats. The foreman assumes Kinari’s primitiveness puts at her a disadvantageous yet Mehboob represents her as quick witted, intelligent and powerful, qualities often associated with male heroism. When the foreman promises to leave, a close up (the second shot of the sequence) is used of Kinari, reiterating her vulnerability and indicating the threat of rape still remains. Next, the foreman picks up Kinari’s knife and threatens her again. Kinari retaliates, beating the foreman ‘with a stick’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 57) and pushing him ‘on a heap of cotton’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 57). The sequence ends with the foreman covered in cotton, an image of ridicule but also a ‘lame man’ (Chatterjee, 2002: 57). This image would reappear in Mother India. By rendering the foreman’s masculinity as impotent Kinari unlike Balam is more efficacious at resisting the corrupting forces of the city, reinforcing her mythological status and Mehboobian femininity.

Conclusion: Re-claiming Roti

Vijay Mishra’s argument (citing Salman Rushdie) that Mother India is ‘not one text but a multiplicity of texts’ (Mishra, 2002: 70) is also pertinent to Roti. Indeed, Mishra’s analysis of Bombay Cinema and its emergence during the 1930s and early 1940s disregard the contribution of Roti as a key text in the development of ‘the ongoing conflict between tradition and modernity’. Mishra (2002: 67) argues for Mother India’s prominence as a key Mehboobian film on the grounds that it is ‘more diffuse and contradictory than his other films’. Even if this is true and one agrees with such a claim, Mishra does not even acknowledge or consider the position of Roti in relation to Mother India. Perhaps Mishra’s oversight (Chatterjee can also be charged with neglecting Roti in her monograph) can be explained in terms of Roti’s absence from home video circulation and as a film lost to time.

It is only recently with the growth of DVD and the Internet have Mehboob’s lesser works become available(12). Since the copyright of Roti has lapsed, the film is now part of the public domain, making it an altogether complicated project if someone was to restore the film. Furthermore, the discrepancy in terms of the running time(13) of the film also raises questions about trying to analyse the film comprehensively. Irreversibly, a critical reluctance to engage with Roti also stems from its overtly political content compared to Mehboob’s populist works. Roti was ahead of its time, mixing formal innovation with daring political themes. For the film to have succeeded commercially in this context is a testament to Mehboob’s skills as a filmmaker.Roti is best situated Roti as a transitional work, developing ideas started in Aurat but also bringing to an end Mehboob’s time as a studio director. My original argument that Roti should be re-considered as a key film of 1940’s pre-independence Hindi cinema also poses far greater questions for scholarly research concerning film preservation, archiving and the canonization of Hindi cinema. The history of Hindi cinema should be an ongoing project, revising the present to account for the blind spots of a filmic past in trouble of collapsing into a perpetual void of nostalgia and reverence for classical texts that have taken on a mythical, hegemonic status.


1. Roti’s singularity could be disputed if one considers the significance of Naya Sansar (The New World, 1941) that in the opinion of Barnouw (1980: 132) ‘launched a vogue in “new world” films with “progressive” themes’. Unfortunately, Naya Sansar’s invisibility on VHS, DVD and the Internet raises yet again questions about film preservation and its impact on archiving an accurate and full account of Indian film history.
2. Vijay Mishra (2002: 49 – 59) categorises Mahal under ‘Indian Gothic’ that he contends is a romantic genre.
3. The final sequences of Neecha Nagar sees the paranoia of the despotic landlord accentuated by statues and paintings that come alive, haunting him and accelerating his destruction.
4. Although the IPTA managed only to directly produce three films, a similar organisation in the Soviet era titled the Workers International Fund ‘helped to produce and distribute some twenty documentaries and newsreels between 1922 and 1924’ (The Film Factory, 1988, Routledge). The WIR points to the potential output and trajectory of the IPTA, which was never realised.
5. Gayatri Chatterjee notes Mother India was banned in Turkey as it was deemed a communist film.
6. Dovzhenko was grouped with Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Vertov as part of a ‘left’ avant-garde in the new Soviet Cinema movement.
7. A similar moment occurs in Mother India but this time Mehboob uses peasants to construct the map of India.
8. A notable point of comparison with German expressionism is the visual emphasis on the wide protruding grey eyes of actor Chandra Mohan (a visual trait of his stardom), constructing imagery of the grotesque. A link to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), a key text of German Expressionist cinema, is delineated through the commentator’s control over Laxmidas echoing that of Caligari and the somnambulist.
9. The illiteracy of Balam and his antagonistic relationship with the capitalist Laxmidas looks forward to Birju and Sukhi-Lala in Mother India.
10. The most likely tribe being referred to in the film is the Gondi people who constitute India’s largest tribe.
11. Muzaffar Alam (2002: 85) traces peasant revolts as far back as the eighteenth century, which saw an Agrarian uprising against the Mughal revenue collectors.
12. Roti was recently uploaded onto YouTube with English subtitles by user tommydan55.
13. The entry for Roti in the Encyclopedia of Indian cinema lists the running time as 153 min while the running time of the DVD is 132 min. Therefore 21 min.is unaccounted for. This could mean either songs have been deleted or potentially sequences. While there is no explanation to why this discrepancy exists, the missing footage would certainly demand further reappraisal of the film.