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80th anniversary special: Revisiting Mehboob Khan’s Watan

The film, starred M Kumar, Bibbo, Yakub and Maya Banerjee.

Sonal Pandya

Director Mehboob Khan’s fifth directorial film, Watan, that released on 22 January 1938, was not the first to focus on the conflict between the Tartars and the Cossacks. The story had been told a number of times before. However this time around, the Sagar Movietone production paralleled the conflict to reflect India’s own freedom movement against the British.

According to Filmindia magazine, the film opened well, but its earnings dropped from the second week onwards. Watan, starring M Kumar (real name Mijjan), Bibbo, Yakub and Maya Banerjee, and was co-written by Khan and Wajahat Mirza, a debut screenwriter who went on to collaborate with him in films like Mother India (1957).

Remembering Wajahat Mirza, dialogue writer of Mother India and Mughal-e-Azam

The costume drama had hit music by Anil Biswas and the lyrics were, again, written by Mirza. All the artistes, from Yakub to Sitara Devi, sang their own songs in Watan.

The review of the film in Filmindia by writer Baburao Patel heaped praise upon cinematographer Faredoon Irani and said he was “responsible for creating a wonderfully pleasing optical illusion”. Although Patel went on to compliment Khan’s direction, saying “pictures of this type are the forte of Mr Mehboob. He seems to revel in them and gives his best every time and we still think it will not be wise for him to handle a social picture which requires greater flights of imagination and psychological understanding”, he thought the story was lacking.

A still from the Watan

M Kumar, who came to Mumbai (then Bombay) from Kolkata (then Calcutta) had a double role in the film as Murad and Abid. Actresses Bibbo as Princess Nigar, Maya Banerjee as Zahida, Sitara Devi as Gulnar played characters who were smitten by the brave Murad, the general of the Tartar army, who supports the Cossacks. The Russian king wants to suppress the Cossacks and feels Murad’s continued championing of them is treason.


Bibbo’s character Nigar was a princess who is not keen on living behind the palace walls and saves Murad from the hangman’s noose before taking "the lead in forming an effective army of women to help Murad in his sacred cause".

Don't know Bibbo? Shame on you!

Sitara Devi’s Gulnar, meets Murad while he is on the run from the king and his men. He too loves her, but mission wins over passion, and he sends Gulnar to work in the palace under Princess Nigar so he can have regular updates on the situation.


The dancer Azurie too performed for a song in the film.

Unfortunately, the print of this film was destroyed. What remain are the grainy black and white photographs from the film’s booklet that are our only source for any insight into the artistes and their performances at the time.

Sitara Devi was later awarded the 'Best Acting' award by the Gohar Gold Medal Committee in 1938 for her performance in Watan. Other winners that year were Prabhat Studios' Duniya Na Mane for Best Picture, Debaki Bose for Best Direction in Vidyapati and Motilal for 'Best Acting' in 300 Days & After.

Sitara Devi and M Kumar