Meet India's Gone with the Wind.
Radha and Shamu are newly wed farmers who unknowingly sign unto a lifetime of poverty and desperation when they get a loan from Sukilal to pay their wedding expenses. Sukilal soon charges exorbidant interest rates which Shamu and Radha struggle to pay, under the increasing burden of four children. In an attempt to earn more money Radha and Shamu attempt to cultivate more of their land, only for Shamu to lose his arms in a farming accident. He disappears out of shame, abandoning Radha and her children.
Radha struggles on, losing her crop and two children to a flood. In a moment of desperation she flees to Sukilal's house to beg for money, only to reject him at the last moment. Soon her two surviving children grow up. Her older son Ramu soon gets embroiled in his own cycle of poverty. Her second and favorite son Birju resents Sukilal and takes out his rage by harassing Sukilal's daughter. This taunting turns serious when he tries to kill Sukilal, becomes a dacoit and vowes to kidnap Sukilal's daughter. Radha must now decide if she wants to stand against her favorite son.
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: In several close-ups Nargis looks exceptionally well-made up for a broken-down farm woman
- Berserk Button: Radha's bangles are this for Birju, especially when the loanshark's daughter wears them. For him they represent to him the lifelong extortion of his family.
- Book-Ends: The movie begins and ends in the same way; with Radha looking forward to building the water canal
- Break the Cutie: The entire movie is one long series of catastrophes directed at Radha and her family.
- Cain and Abel: Ramu and Birju
- Death of a Child: Two of Radha's children die in a flood.
- Determinator: Radha, so much. Nothing - loan sharks, floods, losing her husband and children - will stop her from protecting her family
- Fan Disservice: An in-her-prime Nargis wearing a soaking wet sari should theoretically be hot. It's not.
- Flashback Echo - Employed in the beginning of the film.
- Hair-Trigger Temper: Birju
- Happily Married: Shamu and Radha, at first.
- Incest Subtext: Whole books have been written about the ambiguous relationship between Birju and Radha, starting with how Birju is another name for Krishna...whose main Love Interest was Radha. The fact that Sunil Dutt and Nargis, the actors playing the two leads, ended up marrying fanned the flames further.
- Keet: Young Birju. So much.
- Loan Shark: Radha owes moneylender Sukilal debt with interest for her marriage that turns to a life crushing soul force which nearly destroys her life. Her son Birju decides to take revenge on Sukilal for his ways which results in the ensuing tragedy
- Mama Bear: Radha, which proves to be ironic
- Offing the Offspring: Radha kills her favorite son Birju for the sake of justice in the end
- Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Ramu's the sensitive obedient son to Birju's hothead
- Take That!: The entire film is one towards a 1927 book with the same title, which painted India as a backwards sexually depraved hellhole. Director Mehboob wanted to make a film that was so powerful in its celebration of Indian values that it would wipe out the phrase "Mother India"s association with the book.
- World of Symbolism: Major characters share names with or are otherwise associated with important Hindi gods, and share crucial character traits with them.