The Gandhi you didn't know

  • Pooja Biraia, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Sep 28, 2014 16:16 IST

Come October 2, Richard Attenborough’s masterpiece, Gandhi, will be playing somewhere on TV. Perhaps you’ve watched the film before. Maybe this year will be your first time. Or maybe, you’re one of those who weeps through the end year after year.

Director Richard Attenborough’s biopic swept the Oscars in 1982, beating Steven Spielberg’s crowd favourite E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial for the top awards. It set a Guinness World Record for the most number of extras (three lakh people for the funeral scene) and won India its first Oscar (Bhanu Athaiya for Costume Design).

But you knew that already. Here are the stories behind the scenes, still fresh in the minds of those in the unforgettable film.

There was some racism on the sets...

Dolly Thakore, the film’s casting director, recalls that before the shoot began, at a party for the film’s team, one of the British assistant directors, turned to Kamal Swaroop, an Indian AD, and said, "Get me a cup of tea". Swarup is said to have replied: "The Raj left many years ago."

Other crew members reported instances of racism too. "Some Brits would act as though they were still ruling India," says John Mathew Matthan, a first assistant director. "They’d throw their weight around with the juniors and assistants. But when Richard [Attenborough, the director] was approached by a few people with complaints of rude behaviour, he exclaimed loudly, ‘If they’re rude to you, you give them back. If somebody abuses you, you abuse him back!’"

..But it was also a melting pot
The sets served both Indian and European food. “Initially, one would notice the Indian crew queuing up at the Western food counter and vice versa,” says Rohini Hattangadi, who played Kasturba. “Once, while shooting in Pune, I decided to experiment and ordered an item named Shepherd’s Pie. I thoroughly relished it, only to be later informed that what I had was beef. I couldn’t sleep that night! My only consolation was that the cow was English, not Indian!” On auspicious days, non-vegetarian food was not allowed on sets. “Everyone would have vegetarian food only,” says Alok Nath, who played Tyeb Mohammed.

The cast learnt through practice...
Hattangadi and Ben Kingsley (playing Gandhi) started charkha lessons almost three months before the shoot began in Delhi. “Both of us kept struggling with those neverending loops of thread in the suites of the Ashok hotel every day,” she says.

In his suite, Kingsley moved the bed, slept on a mat and had his walls plastered with images of the Mahatma. "Ben would keep watching Gandhi’s documentaries and hired a yoga teacher to teach him sitting positions typical of Gandhi," adds Hattangadi. ...And India taught them too

"When we took Ben dressed as Gandhi to a location, a crowd of villagers came and touched his feet," says Suresh Jindal, associate producer. "Ben was overwhelmed." Another time, when he was sipping a beer at the Ashok’s bar lounge, a few members objected to ‘Gandhi’ consuming alcohol. "He then got so conscious that he actually abstained from drinking altogether until the film was made gave up meat too," Jindal says.

Everyone wanted to be in the film...
Anupam Kher, bald, fair and an NSD graduate, was certain he’d bag the role of Nehru. “So he simply bought a third-class ticket from Allahabad to Delhi to meet us at the Ashok,” says Thakore. It turned out that the moment he came in, Thakore and Attenborough both walked out, never giving him a second look. And the role went to Roshan Seth. Dustin Hoffman was reportedly quite keen to play Gandhi.

...And everyone wanted to watch
Uday Shankar Pani, an assistant director recalls shooting in Hyderabad House, where Indira Gandhi had come over to watch and Pani was overseeing security. “I noticed a British manager having a heated argument with an Indian who himself claimed to be Gandhi and wanted to be let in,” he says. It turned out to be Rajiv Gandhi, India’s future Prime Minister. “Finally after his card was forwarded, he was permitted to view the shooting.”

Big money was involved…
“We were all given an allowance of R300 per day in addition to our salaries” says Nath. “Gurcharan Singh Chani, who plays a leader who gives the speech at Jallianwala Bagh received R4,000 for two days’ work, Vijay Crishna who played Jinnah’s driver earned R12,000 just for one line and a day’s work, as bad weather delayed the scene by four days,” Thakore adds.

“The budget for the crowds alone was close to R3 crore,” Pani says. The extras came from villages around Delhi. Swarup, Pani and Allana have memories of buses that would arrive in the morning and depart in the evening. Locals were paid R15 each, JNU students, IAS officers’ wives, high officials and embassy officials got R100.

Alyque Padamsee, who played Jinnah, recalls how he once was late for his 7am car pick-up by two minutes: "I was admonished by Richard who said ‘Every minute in the making of this film costs us six lakh rupees. We cannot afford to waste time at all’. After that, I was never late."

…But a whole lot of work as well
All the train shots taken in the entire film are actually from a single train,” says Pani, referring to the Palace On Wheels. “One side of the train was dressed to make it look South African, while the other was made to look Indian.”

Matthan recalls recreating the Sabarmati Ashram with a backdrop of Ahmedabad, on the banks of the Yamuna in Haryana. Dusty Ahmedabad was simulated using hand-painted plywood and fibreglass cutouts that seamlessly merged into the length of the landscape. “It was planned by the British, executed by Indians and took six months.”

One shot took 10 days to get right. The image of a young Gandhi, in the first-class compartment of the train, had to be recreated exactly to the script: a white waft of smoke leads the viewer from the funeral scene into the railway scene. "So we’d put soaked leaves in the chimney to get white smoke," says Matthan. "The filming was done between Udaipur and Jaipur and every day rail traffic was stopped between 2pm and 7pm, and the highway was shut from 4pm to 7pm. We’d wait to get just two 15-minute shots at sunset."

Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya says she had "over 5,000 people to dress in khadi at any point" and would spend three hours every day just getting people into dhotis. For the Swadesi movement scene, she had a team of nine and dressed 2,000 people in one go.

Some Indians didn’t cooperate...
The Sikh community didn’t want to contribute to the film. Their reason: Gandhi did not intervene effectively to save Bhagat Singh’s life. So the crew was not allowed to shoot at Amritsar’s Golden Temple. But AD Uday Shankar Pani and fellow director Govind Nihalani cleverly sneaked in from the back door, took quick shots and ran out. “You’ll notice that in the film it’s a very fleeting reference made but nevertheless it’s very apt,” says Pani.

...But some went out of their way
Amal Allana, a set designer for the Indian section of the film, says that almost the whole of Delhi was part of the funeral scene, filmed on January 31, 1981, the 33rd anniversary of the Mahatma’s death. The 125-second scene needed 11 units.

"Richard wanted the whole of Rajpath to be full of people. So he advertised in newspapers that whoever wanted to watch the shooting should come dressed in white, sideburns cut short, no fancy shoes, no watches, no rubber slippers. It was the most magnificent event of the year. Announcements were made in English and Hindi on loudspeakers to tell the crowd to behave. Towards the end of the shot, we could see people weeping as if it were a real funeral. After the shot, some ladies went berserk, ‘We want to go up to Raj Ghat,’ they screamed."

No detail was spared…
In the scene that shows Kasturba’s death, the script required a fly to hover around Hattangadi and end up on her nose. Swarup says a special animal trainer crew was called from England to train flies! A British historian was on call all the time too.

…But some details were just impossible
The cast recalls that Attenborough would address everyone on the sets as, “darling”, love” and “sweetheart”. This is mainly because he would never be able to remember all their names!

From HT Brunch, September 28
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