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.
..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.
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.
…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.”
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.
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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