In 1962, as Richard Attenborough was leaving Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s office, the prime minister came running after him. "Richard! Richard! Richard!" he was calling out with a desperate appeal in his voice that startled Lord Attenborough.
"Please do not turn Gandhiji into a saint," said Panditji when he had caught his breath. The two had spent the last three hours down on their knees in Panditji’s room looking at hundreds of photographs of Mahatma Gandhi from Pandit Nehru’s personal album, spread out on the floor. Attenborough had no study of Gandhiji to go by in 1959 when he had first decided to make the film on Gandhi and had approached Nehru for some details. "Tell me how he walked, how he talked, what he ate, what he drank. Tell me how he thought…"
Nehru’s recollection of all that came as a Godsend to Attenborough but now the Indian prime minister was asking something that had a great influence on how Attenborough himself would see and make Gandhi. "Gandhiji was a great man but he had his weaknesses, his moods and his failings. We Hindus have a tendency to turn anyone we see as great into a God. But Gandhiji was much too human and complex to be one. So keep him human."
According to Lord Bhikhu Parekh, 79, member of the House of Lords and professor at the University of Westminster in London, who took over as the chairperson of the Gandhi Foundation (set up from profits of the film) from Attenborough in 2011, the film Gandhi would have been something other than what it was had it not been for Nehru’s advice to its directer. ``Everytime Richard was directing Ben Kingsley, he kept chanting Panditji’s words in hs head – ``Don’t turn him into a saint!’’ So the film shows Gandhi in all his greatness without making him out to be a messiah or anything like that."
Asked if that is why Mohammad Ali Jinnnah came across as more a sinner than a saint, Lord Parekh speaking to Hindustan Times from Baroda where he is on vacation, said, "Richard was convinced that Jinnah was not an attractive man. Jinnah was a shrewd politician and a great lawyer. But as a human being he was not very attractive, Richard told me often times," Lord Parekh said. It may be noted that Pakistanis hated the characterisation of Jinnah in the film and made an independent film on their Quaid-e-Azam in response.
Lord Parekh described Lord Attenborough as "the cinematic version of a public intellectual" who apart from Gandhi also made a film on the South African anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko who was brutally tortured and murdered in a South African prison. Lord Parekh himself has written three books on Gandhi, one of them `Gandhi’ has been translated into 18 international languages. Another `Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, which came out in 1989 along with `Satanic Verses; earned him the title of "Hindu Rushdie" as it had for the first time reflected and analysed Gandhiji’s experiments with celibacy, "Richard helped to settle that controversy when he told people that I was right about those experiments and that he had not focused on that aspect in the film because he did not have the 20 minutes it would have taken to describe those experiment in all their truth without any element of titillation."
Lord Parekh said Richard Attenborough should be remembered as `a man of enormous charm with a true English sense of humour (which means not just cracking jokes), a great sense of public commitment and tremendous generosity of spirit’.