The aam aadmi behind Attenborough’s Gandhi

  • Ramachandra Guha
  • Updated: Sep 14, 2014 17:28 IST

When the actor-director Richard Attenborough died recently, the tributes mostly focused on the film Gandhi. But only one of the many obituaries I saw mentioned — and that in passing — the remarkable (and remarkably self-effacing) man who was instrumental in persuading Attenborough to convey the Mahatma’s life and struggles so eloquently on celluloid.

This ‘unknown Indian’ was named Motilal Kothari. Of Gujarati origin, he had settled in London, where he worked on the staff of the Indian High Commission. When, in the late 1950s, he was diagnosed with heart trouble, he resolved to “sell my life dearly”. As he later recalled, “I decided I had to try to do something, however small, which I believed to be a positive step for humanity”. Gandhi’s message of peace resonated ever more strongly in a world engulfed by violence — why not have it expressed in that most popular medium, the feature film?

In October 1961, Kothari approached Louis Fischer, author of a major biography of the Mahatma. Fischer generously offered his book, free of charge, on which to base the film. In July 1962, Kothari asked Richard Attenborough whether he would be the director. In February 1963, Attenborough agreed. At Kothari’s suggestion, the prospective director got Lord Mountbatten to speak to the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru endorsed the project “so long as the film was one of complete integrity”.

Kothari and Attenborough had a script prepared by Gerald Hanley. In November 1963, they visited Nehru and showed him the script. Nehru “found it to be written in the right spirit”. The text was then revised based on comments by experts. At the same time, a company called Indo-British Films Ltd was formed for the project, with Attenborough and Kothari serving as directors.

The above facts are based on an unpublished note by Motilal Kothari that I found in the papers of Horace Alexander, a Quaker activist who had been close to Gandhi. It was Alexander who put Kothari (and Attenborough) in touch with Mira Behn (Madeleine Slade), Gandhi’s adopted daughter, then living in retirement in Switzerland. No one knew the Mahatma better than Mira, and she was to provide crucial insights for the film.

On the 19th of December 1964, a press conference was held at London’s Savoy Hotel, where Kothari and Attenborough presented their plans. Here Kothari called Gandhi “the only man, at least in our century, who has shown by his own practice, a way of life that suggests a hope of solution of the outstanding world problems of today”. Announcing that Attenborough would direct the film, Kothari remarked: “If we succeed, even approximately, in portraying in our story, the rare and exquisite courtesy and compassion, humour and humility, courage and wisdom of this unique man, I believe that people, all over the world, coming out of the cinemas, will say to themselves … How good it is to be a man, and how wonderful it could be to try to be a good human being.”

This was said in December 1964. Attenborough’s Gandhi came out a full 18 years later. What accounted for the delay? One problem was funding: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer first agreed to produce the film, then backed out. Another problem was finding the right scriptwriter. Kothari was very keen on Robert Bolt, who had written a wonderful play about Thomas More. More was ‘A Man For all Seasons’, whereas Gandhi, said Kothari, was ‘A Man For All Humanity’. Bolt wrote some sketches, but declined to go further.

The project stalled for a third reason: Kothari and Attenborough had a falling-out (the reasons for which are not clear). Kothari then asked David Lean to direct the film. He also visited India in 1965 and 1968, when he met Nehru’s successors, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, and urged them to support the project.

Motilal Kothari had originally hoped that the film would be ready by the time of the Gandhi Centenary, in 1969. That did not come to pass; and, in January 1970, Kothari himself succumbed to a heart attack. By now David Lean had lost interest in the project. Fortunately, Attenborough had not. Motivated by Kothari’s memory, and encouraged by (among others) the great sitarist Ravi Shankar, he raised money (and interest) in India, the United Kingdom and the United States. In his book In Search of Gandhi, Attenborough acknowledges his immense debt to Kothari, who was one of the film’s dedicatees (the others were Nehru and Mountbatten).

Although it won eight Oscars and was a box-office success, Attenborough’s Gandhi had a mixed reception among critics. Some reviewers were laudatory, seeing it as a successful representation of the Mahatma and his message. Others complained that it idealised its subject, and that it either left out important characters (Bose, Ambedkar) or caricatured them (Jinnah).

In a note for the script-writer, Motilal Kothari had singled out three aspects of Gandhi’s work: his identification with the poor, his struggles against injustice, and, finally, “his determination to practice continually everything himself first, before he asked others to do it”.

For Kothari, the Mahatma was in “exactly the same predicament as we all are today; the ever suffering humanity — especially poverty; the class war as it manifested itself in the caste system in India and class struggles elsewhere; racial discrimination and religious intolerance; and the most important of all, national and ideological rivalries leading to war and violence”.

These words were spoken in 1964. They retain their resonance 50 years later. Meanwhile, the film that Motilal Kothari inspired and initiated, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, is still watched and discussed in classrooms and homes across the globe.

Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed by the author are personal.

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