A young woman who played an aging Kasturba
Rohini Hattangadi played the character of Kasturba Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s legendary 1982 film, Gandhi. Hattangadi revisits her memories of working in this iconic cinematic adaptation of his life.Updated: Oct 01, 2020, 19:06 IST
In her tastefully done up apartment in Mumbai’s Bandra, it is humbling to watch actor Rohini Hattangadi juggle between playing host to us and doing her own makeup. The 68-year-old is the first Indian actor to win a BAFTA (awarded by the British Academy of Film and Television Arts) and has also won a National Award. But the role that she is most well known for landed on her plate when she was 27, and had to portray a 74-year-old. She played the character of Kasturba Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s legendary 1982 film, Gandhi. Hattangadi revisits her memories of working in this iconic cinematic adaptation of his life.
A young graduate from National School of Drama who’s more interested in theatre than cinema gets a call from Richard Attenborough to play a much older character. What was your first reaction?
Well, in the beginning, it was very naïve of me, but I didn’t know the scale of the film. For me it was just a role in an English film. Because of my theatre background, I was called for interview by Sir Richard — at that time he was Sir Richard, he became Lord afterwards — at the Centaur hotel. It was arranged by another theatre artist, Dolly Thakore, his liaison here. I told him that I’ve only done three films, but I have a theatre background. So our entire conversation was around theatre, with no mention of the film. The next day, Dolly wired me and I went to the grocer and called her, as I didn’t have a phone. She told me that I have been selected to go to England for a screen test. I didn’t even have a passport. She took me to the passport office and somehow, I got a temporary passport valid for six months. We were given a scene to do so, where Kasturba, in South Africa, refuses to clean the latrine [inside the Phoenix Farm settlement]. Like a disciplined theatre artist, I was fully prepared, right from my bindi down to the bangles and the mangalsutra. They had made three pairs of Gandhi and Kasturba for the audition. I was with Ben Kingsley, the second couple was Naseeruddin Shah and Smita Patil, and the third was John Hurt and Bhakti Barve. Ben and I made it.
Did Attenborough mention why the two of you made the cut?
I think when we did the scene, they had some inkling that Ben and I would make it because of the way we looked. Sir Richard did mention that although he felt that Smita Patil was a wonderful actor, I looked more provincial and suited the part. He said Smita is too beautiful to play Kasturba!
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Tell us about Ben Kingsley and the preparation he had to do to get into the skin of Gandhi’s character.
Ben and I had to learn to operate a charkha. In addition, I was trained in elocution because I needed to get rid of my Maharashtrian accent, while Ben was training in yoga, because he had to squat and because of a hip injury, he found it tough. We were supposed to research our characters. While Ben found a lot of literature on Mahatma Gandhi, I only found two books on Kasturba — Hamari Ba by Vanmala Parikh, and Ba Aur Bapu Ki Sheetal Chhaya Mein by Sushila Nayar. Both books were very personal recollections of the authors, and, therefore, limited. Whenever Ben would get some literature on Kasturba, he would pass it on to me. A couple, Mr and Mrs Handa, instructed Ben and I on several aspects of Gandhi and Ba’s life. The four of us would sit and exchange notes for hours.
After he read Gandhi’s biography by Louis Fischer (The Life of Mahatma Gandhi), Sir Richard spent more than 18 years trying to make this film. Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru himself cleared the film, but after he died in 1964, the project was put on the back burner. India Gandhi backed the film and got the National Film Development Corporation to give funds for the production. At the time of filming it, were you aware of how much it has taken for the film to finally come on the floors?
Again very naïve of me, I was not at all aware of these things. But eventually, I got to know because during the shoot, I realised that Sir Richard knew Gandhi backwards. I was struggling with the mental calculation of how old Kasturba would have been, for significant scenes like the one on burning English clothes, but before I could consult the script, he would know the answer. Sir Richard was obsessed with Gandhi. When I read the biography, it was revealing how little we as Indians knew about Gandhi. About the struggle that Sir Richard had to go through, I just know that there was visible opposition to the making of this film. There were groups that said, “Gandhi par film kaise bana sakte hain (How can anyone make a film on Gandhi?)”. Both Richard and Ben had personal security guards with them throughout the shoot.
You, and several other cast members, including Alyque Padamsee (who played Mohammed Ali Jinnah), Neena Gupta (who played Abha, Gandhi’s attendant), and Pankaj Kapur (who played Gandhi’s secretary Pyarelal) were known at the time for your work in parallel cinema. The Emergency had ended and the political atmosphere in the country was volatile. And here you all were doing a film backed by the government. Was that a paradox?
Not that I know of. I was totally into the role and film and the only thing I remember was knowing that there is opposition to the film, and that’s all. I was unaware of the politics of it, actually.
What was it like on the sets? Was it very different from the previous three films you had done by then?
Oh, yes. The detailing on the sets of Gandhi was very minute. There was immense discipline and nothing was taken for granted. If Gandhi used a certain specific kind of utensil, then it had to be on the set. I remember our set was on the banks of Yamuna in Badarpur (Delhi border). And on the other bank, a a cut-out of chimneys was needed. The unit got cut-outs exactly like those of textile mill chimneys in Ahmedabad. The river bank on the other side was not even to be in the camera frame. They didn’t want to take any chance even if a glimpse were to show. It had to be perfect. In Mumbai, we were shooting scenes based in South Africa. And I suddenly saw zebras. I wondered where Sir Richard had brought zebras to Mumbai from. I was then told that they had painted stripes on donkeys to make them look like zebras! He said we can’t get South Africa’s giraffes here, at least we can manage zebras.
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One of the iconic scenes of the film was the funeral of Mahatma Gandhi. It made it to the Guinness Book of World Records because 300,000 people attended the shoot. Was it planned at this scale?
The procession was planned, but they didn’t know so many people would turn up. It was announced in newspapers and radio, people were asked to come and join in the Gandhi funeral scene of the film. They were told to not wear rangeen (coloured) clothes. There were 12 cameras covering the entire route. Govind Nihalani (now, a renowned director) was operating the camera at India Gate. They shot the scene on January 30, the same day that Gandhi was assassinated. If you compare the actual photo of Gandhiji’s funeral, and the photo of the scene in the film, there’s a striking similarity. Sir Richard managed to recreate it brilliantly.
While filming, could you foresee that Gandhi would become such a milestone film in terms of commercial success and critical acclaim? It fetched eight Academy awards and 130 million dollars at the box office.
As I mentioned, I realised the magnitude of the film only towards the end of its shooting. There was a private show for the crew, and it left me speechless. Raungte khade ho rahe the mere (I had goosebumps). After the release, people slowly started appreciating the film. India came to be known in the West because of Gandhi. Otherwise, they still thought that tigers roam around on the streets in India.
The perception of Mahatma Gandhi has seen ups and downs over the years, and people have contrarian views about the relevance of Gandhian philosophy. Have your views about Gandhi changed over the years in any way?
Gandhiji was educated in an English atmosphere, and if you understand the British, you can truly understand his principle of offering the other cheek when you are slapped on one. Gandhiji knew the mind of the British well and that’s why he was able to manipulate them. That’s why he was successful. During the independence struggle, many times he took wrong decisions, but stopped. And went back on them. So he was also experimenting. In any case, his basic teachings about education, cleanliness, education, self-reliance, are things that can’t be opposed.
Are you still in touch with fellow actors from the film?
Not really. Once or twice when Ben visited India, I met him. Till he was alive, Sir Richard used to send greeting cards every Christmas.
In the era of remakes in Bollywood, do you think a film like Gandhi could ever be remade by the present generation actors and directors?
Maybe. I don’t want to say that they won’t be able to. There are some good actors around. It’s just that we in India have put someone like Gandhi on a pedestal. So for Indians to show any flaw in him would be very difficult. That’s why it took a non Indian to do it so beautifully. But then from the present cinema professionals, if someone were to explore Gandhi from a complex and different angle, they should be welcome to do so. Why not?