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Many Gandhis on our screens

One of the earliest films on Gandhi was an American feature documentary, titled Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet, made in 1953.

india Updated: Sep 26, 2019 04:47 IST
Ratnottama Sengupta
Ratnottama Sengupta
Hindustan Times
film director, Richard Attenborough, (left) and actor, Ben Kingsley, who played the Mahatma, on set, 1982.
film director, Richard Attenborough, (left) and actor, Ben Kingsley, who played the Mahatma, on set, 1982.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Gandhiji. Mahatma. Bapu. One man, so many lives!

Any mention of Gandhi makes us think of Richard Attenborough’s definitive 1982 biopic that covered Gandhi’s life from 1893 to 1948. These 55 years depicted are strewn with abiding images: Gandhi floating away his chaddar in the river, for a shivering woman to cover herself with; his dignified grieving when he loses his wife; his determination as he sets out on the Dandi march; his insistence on not resorting to violence in the face of lathi charge; Gandhi practising Islam and Christianity rituals as lessons in tolerance.

One of the earliest films on Gandhi was an American feature documentary, titled Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet, made in 1953. Another documentary, made in 1968, covered every decade of his existence. But a better insight was provided by Shyam Benegal’s The Making of a Mahatma/ Mohan Se Mahatma Tak (1996). Based on Fatima Meer’s Apprenticeship of a Mahatma, it focused on his 21 years in South Africa where he used satyagraha with enormous success.

Mohandas of Kathiawad had an impact on several leaders. Naturally, many biopics depict that. Sardar (1993), Ketan Mehta’s portrait of Vallabhbhai Patel; Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998), where Christopher Lee played the founder of Pakistan; Shyam Benegal’s encapsulation of Subhas Chandra Bose’s struggle for an Azad Hind, Netaji – The Forgotten Hero (2005); Babasaheb (2000), on the life of B.R. Ambedkar; and even Viceroy’s House (2017), Gurinder Chadha’s account of the historic months leading to the Partition of India under Lord Mountbatten.

Other films that show Gandhi’s influence include Bhagat Singh (2002), Rajkumar Santoshi’s retelling with Ajay Devgan as the socialist revolutionary; Dear Friend Hitler (2011), based on a letter written by Gandhi to the Nazi Chancellor of Germany; Satyajit Ray’s centennial portrait of Rabindranath (1961), whom Gandhi called Gurudev; and Shyam Benegal’s Indo-Soviet co-production, Nehru (1983).

How do those born after 1948 perceive Gandhi? Is he still a Mahatma? In a world overtaken by terror and violence, is his crusade for non violence still relevant, or is it now a mere slogan for politicians? The philosophies of great leaders are not only for themselves but for society at large. This has prompted me to curate film festivals on Gandhi in Delhi (October 2018 and January 2019), Kolkata (August-October 2019), and Singapore (begins Friday and continues till September 30).

Gandhi inspired millions to rise against the imperialists, he cut across divisions of caste and religion, he spoke not for one country but for humanity. This made him a difficult model to emulate, as we see in Gandhi My Father (2007), based on his troubled relationship with his son, Harilal. Feroze Abbas Khan said in a director’s note when his film was screened in the festivals I had curated, “Since most filmgoers are young, we were advised to project the clash between the younger generation of Hopefuls and the older generation of Dogmas.” Khan chose to depict the complex relationship between a principled father and a son turned into a hand tool of fanatics. For, “These were real people whose struggle is instructive for our lives.”

“He has demonstrated,” Albert Einstein had said after Gandhi’s assassination, “that a powerful human following can be assembled not only through cunning of political manoeuvres, but through the cogent example of a morally superior conduct of life.” A clutch of films tackle this idea. In Girish Kasaravalli’s Kurmavatara (2012), a clerk with a striking resemblance to Gandhi is asked to enact him in a tele serial. But when he starts thinking and behaving like Gandhi, he is silenced. In Ananth Mahadevan’s Gour Hari Dastaan: The Freedom File (2014), the protagonist becomes a butt of jokes when he resorts to satyagraha in Bombay, to get what is his right: a Tamra Patra honouring his participation in the freedom struggle. In Babar Naam Gandhiji (2015), a street urchin is told that the man on the currency note is his father. But when he starts believing it, he is hauled up for fraud. So much for Gandhi being the Father of the Nation!

Through Uttam Chowdhury, a professor suffering amnesia, Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005) intones a society that is forgetting its voice of conscience, reducing the Mahatma to merely statue or stamp. “We hardly realise that half the problems we face today is because we are forgetting his homilies, and thereby we’re killing Gandhi everyday…”a director’s note by Jahnu Barua stated.

However, Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) shows a don successfully trade Dadagiri for Gandhigiri. In Road to Sangam (2009), Hasmat Ullah, a devout Muslim mechanic in post Partition India, is transformed when he is entrusted the job of repairing an old V8 Ford that had carried Gandhi’s ashes to Triveni Sangam.

Satyagraha, sarvodaya (uplift), ahimsa (non violence): the three big notions of Gandhi are revisited in our films repeatedly. But in the 1930s, when the Mahatma walked among us, films like Achhut Kanya, Balyogini, Thyagabhoomi, Mala Pilla were focusing on the scourge of untouchability. Pratap, a Brahmin and Kasturi, from a lower caste, are ill-fated lovers in Achhut Kanya (1936), the Bombay Talkies film by German director, Franz Osten. Perhaps the first reformist film on the Indian screen, it was most likely inspired by Harijan, first published by Gandhi from Yerwada jail of Pune in 1933. The director of the Tamil film, Balyogini (1936), about a Brahmin widow and her child given shelter by a lower caste servant, was declared an outcaste by Brahmins. Similarly, Mala Pilla (1938) in Telugu dealt with an intercaste relationship that continues to attract social opprobrium to this day.

Thyagabhoomi (1939) was produced at the height of India’s freedom movement expressly to glorify the Mahatma’s ideals. Protagonist Sambu Sastri invites ostracism by sheltering Harijans in his home after a cyclone. The orthodox Hindus excommunicate him. His daughter comes away from a failed marriage, joins the freedom movement and gets arrested. The film, financed and distributed by the movie mogul, SS Vasan, before he created Gemini Pictures, was banned by the British government.

The New Indian Cinema of the 1970s and 1980s, too, focused on caste, as evidenced by Samskara (1970) and Sadgati (1988). Pattabhirama Reddy’s Samskara , based on UR Ananthamurthy’s novel, led to much churning within orthodox society, prompting the Madras High Court to ban the film. It was the first Kannada film in independent India to suffer this fate.

No writing about cinema’s engagement with Gandhi is complete without recognising filmmakers’ fascination for his assassin, Nathuram Godse. Mark Robson first adapted Stanley Wolpert’s 1962 book into the controversial Nine Hours to Rama (1963). In Hey Ram! (2000), Kamal Haasan projected the dilemma of a would-be-assassin who is overtaken by Godse. And this year’s release, The Gandhi Murder, is a conspiracy theory film about three policemen who learn about Gandhi’s impending murder.

What accounts for this fascination? That Godse’s final statement was banned from the public realm for 30 years? Or that the seeker of ahimsa struggled in a landscape of violence and died by the gun? As Kunal Sarkar, renowned cardiac surgeon and a keen debater, underscored during a panel discussion in the Gandhi Revisited film festival in Kolkata, “Post World War 2, and the closer we came to Independence, Gandhi’s satyagraha had lost its bite.”

That indeed was the real tragedy of the 20th century.

(National Award winner Ratnottama Sengupta is a senior journalist, who has curated Gandhi film festivals in Delhi, Kolkata and Singapore. She recently turned director with ‘And They Made Classics)
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