Portraying the Mahatma

At the risk of being butchered, marinaded, barbecued and finally eaten, I would like to state that Bengali pride makes most Bengali people prefer the firebrand nature of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose to the more non-violent Mahatma that the rest of the world idolises. I fall in the same bucket (i.e. prefer Bose to Gandhi), which is why I decided to take a shot at writing this.

I have tried to analyze 5 movies, each dealing with a different view of Gandhi. Correction: I have tried to analyze 4 movies movies and 1 play. I have tried to keep my analysis as spoiler-free as possible.

  1. The Perspective of a Biographer: Gandhi (1982)

    Any list on films about Gandhi is incomplete without this biopic mentioned at the top of the heap. The remarkable thing about this movie is that the maker Richard Attenborough is not Indian and Ben Kingsley who plays the titular character is only half-Indian. And yet, this is as good a depiction of Gandhi as possible. So much so that most non-Indians I am aware of got interested in Gandhi through this eponymous movie. I myself use this movie as a refresher-course when I forget some detail associated with India’s freedom struggle.

    As a biopic this multiple Oscar winner covers Gandhi’s life from his days in South Africa up to his death. The whole aspect of India’s freedom struggle with him in the forefront is shown in great detail. The movie publishes a disclaimer upfront, stating the impossibility of recording all of Gandhi’s life in one movie and proceeds to show his journey with great historical accuracy. It seldom sees the need to spice up any event associated with Gandhi’s life, since this was a life where truth certainly was more interesting than fiction. Being more of a homage, it tends to skip over some character flaws, but that doesn’t take anything away from its splendour.

  2. The Perspective of a Relative: Gandhi, My Father (2007)

    This is an exceptional movie directed by Feroz Abbas Khan, which got buried under the more commercial releases of the year. Given the fact that the average Indian moviegoer likes the glamour and glitz that a Khan puts on display rather than a serious look at an unexplored relationship, it was not at all surprising that Gandhi, My Father failed to set the cash registers ringing. Featuring Darshan Jariwala as the Mahatma and Akshaye Khanna as his eldest son Harilal Gandhi, this movie tracks the troubled relationship of Gandhi with his son.

    I like this movie because it is never preachy. It shows how Gandhi favoured merit over relations and gradually became a passive agent of the destruction of his son’s life. Harilal’s relations with his father soured due to several actions on Gandhi’s part:

    1. Preferring to sponsor another young man in the neighbourhood for higher studies in the UK
    2. Advising someone to sue Harilal for cheating
    3. Disowning Harilal publicly

    It shows how Gandhi the father of the Nation always trumped Gandhi the father of Harilal.

  3. The Perspective of a Common Man of Today: Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006)

    Among all movies that I have seen, this was the most novel attempt of making the common man empathize with Gandhian philosophy. For those not familiar with the movie, this is the second (and so far last) installment of the popular “Munna Bhai” series directed by Rajkumar Hirani.

    It deals with a goon Munna (Sanjay Dutt) trying to woo a pretty Radio Jockey (Vidya Balan) by pretending to be a professor of Gandhian philosophy. When he first hears of 2nd October and “Bapu” in the land of the Mahatma around 60 years after independence, his thoughts don’t progress beyond it being a “dry day”. For the uninitiated, a “dry day” is when booze-shops don’t sell liquor. After a bit of fact-finding he figures out that Gandhi is the “guy whose face they have on banknotes”. However, faced with the prospect of being outed he bites the bullet and slogs for 72 hours through every piece of literature that he can find on Gandhi.

    The result is that Gandhi (Dilip Prabhavalkar) appears to him in person and guides him through the essentials of Gandhian philosophy. He solves a variety of complex problems using his approach, called Gandhigiri:

    • He helps people muster courage and speak the truth (while lying about himself!)
    • Fights corruption
    • Shuns class discrimination
    • Protests in a non-violent manner
    • Makes people feel guilty about doing the wrong thing
    • Fights superstition

    The attempt of this movie is to help people start a journey to understand Gandhian philosophy. Of course, to gain a real understanding you would have to devote a few years of your life, but this movie’s refreshing approach really connects with the common man.

  4. The Perspective of a Non-Believer Turned Follower: Hey Ram (2000)

    Many would argue the presence of Hey Ram on this list, because this movie barely showed Gandhi for 10 minutes. However, IMO this is a very deserving pick.

    Kamal Hassan directed and acted in this movie, featuring Naseeruddin Shah as Gandhi. His character, Saket Ram loses his wife to the communal riots associated with the partition of India. In his grief and rage he is recruited by a group of Hindu fundamentalists, who plan to kill Gandhi. They hold Gandhi responsible for the riots and are against his policy of appeasement towards Muslims. Saket Ram is assigned the task of assassinating Gandhi. Eventually though, after the murder of a very close Muslim friend (played by Shahrukh Khan) by Hindus, he sees the error of his ways.

    What caught my fancy in this movie was the gruesome violence and the sheer futility of the partition riots – I was quite shaken after I stepped out of the movie theatre. The interesting thing about the movie is the difference in the portrayal of Gandhi before and after Saket’s change of heart. The dialogue delivery by Naseer before the change makes you detest Gandhi – it is as though Gandhi tried to emotionally manipulate the masses by going on fasts and Satyagrahas. After Saket’s change, however, the portrayal became much more benign. Most friends of mine failed to latch on to the fact that the portrayal of Gandhi varied by the state of mind of the protagonist, and thereby disliked the film.

  5. The Perspective of a Follower Turned Assassin: Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (1989)

    This one, a Marathi play, is the odd one. This was also a very hard one to write about. Pradeep Dalvi, the playwright was denied permission to stage the play by the government of Maharashtra in 1989. Nine years later an attempt to resurrect the play in theatres failed again. So you can’t catch the play, but the transcripts are available. The play is split into four acts:

    1. An Assassin Speaks
    2. Gandhi Must be Stopped at Any Cost
    3. The Next Moment I Fired at Gandhi
    4. The Assassination

    History is always written by the victor. In this case, though Nathuram Godse was the person doing the killing, the victor was actually Gandhi. So naturally, any viewpoint that opposed Gandhi’s was bound to be put down. The play provides the viewpoint about Gandhi being wrong in his political stance, then justifies his killing as the only way to stop him from destroying India.

    I was hanged. There was only one common factor in Gandhi’s life and mine. We were both the cause of each other’s death. He wanted to live for his principles and I was prepared to die for my principles.

    Nathuram Godse, in Pradeep Dalvi’s play, Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy

So there you are – one man, so many movies. Do catch them if you can – each is worth your time. It won’t matter if you admire the man’s principles or not – his journey has several lessons to teach.

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