Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth.
To place the burden on cinema for a fair assessment of Gandhi would be akin to putting the medium itself on a pedestal. Yet, films continue to explore the man and all that he stood for. From ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ to ‘Gandhi, My Father’, to ‘Hey Ram’ to the latest, ‘Gandhi Godse — Ek Yudh’
So said Albert Einstein. However, as we look at Gandhi through the lens of cinema, how do we see the man spoken so highly of around the world? Have enough biopics been made on him? Do these hold light to the towering persona of this otherwise diminutive man?
Ironically, perhaps a bit regretfully, the movie that towers above all else is ‘Gandhi’, made not by an Indian but a Briton, Sir Richard Attenborough. The Oscar-winning film captured the essence of the man described by John Gunther as ‘an incredible combination of Jesus Christ, Tammany Hall and your father’, like few others have. Of course, by no account is Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ the first film on the saintly figure. One of the earliest films on Gandhi came in 1921 and depicted him as a saint. Though cloaked as ‘Bhakta Vidur’, the silent film was moulded around the personality of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi and banned because the British saw through the cinematic ruse.
In Independent India, we have seen a clutch of movies on the bald, bespectacled figure revered by millions and currently questioned by many too. In the corridors of Indian cinema, the ones that shine are those that provide fresh perspectives and are not simply ‘cut-copy-paste’ versions of Attenborough’s classic. ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ by Shyam Benegal, for instance, deals with his struggles in South Africa. Rajit Kapur, who won the National Award for his portrayal of Gandhi in this film, calls it the phase of a younger Gandhi’s inner struggle and turmoil. To play him right, Kapur’s reference points were Fatima Meer’s book ‘Apprenticeship of a Mahatma’, and then, on Benegal’s suggestion, Gandhi’s autobiography, ‘My Experiments With Truth’.
While Ben Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance is often considered the template for other actors to follow, Kapur did not feel the need to walk in the same footsteps as Benegal’s 1996 film dealt with an entirely different journey/chapter of Gandhi. It focused on his early, albeit transformative, life, which led him to the path of non-violence.
But the film that brought Gandhi’s values to a whole new generation in the most innovative and delightful fashion was an entertainer — Gandhi’s message woven into it with more than a chuckle. Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’ stands as a classic example of how you can marry the lofty ideals of Gandhi with commercial success. The film was hailed by filmmaker Kabir Khan as a model film and even got a stamp of approval from Gandhi’s great-grandson Tushar Gandhi. If Khan praised the director for ‘keeping it all so subtle and yet conveying the message so well’, Tushar felt ‘it introduced the philosophies of Gandhi to a new generation’. Gandhigiri became a lexicon and the film is considered an astute yet engaging study of Gandhism.
Lyricist Swanand Kirkire, who won the National Film Award for Best Lyrics for the song ‘Bande Mein Tha Dum’ from ‘Lage Raho…’, shares how, for inspiration, he didn’t have to look further than Gandhi’s teachings. Of course, the Gandhi anthem had to be written keeping Munna Bhai’s ‘tapori’ language in mind. Shantanu Moitra, who gave the music to the award-winning track, recalls, “Today, the lyrics may seem effortless, but so much brainstorming happened while creating the opening lines. Four of us — producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, director Rajkumar Hirani, Kirkire and I — would sit for hours, trying to figure out the best lyrical summation of the man, that too as understood by a goon.”
Calling it his toughest score ever, he said that he could feel the weight of the heavyweight icon that Gandhi was. Add to it the fact that Hirani wanted to demystify him and approach him like a human being. Striking a balance was both delicate and complex.
As the film taught us Gandhian values via humour, we learnt to laugh with (not at) the Father of the Nation, who himself possessed a sly sense of humour. Furthermore, it proved beyond doubt how we didn’t always have to view him in holier than holy hues, and at the same time, not marginalising his relevance either.
Indeed, Gandhi had his frailties. As Kapur says, “He was no God.” His ideology did not, rather does not, sit well with all. Reason enough to build a counter-narrative and factor in voices that do not necessarily eulogise Gandhi? “Why not?” quips actor-writer Saurabh Shukla, who had a cameo in ‘Lage Raho Munna Bhai’. If ‘Gandhi, My Father’ brought forth the contentious relationship between Gandhi and his son Harilal Gandhi back in time, cinema is today reigniting the debate around Gandhi’s killer Nathuram Godse. Last week alone saw the release of Rajkumar Santoshi’s ‘Gandhi Godse — Ek Yudh’. Kirkire feels Gandhi would have encouraged people to watch films with divergent points of view and form their own opinion.
Contrary to misconceptions, ‘Gandhi Godse’ is not an excuse to condone Godse or glorify him. Rather, it foregrounds the ideological debate and even touches upon certain controversial aspects that epic films like ‘Gandhi’, too, did not delve into. The film places Gandhi and Godse in an alternate reality, where Gandhi survives the assassination attempt and the two confront each other in an imagined scenario. In 2000, Kamal Haasan’s ‘Hey Ram’, with Naseeruddin Shah playing Gandhi, was also cast in the space of imagined reality. Its poster — showing Haasan playing a Hindu fundamentalist posing with a revolver — might have given birth to certain misgivings, but the film was a sincere ode to Gandhi’s idea of inclusivity. Haasan calls it ‘my apology to Gandhi’. Both ‘Hey Ram’ and ‘Gandhi Godse’, though seemingly contrarian, ultimately uphold the Mahatma and what he stood for.
Screenplay writer Atul Tewari, who fleshed out Mahatma Gandhi in TV magnum opuses ‘Discovery of India’ and ‘Samvidhaan’, as well as in films like ‘Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero’, thinks it is important for filmmakers to bring out the truth of Gandhi and not deify him. Besides, the most filmed and photographed political leader, according to Tewari, does not require an actor to get the physical resemblance right, only his integrity of character, something Kingsley got spot-on. Tewari, however, is ashamed that the first real biopic on Gandhi came as late as 1982.
In India, unwittingly or by conscious design, Kirkire feels Gandhi is and will forever be a part of our DNA. But the question that assumes significance every now and then is: does our cinematic DNA require more of him? Incidentally, the man who was no film buff — rather, he held cinema in disdain and saw only half a film in his life — would have perhaps baulked at the choice of the medium to propagate his beliefs. Kapur, who is involved in a SPIC MACAY project that is taking Benegal’s film to educational institutions, feels that the exercise would be futile if the makers do not have a new vision or have nothing new to say. More films on Bapu or not, Kirkire believes he will keep reappearing, one way or the other. “For, even his detractors need Gandhi,” he says.
The violence-ridden world does need his message more than ever and cinema could play the messenger. As Shukla, who himself learnt so much about the national icon from ‘Gandhi’, observes, “History lessons tend to be boring and didactic while cinema invariably manages to show us the human being behind the halo.”
To place the burden on cinema for a fair assessment of Gandhi, however, would be akin to putting the medium itself on a pedestal. But as we have conveniently placed the Mahatma on a pedestal, insightful films like Jahnu Barua’s ‘Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara’ will continue to be cautionary tales. They will admonish and remind us how we, who have reduced the great man to tokenism, need to own up his value system. For, all said and done, bande mein tha dum.
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