Volume 1 : Critic's Column (1)




Three Films and Gandhi

Anil Saari Arora

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Thee recent films in India have attempted a reconsideration and a review of the personality of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi : Jabbar Patel’s ‘Dr. Balasaheb Ambedkar’ which has been running in theatres across India in 2001 ; Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ which was an Indo-South African co-production of a couple of years earlier ; and Kamal Haasan’s ‘Hey Ram’ which has been the focus of media attention for well over a year now.

Not just in contemporary Indian cinema, but across the intellectual landscape of the country (if not the subcontinent) there seems to be a compulsion to come to grips with the political profile of an enigmatic man whose memory, some 50 years after his death, still seems to haunt the Indian intellect.

Perhaps the fourth and final draft of Sir Richard Attenborough and John Briley’s script for the big budget, Oscar-winning ‘Gandhi’ (1982) was the turning of the screw. Attenborough descended out of the blue as it were in 1979-80 upon an India which had by then almost forgotten M.K. Gandhi ; though official doles and stipends were still being regularly collected by a mute but populous tribe of so-called Gandhites ; and on the other side of the ideological fence, a hostility against Gandhi’s supposedly soft stance towards Muslims (and Pakistan) still rankled in the heart of traditionalist Hindu ideologues.

It took close to 20 years after the international success of the Attenborough ‘Gandhi’ before serious Indian filmmakers could muster the pecuniary nerve to bring to celluloid some of their own perceptions about the man who had dominated the freedom struggle and whom the Indian political establishment then treated as a mythic figure who ought to remain untouchable to critical review. Indian film financiers and entrepreneurs were no doubt hesitant to invest in a subject which, in real terms, they felt was probably not within the scope of our filmmakers. The Hindi version of the Attenborough ‘Gandhi’ has a contorted, un-colloquial translation of the film’s original dialogues and much of it was so abstruse as to quite escape the intelligibility of those who went to see the dubbed Hindi version. The film did not have impressive grosses and this must have frightened off any thoughts about a fresh venture concerning M.K. Gandhi. Not surprisingly, of the three recent films in which Gandhi’s historical personality features, only one, Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’, relates primarily with Gandhi. Both Jabbar Patel’s ‘Dr. Balasaheb Ambedkar’ and Kamal Haasan’s ‘Hey Ram’ focus on other aspects and personalities of recent Indian history. These touch Gandhi obliquely, on the sidelines of their primary subject. In my opinion, as one individual filmgoer, perhaps the one that most effectively states its point of view on Gandhi is ‘Dr. Balasaheb Ambedkar’. Gandhi figures briefly in the film, in the context of Dr. Ambedkar’s meetings with him and in the brief comment Ambedkar makes about Gandhi. As a bio-pic on the great Dalit intellectual and leader, Jabbar Patel’s film has the commendable cinematic merit of brilliant simplicity. It sets out to lucidly re-enact the biography of Dr. Ambedkar with a plausible ring of authenticity. The history of the man’s life and thoughts and his political activities are retold with conceptual finesse, dramatic alertness, detailed and impressive production values and marvelous portraitures by Mammooty (as Dr. Ambedkar) and other members of the cast. First-rate research on the subject and finely tuned script by Sooni Taraporevala, Arun Sadhu and other subject-consultants, enabled the director—along with his term of production advisers and consultants (including Shyam Benegal) and his lead player—to tell the story of Dr. Ambedkar’s life with some of the power of the man’s own journey from an humble origin to his emergence as a national leader of substance and considerable achievement.

The sweep of the film’s precisely structured narrative is complemented in terms of its cinematic drama by the fact that for most members of India’s intelligentsia the film also brings home unknown aspects of the history of our freedom struggle, and so unveils events and people in a manner of which many of us were ignorant heretofore.

Dr. Ambedkar and Gandhi’s conflict, in their world views and political strategies, comes across in the film as even drama pitchforking two powerful public personalities representing diverse political forces. It is for historians to evaluate the authenticity of this brief but meaningful confrontation between the two Indian leaders ; but as a filmgoer one may say that there were shades to Gandhi’s personality which we were generally not aware of till this film came to us.

The most telling lines in the film come from Gandhi himself, when he irascibly asks his aides, after his first encounter with Dr. Ambedkar, Why didn’t somebody tell me that Ambedkar is a Dalit ? It is a line in the script which opens up to much speculation : How would Gandhi have handled Ambedkar in that first meeting if he had known better of his visitor’s social identity ? Then we have Ambedkar’s ambiguous reaction on being told of Gandhi’s death – revealing Ambedkar’s instinct, knowing that with the death of Gandhi, Ambedkar had lost the one upper caste Hindu leader whom he could have argued with in the hope of persuading him to concede Ambedkar’s point of view ; knowing that Gandhi had the courage no other upper caste Indian leader had, of taking a stand, when convinced, against the broad mainstream of opinion.

On the other hand, Kamal Haasan’s film ‘Hey Ram’ would, in my opinion, have been a more cohesive film if Kamal, as its scriptwriter, had quite avoided bringing in Gandhi as a character in the film. Kamal Haasan’s Gandhi is extremely one-dimensional, though the script intends its Gandhi figure to provoke the climatic turnabout in its protagonist, Saket Ram, the would-be assassin who is intellectually overwhelmed by the sheer presence of his potential target.

‘Hey Ram’ would have stood out as a coherent statement and a dramatically integrated film if it had limited itself to the transmutation of an educated, westernized archaeologist into a person haunted by a personal tragedy and sucked therefore into the vortex of revenge. There are sequences in the film that are outstanding in the Indian repository of political cinema : the depiction of the communal riot in Kolkata during which Saket Ram’s first wife (played by Rani Mukherjee) is massacred, Saket Ram’s encounter and continuing dialogue with his new mentor, and his disturbing and tortuous transition into the role of a would-be assassin.

Regrettably, this, the longer and predominant content of the film is set off against a fleeting and rather inexplicable turnaround which is supposedly set off by the narrative device of the Gandhi figure. But why does Gandhi–or rather, the concept of Gandhi held in 1948 by the majority of the Indian people, prevail upon Saket Ram at the ostensible climax of his mission ? This is a question that the film raises but does not analyze or answer. In terms of narrative drama, for over two hours the film’s protagonist moves convincingly down the anti-Gandhi path. Then, suddenly, a generalization about the Gandhi of 1948 is thrown into the works and this is to be accepted as the pivot for the narrative’s miraculous catharsis.

Kamal Haasan’s ‘Hey Ram’ ought to have eschewed the Gandhi character altogether, in my opinion. Or it should have developed the Gandhi characterization with the fullness which would justify why one of Gandhi’s would-be assassins turns, finally, to become an obsequious clone of the man he wanted to gun down.

Kamal Haasan is unable to do any better than prop up a cliche Gandhi as defined by jaded Gandhites. That, as modern Indian historians attest, and as Sir Richard Attenborough and John Briley’s script so clearly delineates, was not the Gandhi who could inspire the greater number of the Indian masses participating in the freedom struggle. The Gandhi of the effete Gandhites, and of Kamal Haasan’s script, could not have been the man capable of heading the freedom political statements in isolation, without being able to elaborate or suggest Gandhi’s motives or the thought processes involved in the taking up of his political stances during the frenzied era of the subcontinent’s partition and its independence.

In the post-Gandhi era, Gandhites have refused to analytically explain Gandhi’s concepts and public stances and Kamal Haasan’s screenplay errs in not being one better than them, seeking out its own comprehension of the man. In 20th century Indian history, Gandhi was too important a political personality to be represented summarily by a cliche in a film focusing largely on his intellectual opponents.

Shyam Benegal’s ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ has the merit of being the first public endeavor to scrutinize the complex, often antagonistic relations between Mohandas Karamchand and his eldest son, as well as to dwell on the all too human differences that occasionally erupted in the course of their marriage, between Gandhi and Kasturba.

The quintessence of Benegal’s film, its subject, was and is extremely relevant to the contemporary Indian scene. Not just because it de-mystifies the personality of a man who has all too often been the victim of pseudo-intellectual deification by Gandhites. Also because in contemporary Indian society the theme of the antagonism between a public figure and his progeny is in itself a theme of import and relevance. It is a social phenomenon which we need to understand for our own reasons, too. Unfortunately, as has also happened with some other Benegal films in recent times, ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ does not quite achieve the dramatic impact it intends to. We are therefore left with only a partial and not wholly convincing denouement of the whys and wherefores of the very human conflict within the family of a public person, who is lauded by his followers in the outside world as an idealistic figure.

For what the opinion of a little man is worth, I would say that there will be other times and other films, when perhaps we may arrive at a fuller, more credible comprehension of that which made Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.


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