A Gandhian struggle

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There are very few genuine Gandhians alive today. One of them is Gour Hari Das who lives in Mumbai and is the subject of a fictionalised feature film made by Ananth Mahadevan, who has shown Das’s 32-year long struggle to get his proof of participation in the freedom struggle, the tamra patra. Actor Vinay Pathak plays Das in the film. Shoma A. Chatterji talks to the director and the actor and comes away with a clear picture of the humble and noble man Gour Hari Das is.

More than six decades have passed since Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination in January 1948. There are very few true Gandhians alive who still practice and follow Gandhi’s ideology of peace, harmony and secularism in their lives and lifestyles. Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File is a feature film that illustrates, through a fictionalised account, the real struggle of a Gandhian who is still alive and lives in Mumbai’s suburbs. His name is Gour Hari Das. Born and growing up in Odisha, he got involved in the freedom struggle at 14. As part of Gandhiji’s children’s army called vanar sena, he was a courier who ran alongside rushing trains to deliver messages and letters between revolutionaries. He was jailed for 90 days, but there is no record of his participation in the freedom movement and not even a tamra patra to show it. It did not occur to him to find out why he did not get it or even whether he was eligible for a tamra patra. “I did not take part in the freedom struggle for any tamra patra or any recognition”, he says in the film, but life taught him differently.

In quest of the tamra patra
He realises this when his son is denied admission in college under the freedom fighters’ quota because he is unable to produce the Freedom Fighter’s Certificate of his father. When his son asks him whether he was really a part of the revolution, a shocked Das decides to establish his participation through documentary proof. This takes another 32 years of long struggle to accomplish. By the time he is personally handed the tamra patra by the CM of Maharashtra, now printed on paper, he looks around him and wonders if all the trouble he took to gather proof is really worth it because freedom is still elusive. He finds himself in the midst of a procession with people holding black flags crying for ‘freedom’. He hands over the envelope with the patra to a little girl beside him and walks on.

Gour Hari Dastaan – The Freedom File traces the long and painful journey of this very quiet, very patient old man who does not lose his temper even once in all these 32 years of a struggle different from the one he participated in as a teenager. “I read about Gour Hari Das in a tabloid. The headline screamed, “It took him 32 years to prove that he is a freedom fighter”. The irony was there for all to see. I probed further and traced him down to a distant suburb of Mumbai…Dahisar,” says Ananth Mahadevan who directed the film and also partly produced it along with Bindiya and Sachin Khanolkar.

Actor Vinay Pathak who portrays Gour Hari Das in the film had the good fortune to meet the real life freedom fighter in person along with Mahadevan. He says, “I read about Das in 2008 when he made front page news, because the Maharashtra government had conferred the freedom fighter certificate to him. I remember reading the article and I was amazed by it. Much later, when Ananth asked me to play this man, I was pleasantly surprised. It was an author-backed role, and in my opinion, no actor in his right mind would let go of an opportunity such as this one”.

For Gour Hari Das, it was a different kind of fight that began in 1975. It was a protest and an assertion of one’s rights that assumed a completely different meaning. “It was a fight to prove that the past was not all a dream. That it was the only truth he lived for. And this was happening in a country he fought for. It is about a man who exuded sympathy and yet did not crave for it. This was a great cinematic character for me…larger than life yet so rooted”, says Ananth. How did the real Gour Hari Das react when Ananth told him that he wanted to make a feature film on him? “He was surprised that someone wanted to make a film on him. His humility was exemplary. There was so much to learn from this man. Could one carry forward the Gandhian principles he was brought up on in a country that teased and frustrated him? Gour Hari Das proved that one could. The real Gour Hari Das’s life was so bereft of drama that it was asking to be converted into a feature film. Moments that were understated, yet so impactful were fodder for my script. And the man held a mirror to a flawed system of our own making. At once this was a personal and a political statement. And it fired up the film maker in me”, Ananth elaborates.

Ananth Mahadevan, the director, on the sets of Gour Hari Dastaan

Ananth Mahadevan, the director, on the sets of Gour Hari Dastaan

“Both Ananth and I were were looking for a process that would enable us to tell the story in the right vein. We were privileged to be able to interact directly with Mr. Das. He was ready and willing to guide us thorough the entire film. We met him on many occasions along with writer C.P. Surendran. It was a gratifying process”, adds Vinay Pathak, who is an established actor in Bollywood films, versatile enough to fit into any character – positive or negative, serious or comic, romantic or tragic, just anything. When asked what he had learnt from the real Gour Hari Das, Pathak says, “Meeting Mr. Das on different occasions helped me in understanding him as the person I was going to portray as a character in the film. What impressed me the most was his simplicity. He is the most unassuming, simple-hearted, straightforward, genial and jolly man I have ever met. It was important to understand him and the pathos we were dealing with. Mr. Das was a tremendous help in the making of the film, for all of us”.
Vinay Pathak invests the character with startling restraint, a quiet approach to everything and not once expressing his disappointment either verbally or through facial expression or gesture when each appointment and/or interview leads to a blank wall and yet one more to another blank wall. The people in the cooperative housing society he lives in begin to think he has lost it. One member in particular, wants him out for his own dubious ends. But he holds on to his guns, never arguing, never quarrelling, and never fighting to prove his point. Even the crazy journalist who finds in him a story and joins him in this struggle is driven to the edge with this older man’s quiet resilience. His wife pleads with him to give up. His NRI son is annoyed because he thinks his father is being stubborn. But Das holds on to his search for justice in a world filled with injustice.

Gandhi looms large
The references to Gandhi are visible. One situation is when the security guard of the home minister suddenly arrives at Das’ home with a piece of cloth with his little son. “You are the closest I have come to anyone who knew Gandhiji. Will you please weave a shirt for my little one?” he pleads and after this point, we find Das sitting on his weaving instrument weaving a shirt. In another scene shot in soft focus, one is audience to a conversation Das is having with the Mahatma which is suggested to explain that Das’ fight has nothing to do with an enhanced pension. It is only the truth he is interested in. Gandhi’s presence looms over the film like a shadowy figure expressed more through the attitude, lifestyle and behaviour of Das than through Gandhi in concrete terms.

Asked what made him choose Vinay to play Das, Ananth says, “I wanted a lead actor whose personality would not be too dominant on screen. He had to look vulnerable and feeble, yet possess an inner strength that could shake up an establishment. Vinay studied Das closely and interpreted him without impersonating him. And that was the triumph for him as an actor”.

How did Das himself react to this fictionalised feature on his life and his struggle? “Das maintained a stoic silence after watching the film. He was keen to see what his family and friends felt. And when they were overwhelmed with emotion, the real impact of the film dawned on him. From watching his own story unfold on screen, to reacting to it like a third person, the journey came full circle for Das. The final procession of the new freedom movement was a cinematic depiction of Das’s belief that the country needs a new revolution. Instead of merely mouthing these words, we gave it a larger picture, literally”, adding, “The film has been a life changing experience for me. The tremendous feedback from India, London, Paris, New York, San Francisco and Canada festivals has been very rewarding”.


shoma

Shoma A. Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi, researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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