Gandhi on and in cinema


For such a staggeringly influential and iconic person of our country, Indian cinema really hasn’t done justice to Gandhi. He may have been openly opposed to cinema, but should that have stopped us from depicting the myriad facets of this diminutive man’s colossal personality? Akul Tripalthi tries to understand this inexplicable lacuna.

Today, 58 years after his death, what are the visuals that hit our mind when we hear the name Gandhi? How is it that we picture him? That very familiar figure with round spectacles and a smiling face at peace with himself and the world, clad in a loin cloth and a furious gait with the lathi (stick), trying hard to keep pace is an image well known through photographs, chromolithographs, his statues and the face on the bank note. Yet, in our moving world of colour, the picture of him and his mannerisms that most people would associate him with or picture him to be is that which one has seen on screen – in movies, in cinema. My personal mirage of Gandhi is undoubtedly that of the monumental 1982 biopic – Gandhi – where Ben Kingsley plays the role of a life time in a multiple Oscar winning movie directed by Richard Attenborough, that is perhaps the most comprehensive depiction of Gandhi’s role in the Indian freedom movement.

Gandhi’s celluloid aversion
It is quite ironic to know that the man who has been made into celluloid many times over, watched only a few reels of just one movie in his entire lifetime – Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943). It is quite intriguing that for one who enshrined the values of truth, he was never enamoured enough by the medium even when the first all-Indian movie made was on one of his role models, D.G. Phalke’s mythological epic, Raja Harishchandra (1913). In fact, Gandhi’s low opinion on cinema was recorded in his interview with the Indian Cinematograph Committee:

“Even if I was so minded, I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to a cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if it has done any at all, remains to be proved.”
Gandhi’s dislike for cinema even appeared a few times in The Harijan, a paper edited by him. Gandhi said in an interview published in the May 3, 1942 issue of the paper:

“If I began to organise picketing in respect of them (the evil of cinema), I should lose my caste, my mahatmaship…I may say that cinema films are often bad. About the radio I do not know.”

To me, it seems inexplicable and bizarre to a certain extent that a man who understood and created symbols out of everyday life and made them into potent totems, like the charkha (spinning wheel) or his simple dressing, never attempted to use such a powerful medium to spread his message. One could assume that this stemmed from his opposing standpoint on things modern and on technology as a whole, despite being born in an era of progressive evolution of communication technology.

A point of view so unique in his times, that it influenced Charlie Chaplin when the two met in London when Gandhi attended the Second Round Table Conference. Chaplin’s movie Modern Times which echoes the sentiment that machinery should benefit humanity and not throw it out of work, a point much removed from his earlier stance where he believed that machinery could release man from the bondage of slavery.

After his meeting with Gandhi, Chaplin famously summed up the meeting with these words:
“Gandhi is a tremendous personality, tremendous! He is a great international figure! More, he is A GREAT DRAMATIC FIGURE.”
And he truly was. And is. There are miles of newsreel on him across continents. Amongst the first celluloid depictions of Gandhi was the one orchestrated by A.K. Chattier – a China-based journalist who was deeply influenced by Gandhi’s message and went about collecting all archival material available on Gandhi and stringing it together with freshly shot footage. Certain records indicate that Chattier managed to source some footage that was pretty rare even back then. Unfortunately, both the print and the negative have been lost.

Indian cinema’s neglect of Gandhi
It was in 1953, a full five years after his death in 1948 that he became the subject of the American feature documentary Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet. It was in the same year that an idea about a film on him was floated in India, but fizzled out even though the Congress Government was headed by one of his closest protégés – Nehru. It gets more tragic that 10 years after this, in December 1963, Nehru addressed the Rajya Sabha declaring incompetence in the country to make a film on Gandhi:
“The production of a film on the life of Gandhiji was too difficult a proposition for a Government department to take up. The Government was not fit to do this and they had not got competent people to it”.

Interestingly, it is the same year, 1963 when another movie titled Nine Hours To Rama was released and was a fictional account of the nine hours leading up to Gandhi’s assassination. The film was based on a book of the same name by Stanley Wolpert.
It took another five years – twenty years from the year of his death and a hundred from his birth, for an Indian film to be made on him – Mahatma: Life of Gandhi, 1869 – 1948. The five hour long documentary produced by The Gandhi National Memorial Fund in cooperation with the Films Division of the Government of India, seemed to tell the life story of Gandhi and his incessant search for truth, but was little more than a collection of newsreel and old prints. There are several versions of the documentary in various languages and in different durations edit; though how much justice they do to the father of the nation, besides a comprehensive accumulation of archival material as a tribute on his centenary, is a question that may have been asked by several; to themselves at least, if not out aloud.

Dilip Prabhavalkar as Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munna Bhai

Dilip Prabhavalkar as Gandhi in the Hindi film Lage Raho Munna Bhai

It is amazing that in effect, there are maybe only two full length feature films that cover the life of Gandhi to some degree of exactness. One remains the multinational Gandhi, which remains the seed of my visual memory of Gandhi and the other is the Shyam Benegal directed, Rajit Kapoor starrer The Making of Gandhi (1996) that showed the progression of Gandhi from being a barrister in South Africa to Mahatma. The Hindi language version of the same movie is titled Gandhi Se Mahatma Tak.

While the topics dealing with the main life and philosophies of Gandhi may have been avoided by the film industry as a whole, what did follow was a spate of biopics in which Gandhi featured in minor roles, essayed by some remarkable actors like Mohan Gokhale (Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, 2000 – which incidentally was the first movie to portray Gandhi in a negative light); Naseeruddin Shah (Hey Ram!, 2000); Sam Dastor (Jinnah, 1998); Surendra Rajan (The Legend Of Bhagat Singh, 2002, Veer Savarkar, 2001 & Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero, 2005) and Annu Kapoor (Sardar, 1993).

An attempt to portray the personal life of Gandhi and his tumultuous personal relationship with his son was made in the Anil Kapoor produced Gandhi, My Father (2007) where Darshan Jariwala played Gandhi. However, undoubtedly, the most popular portrayal of this enigmatic character in recent times has been the runaway super hit Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), where Dilip Prabhavalkar as Gandhi appeals to the conscience of the nation to bring back the ideals of Gandhi through the term Gandhigiri. A quite complete list of portrays of Gandhi in cinema is available on Wikipedia to understand just how little there is.

Interestingly, it is the same year, 1963 when another movie titled Nine Hours To Rama was released and was a fictional account of the nine hours leading up to Gandhi’s assassination. The film was based on a book of the same name by Stanley Wolpert.

I have had the great fortune to portray a young Gandhi in the 2001 Doordarshan TV series Meri Kahani; to in a way, live in his skin, the many curiosities and urges that he swam through as part of his experiments with truth. It took no time to realise the enormous complexities that formed this simple man whose views and ways of living were staggering contradictions to the world at large, and whose life seems almost surreal. There are an unimaginably varied range of topics, of feelings, opinions and perspectives that can be, and should be dealt with in cinema through the ethereal personality of Gandhi.

For such a multi faceted personality who virtually spun the threads that bind us as a nation and a man whose ideals have affected the lives of millions of people across the world; for whom Einstein opined that future generations may not believe that a man like Gandhi in flesh and blood ever walked the earth; for a symbol that represents the ideals of truth and nonviolence on which the Republic of India stands proudly; and in a country that makes the highest number of movies in the world, Gandhi’s portrayal on celluloid is indeed a meagre display.

It is easy to blame this minuscule body of work on Gandhi as something that represents an absence of demand from movie goers; to think that Gandhi and his ideals are irrelevant today. It may be easy in hindsight to find loopholes in the various fabrics that he spun; to counter that his message is now irrelevant. Yet, one must bear in mind that the world was always a dog-eat-dog one and an eye for an eye has been advocated in every nation, in every epoch. In Gandhi, we found the calm voice that firmly stated without any hint of weakness or fear that doing so will make the whole world blind. A message that rings true for every age that has been and will be. The world heard him and paid heed, and will. Always.

Do we have the fraction of guts required to screen it?


Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.