New book analyses Bollywood’s treatment of the Mahatma between 1913 and 2013

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi considered films a vice at par with alcoholism and gambling. He is said to have watched just two films during his lifetime. But how did films treat him?

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Prakash Bhandari

It is well known that Mahatma Gandhi considered films a vice at par with alcoholism and gambling. He is said to have watched just two films during his lifetime. One was Mission to Moscow (1943) which he watched in 1944 and the film horrified Gandhiji as it had some dancing scenes featuring scantily clad women. He vowed never to see another film again. However, in the same year he saw Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya, a mythological film and was happy to see it.

The author of Mahatma Gandhi in Cinema, published by Cambridge Scholars, a UK-based publishing house, Narendra Kaushik, speaks to Prakash Bhandari on the book and how Hindi cinema treated the Mahatma during the 100 years between 1913 and 2013.

While Gandhi Ji always disliked cinema, Hindi cinema before 1960s was greatly influenced by the man and his ideals. Moreover, Gandhi got resurrected at least for a while in the 21st century with Lage Raho Munnabhai.

The period before 1960, he points out, witnessed a series of films which were influenced by the Mahatma and his philosophy. There were films like Raja Harishchandra, Achhut Kanya, Padosi, Hum Ek Hain, Dharati Ke Lal, Do Aankhen Barah Haath, Phir Subah Hogi, Do Bigha Zameen, Shriman Satyawadi and Naya Daur which had ‘Gandhi written all over them’, the author says.

Gandhi exited Hindi cinema after the arrival of superstar Rajesh Khanna and his age of romance. He remained out in the cold during the heydays of angry young man Amitabh Bachchan as well. During these decades, it was only the torch bearers of parallel cinema who promoted the Gandhian ideals here and there.

Films like Ankur, Manthan and Train to Pakistan came from the art cinema. Though there were also films like Satyakam, Swades, Jaag Utha Insaan, and Lagaan these too carried the stamp of realistic cinema.

Gandhi returned to the marquee only in 2006 when Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai made to the big screen. The film resurrected the man and his ideals among the cinema lovers. It gave birth to a deluge of films films like Gandhi My Father, and Satyagraha leading the renaissance.

Gandhi in his lifetime adopted 11 vows. Since majority of these vows were interwoven in Non-violence, Truth, Swadeshi, Removal of Untouchability, and Equality of Religions, I would restrict myself to these five. Filmmakers have sporadically portrayed the last four but when it comes to the first, they have taken liberties.

When it comes to biopics, there are none in Hindi. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (this was partly financed by Indian government and dubbed in Hindi) left the formative years of the man from Kathiawar untouched and only focused on his political struggle.

Moreover, this only shows him through his foreigner friends. I call it a hagiography. Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma, as the name suggests, concentrates on events that unfolded in South Africa and made the Mahatma. Gandhi My Father juxtaposes the great man with his wayward son Hari Lal.

Besides, the filmmakers have made no effort at all to understand why there was ambivalence in Gandhi’s views on untouchability, non-violence and other principles. They have left his evolution untouched. Jabbar Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh portray Gandhi as a villain of the piece without ever delineating his philosophy and transformation on untouchability and non-violence”.

While it is true that Gandhi had fundamental differences with Bhagat Singh on non-violence. But to say that he did nothing to get his execution suspended would be like not seeing the wood for the trees. There is documentary proof how much he valued the sacrifice of Singh.

In the case of Netaji too, the two never had differences of the heart. In fact, Gandhi had come to believe after Netaji’s escape fromIndia that he could win freedom for the country with the assistance of axis powers.

He paid him a glowing tribute after the plane crash news got confirmed.

In partition, Gandhi hardly had a role. He, in fact, was initially against it and spoke against it from every fora available to him. He only came around on the issue after there was no alternate left”.

My favourite Gandhi film is Lage Raho Munnabhai. There is a charge that it trivializes the message. But tell me how do you take the message to the masses without dumbing it down in their own language?

I also liked Making of the Mahatma more than Gandhi because it presents him as an ordinary man who achieved extraordinary things.

For all the latest India News, Follow India Section.