Bollywood Baatein: Various shades of Gandhi

With Pratik Gandhi all set to play Mahatma Gandhi, it is time to look at some of the most memorable Mahatmas in the movies

Bollywood Baatein: Various shades of Gandhi

Subhash K Jha

As Pratik Gandhi gets ready to play Mahatma Gandhi this a good time to look at other established actors who have played Gandhi.

The first name that comes to mind is Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982). Director Richard Attenborough and actor Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi did what no Indian filmmaker or actor has ever done for the Mahatma. The film made him a household name. Take a bow again, Mr Kingsley.

However, Sir Ben was not happy to rest on his Gandhian laurels. In an interview with me he had said, “I feel having portrayed one character (Gandhi) so effectively, I need not use the same set of muscles to portray other characters. Luckily, directors and producers like to stretch me and offer me a variety of roles.”

Darshan Jariwala in Gandhi My Father (2007) was also memorable in his own right. Gujarati actor Jariwala is poignant and body-perfect in bringing the Mahatma to life. How does he compare with other celluloid Gandhis? That’s as silly as asking how Attenborough’s Gandhi compares with Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram.

Bollywood Baatein: Various shades of Gandhi

Gandhi My Father moves at its own mellowed-down volition, often at the expense of the drama. The father-son conflict could and perhaps should have been far more intense and dramatic. The controlled drama is perfectly modulated by Akshaye Khanna who as Harilal is the portrait of filial angst, more sinned against than sin, more stranger to his father than a son, more wanting to be loved than loved.

Gandhi My Father holds back the tears and fears of a son who wants to be hugged by his father who’s busy embracing the nation.

Then there was Dilip Prabhavalkar in Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006). Raj Kumar Hirani was heavily criticised for casting Prabhavalkar as Mahatma Gandhi. In an interview with me Hirani had opened up on the subject: “I wasn’t scared of writing Munnabhai MBBS. But writing Lage Raho..., where I had to bring in Mahatma Gandhi, was scary. What saved Gandhiji and my film from getting stressed was the humour.

"You know Gandhiji was a very humorous man. But still I took a big risk in doing a film where Gandhi was a character. Several actors including Naseeruddin Shah were auditioned for Gandhi’s role. We had spoken to Naseer. He was interested. But he got busy with Krrish. Then there was his own directorial venture. Then we thought of Surendra Rajan who had played Gandhiji in Raj Santoshi’s Legend of Bhagat Singh. He had played the sweeper in Munnabhai MBBS.

“We finally zeroed in on this wonderful theatre and television actor Dilip Prabhavalkar for the role. We sent Dilip’s pictures to the guy who had done Ben Kingsley’s makeup and he approved. Though Dilip had done his homework, he couldn’t get it right on the first day. We then let him be. We told him to stop aping Gandhiji, just be himself as the attire was enough to suggest whom he was playing.

While working on the film, Hirani developed a special respect for Mahatma Gandhi and his ideology. “I wasn’t a huge Gandhian fan before making this film. But I started reading up on him for this film. It required a lot research. That’s when I discovered about this amazing man. His simple honest principles are eminently applicable today. Why do we wait for others to change the world? Why can’t you or I do it? I’m not offering Gandhism as a full and final solution. But it’s better than the complete erosion of ideology in today’s society.”

Rajit Kapur in The Making Of The Mahatma (1996) didn’t get the recognition he deserved. The vastly underrated Rajit Kapur (not to be confused with that other good actor Rajat Kapoor) was immensely effective as the young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi in this film directed by Shyam Benegal.

Benegal and Kapur always shared a very special rapport. If you have seen Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda you’d know what I mean. Here in this biopic adapted from Fatima Meer’s ‘The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma’, Benegal traced the evolution of the Mahatma, his early years in South Africa and how they shaped his future. This is one Mahatma biopic that has stood the test of time.

I personally loved Naseeruddin Shah in Hey Ram (2000). This is perhaps Kamal Haasan’s most coherent directorial work to date. Like all of Kamal’s work, the narrative rambled on and on. But what stood out was the filmmaker-actor’s immovable faith in the teachings of Gandhiji to move mountains.

Naseeruddin Shah made an appearance towards the end of the film as the Mahatma. In my opinion, he was the best Gandhi I’ve ever seen. In fact, Naseer was auditioned for Mahatma Gandhi’s role in Attenborough’s film. He has no regrets about losing it to Ben Kingsley.

It remains to be seen whether Pratik Gandhi is able to match up with the quintet of great Gandhis on celluloid.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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