Reel Life: An ode to Gandhi’s Ahimsa

At a time when we seem to have become either tyrannical perpetrators of brutalities, or its helpless receptors, Sharma’s documentary plays out like antidote to the inhumaneness that surrounds us all

Mahatma Gandhi during the Dandi March in 1930
Mahatma Gandhi during the Dandi March in 1930

Namrata Joshi

Filmmaker Ramesh Sharma’s documentary AHIMSA-Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless, begins with words underlining Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s message of ahimsa or non-violence that “moved tens of millions and served as an inspiration for humanity battling the forces of bigotry, tyranny and intolerance”. “It remains relevant today more than ever before,” the text states. The film ends with Martin Luther King Junior’s timeless assertion that “the choice today is no longer between violence and non-violence. It is either non-violence or non-existence”.

As opposed to this are the recent scenes from Darrang, Assam, of a man with a lathi, felled by the armed forces’ bullet and a photographer jumping triumphantly on his lifeless body. Images of lynching and other inhuman atrocities circulate regularly and ceaselessly across various social media platforms. At a time when we seem to have become either tyrannical perpetrators of brutalities, or its helpless receptors or the cynical, voyeuristic, inured consumers of its many pictures, Sharma’s documentary plays out like an antidote to the inhumaneness—and its normalisation—that surrounds us all. As though stating that the farther we seem to be moving away from the Mahatma and his principles, the bigger the urgency to make our way back to them.

The 100-minute film was made to commemorate 150 years of Gandhi in 2019. But Sharma, well known for works like New Delhi Times and Journalist & The Jihadi-Murder of Daniel Pearl, doesn’t train his lens on the man so much as what he stood for. It’s about deconstructing the power of the Gandhian principle of non-violence.

Protestors in Prague with Havel na hrad (Havel to the Castle) posters during the Velvet Revolution
in 1989. Havel went on to become the first elected president of Czechoslovakia
Protestors in Prague with Havel na hrad (Havel to the Castle) posters during the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Havel went on to become the first elected president of Czechoslovakia

Sharma takes us meticulously through the finer details of the personal and political history of Gandhi and his embracing of and alignment and engagement with the principle of non-violence based on the Jain philosophy of ahimsa. We begin with a Gandhi crucially poised in history at the time of the decline of European colonialism, his experience of racism in South Africa and the coinage of the term Satyagraha there in 1906. The film gives us a peep into the influence of Tolstoy and Thoreau on Gandhi, moves on to the Jallianwala massacre’s imprint on his mind and then on to the namak satyagraha, the non-cooperation and Quit India movements.

Non-violence is examined, not an act of passivity or of giving in but an active tool of resistance. As Martin Luther King Junior said, “the method has power”; but one that eschews hatred and violence to counter repression, is about fighting injustices without physical weapons. It’s about giving a good fight by channelling the creative powers of disobedience and dissent.

More than that the film is about how his message reached out to the world and reverberated with relevance be it the Civil Rights or Anti-Apartheid movements, Lech Walesa’s Solidarity in Poland or Vaclav Havel’s Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia that ushered in democracy post the Communist rule. It’s like bringing atrocities in time and space, across the span of history under one umbrella and seeing one solution—that of the supreme truth and wisdom of ahimsa.

Sharma is expansive in his research, knits together rare pictures (including those of the legendary Margaret Bourke White) and archival footage with interviews with the likes of civil rights activists Reverand James Lawson and Congressman John Lewis, author and political scientist Mary Elizbeth King and Ramchandra Guha, Dr Tridip Suhrud and Rajmohan Gandhi among others.

But it’s not a dry lecture on non-violence for the uninitiated. Sharma mounts the film in a manner befitting the scale and majesty of any organic act of resistance and makes use of an eclectic, rousing soundtrack to leave the viewers with goosebumps, particularly the inspiring Polish song about bringing the walls down. It’s difficult to shake off George Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” track that features towards the end of the film. It also makes one wonder that having taken the film all the way to Black Lives Matter, wouldn’t it have gained even more in acuity and immediacy in the context of the continuing peaceful protests in India—the farmers’ ongoing dharna now or the antiCAA/NRC demonstrations earlier in the face of the State’s display of might.

One misses their lack on screen, but the pressing connect with contemporary Indian reality cannot be implicit in our heads and hearts. Days after watching the film, am still recalling Thoreau’s words about how people shouldn’t let autocratic governments overrule or diminish their conscience and should not allow themselves to be made agents of injustices. It’s his words that inspired Gandhi and helped posit non-violence as the way to redeem the soul of the world and reclaim dignity, justice and fundamental human rights for all. AHIMSAGandhi: The Power of the Powerless shows how Gandhi belongs to the ages as does his principle of non-violence.

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