In a questionnaire submitted to the Indian Cinematograph Committee (1927-28), Gandhi wrote, “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.” He wrote in Young India dated 25 November 1926: “…I have never once been to a cinema and refuse to be enthused about it and waste God-given time in spite of pressure sometimes used by kind friends. They tell me it has an educational value. It is possible that it has. But its corrupting influence obtrudes itself upon me every day. Education, therefore, I seek elsewhere.” (CWMG, 37:65). The possibilities of cinema as a propaganda and educational tool in a country of widespread illiteracy did not intrigue Gandhi. It is reported that Gandhi watched only parts of one film in his lifetime, Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943), more suitable to his taste. But he expressed his distaste in a letter written to Kanam Gandhi, dated July 25, 1944.
He wrote, “I have had enough of watching the cinema all by myself without my compatriots at Sevagram. When I am out and engaged in some good activity, I would remember all of you. There was no such thing in the present case. Hence nobody has lost anything by not witnessing the show. On the contrary, I have lost something after having seen the picture.” (CWMG, 77:420). Nevertheless, filmmakers were not discouraged by his contempt for cinema. Some noteworthy documentaries on Gandhi include The Light That Shone (1948), Rajshri Vishwadeep Gandhi, a three-reeler, directed by Dwarka Khosla (both not available), Gandhi: The 20th Century Prophet (available in parts on YouTube, the Gandhi Heritage Portal), and Vitthalbhai Jhaveri’s Mahatma — Life of Gandhi 1869 –1948 (1968, a 5 hour 9 minute documentary available on http://guides.library.cornell.edu/gandhi/films). Mark Robson’s much-controversial Nine Hours To Rama (1963, a British-American production) was perhaps the first feature film depiction of the Mahatma. He appeared in few scenes, as the film mainly revolves around his assassin Nathuram Godse. Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough), The Making of the Mahatma (1996, Shyam Benegal), and Gandhi: My Father (2007, Feroz Abbas Khan) are possibly the only three feature films that directly deal with the Mahatma.
While Attenborough’s much-controversial as well as celebrated 3-hour feature film covers the length and breadth of Mahatma Gandhi, Benegal’s film highlights the influence of South African years on Gandhi. Khan’s film, however, depicts Gandhi as a father, and his relationship with his son Harilal Gandhi. Other films depicting the Mahatma, with regard to his contemporaries, and his philosophy customised for the contemporary times, are Sardar (1993), Jinnah (1998), Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000), Hey Ram! (2000), Veer Savarkar (2001), The Legend Of Bhagat Singh (2002), Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005), Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), Gandhi To Hitler (2011), and more recently, Viceroy’s House (2017). While much has been written on Attenborough’s Gandhi, and other films in the list given above, I wish to share some details particularly about three films, which do not directly deal with the Mahatma: Nine Hours to Rama, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, and Veer Savarkar. Nine Hours to Rama is based on a novel written by Stanley Wolpert. The book and the feature film revolve around Nathuram Godse’s life and his growth as the future assassin of the Mahatma. While the film humanises Godse, it presents Gandhi as a caricature. Most of his scenes are from his last days spent at the Birla House, in January 1948. The film shows Gandhi forgiving Godse for the “crime” he had committed, before succumbing to the bullets. In a Christ-like gesture, Gandhi says, “I forgive you my brother. I bless you. Hey Ram!” Godse is shocked with these words, and kneels on Gandhi’s feet, murmuring and crying, “I killed him, and he blessed me.” While he is dragged away from Gandhi, he murmurs, “Bapuji.” Nehru was reported to have said in Rajya Sabha (1963) that the film did not reflect the ‘dignity of Gandhiji’. He said the film was ‘mistakenly made’, and he was sure that the director’s ideas were not in any way aimed directly at defaming Gandhiji or anything in India. Nevertheless, the government refused to approve the film’s exhibition in India. In Jabber Patel’s Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar, Gandhi is depicted vis-à-vis Ambedkar, during their first meeting in Bombay at Mani Bhavan, then at the Round Table Conference meeting, and at Aga Khan Palace, during the deliberations on the Poona Pact. Gandhi is seen through the eyes of Dr. Ambedkar, portrayed as a Sanatani, a religious Hindu leader, whose only aim is to protect Hinduism and not the emancipation of the depressed classes. Ambedkar fights the Mahatma to claim the position of being the sole voice and representative of the depressed classes in India.
Veer Savarkar (2001, Ved Rahi) tries to recreate the second, and the last, meeting between Gandhi and Savarkar in Ratnagiri in March 1927 at Savarkar’s house. They had first met in London’s India House in 1906. The 1927 meeting revolved around the issue of caste reforms, untouchability and Shuddhi movement. While Gandhi opposed Savarkar’s Shuddhi movement or reconversion to Hinduism, Savarkar differed with Gandhi on his insistence on maintaining Varna system. They never met again, in real or reel after 1927. One has also read quite a bit about Savarkar’s role and narrow escape from being charged in Gandhi’s assassination. It is indeed unfortunate that the genre of biopics have not been honestly explored in Indian cinema. They have either succumbed to popular demands of glitter and glamour or to a (non) sense of (hyper) nationalism. The recently released feature film on Rani Lakhsmi Bai, Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi (2019), is an apt example of it. The films centring on Gandhi’s adversaries, some real, some “manufactured”, like Ambedkar and Savarkar, and Bhagat Singh and Bose, have exploited and validated the popular histories of the differences between Gandhi and these leaders. India is celebrating the 150th birth anniversary of the Mahatma. But the Indian film industry has so far been immune to these celebrations. While it is busy registering titles on Kashmir, Article 370, Moon and Mars, etc., Gandhi and his message is found un-cinematic. The message of non-violence and truth seems to be too old-fashioned for a generation living in a post-truth era and fed on lynching.