Saturday, July 27, 2013

Attenborough's and S.Ramakrishnan's Gandhi: An Exercise In Mediocrity And Deification

In my last blog I had referred to Attenborough's movie 'Gandhi' as 'third rated'. A friend asked me why I said so about a movie that's considered an epic and one which the Oscars, in 1983, rewarded with 8 awards including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.

Attenborough's Gandhi took India and the world by storm. In a then rare move the Indian government waived entertainment tax thus making the tickets more affordable. Indians watched it by the millions, schools arranged movie trips. I too watched it as 10 year old. I don't remember much of what I felt or understood as a 10 year old. My only memories were that any Indian who watched it was awestruck by the grand scale and by the fact that a British actor, albeit of Indian heritage, essayed the role of a most loved Indian with such aplomb and justice.

Nearly 15 years later I happened to read Salman Rushdie's collection of essays titled 'Imaginary Homelands'. The passage that remains stuck in my mind was:

"Deification is an Indian disease....I was asked more than once in India recently, 'why should an Englishman want to deify Gandhi?' And why, one might add, should the American Academy wish to help him, by presenting, like votive offerings in a temple eight glittering statuettes to a film that is inadequate as biography, appalling as history, and often laughably crude as a film?"

Then I watched 'Gandhi' again. By now my sensibilities and ideas on aesthetics had evolved from a 10 year old (hopefully). I've watched the movie many times after reading Rushdie and I am firmly convinced that it remains a mediocre movie that presents a cardboard version of the most complex leader in modern times.

Mulling over wanting to write a reply for my friend I binge watched Attenborough's 'Gandhi', Shyam Benegal's 'The Making of the Mahatma' and a movie about Hitler's last days in his bunker 'Downfall'. I was driving to the local library to get a copy of Rushdie's book to refresh my memory and a thought struck me "the movie centers around Gandhi obsessively with Nehru, Patel and Jinnah as just very peripheral characters. No mention of Bose or Ambedkar who famously crossed swords with Gandhi ideologically. No mention of Tagore. No mention of Gandhi as a reformer". With that thought I re-read Rushdie's essay 'Attenborough's Gandhi'. There it was. Maybe I remembered those points unconsciously.

Rushdie specifically takes issue with the portrayal of Nehru as some starry eyed blind 'acolyte'. Referring to Nehru's well publicized ideological differences with him Gandhi, memorably, said "you will speak my language when I am gone". Nehru, never spoke Gandhi's language, particularly, on economic ideas for development. Nehru even records his displeasure of how Gandhi engineers his election as President of Congress in 1930.

Attenborough presents, not just, a simplified version of Gandhi's protests but grotesquely dumbs down pivotal events to compressed scenes. The worst offense was in portraying the Dandi March. There is no sensitive portrayal of how Gandhi arrived at that decision, his periods of torment while searching for his 'inner voice', the letter to Irwin announcing before hand the details of the protest as is required of a Satyagrahi in his opinion, the planning and the drama of the march itself. Rather we just see two scenes of Gandhi marching and lifting a handful of salt.

The movie keeps a relentless focus on just events connected with Independence struggle completely ignoring Gandhi's role as a reformer of Hinduism. Gandhi's fast unto death protesting the Communal Award and the Poona Pact with Ambedkar sounded the death knell for a centuries old ignominy of Hinduism, untouchability.

The viewer never gets a glimpse of the many levels on which Gandhi tried to make a difference. Disgusted with prevalent unhygienic aspects of Indian life Gandhi would teach villagers how to construct a clean toilet with simple steps. He would write incessantly on those topics.

The Gandhi-Bose feud brought out the best and worst of Gandhi. Gandhi won the ideological war and for that we can thank his sagacity. Yet, when Bose defeated, Gandhi's nominee for Congress President, Pattabhi Sitaramayya, Gandhi was petulant. He said "Pattabhi's defeat is my defeat" and proceeded to make life difficult for Bose in Congress. Bose later left and forged his own ill-advised path to securing India's independence with Hitler's help. Tagore, who gave Gandhi the title of 'Mahatma', often sparred with Gandhi's strident nationalism. Adding in the Bose and Tagore characters would have given color to the many hues in India's Independence struggle.

Attenborough is no Martin Scorsese and therefore one cannot expect scenes of Gandhi carrying out his Brahmacharya experiments. Given his funding problems over decades and the fact that the movie was part funded by Indian government one can easily guess that Attenborough, even if he wanted, could not have portrayed those like Martin Scorsese does in his screen adaptation of Kazantzakis's 'The Last Temptation of Christ'.

One of the laughable parts of the movie is where Gandhi per-functionarily adds, in a speech, "Hindus and Muslims must stay united. We must weed out untouchability". That's it. No scenes to flesh out those key battles of what he thought was more important than even overthrow of the Colonial master.

A controversy that erupted about the movie was the fact that a British actor was chosen to play the greatest Indian. I've read elsewhere that Attenborough took Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah around and finally dumped him much to the latter's chagrin. I've watched Naseeruddin Shah perform a sensitive portrayal of Gandhi in a stage play, 'Gandhi vs Mahatma', about Gandhi's troubled relationship with his eldest son Harilal. Rushdie consider's Ben Kingsley's Oscar as the only one that was deserving.

Shyam Benegal who was assistant director to Attenborough later produced a more focused biopic 'The Making of the Mahatma' centered around Gandhi's 21 years in South Africa between 1893-1914. Benegal gives a relatively nuanced version of Gandhi. Here we see Gandhi's son accusing, justifiably, that Gandhi was a bad parent. We see Kasturba fighting over Gandhi's newfound fads like living in poverty inspired by John Ruskin's 'Unto the last'. This movie only shines by contrast. Even here we see Gandhi being portrayed in a muscular and as a very powerful speaker who uses strong gestures. Here too we do not Gandhi himself groping towards Civil Disobedience. Gandhi was an avid reader and communicator. It is pathetic that his intellectual development, not shown in the movie, but is known only on the surface, by people, about how he borrows ideas from Thoreau and Tolstoy.

Compared to these movies the movie on Hitler was far more nuanced. We see Hitler descending into manic depressiveness as the end nears. We see him delusional and still retaining his evil side asking Albert Speer to destroy all of Germany in a scorched earth policy so that the invaders get nothing. Never mind the human cost. It is probably easy to portray sheer unalloyed evil with no iota of any redeeming feature than portraying a man like Gandhi who, to borrow Shakespeare's words, had the 'elements of nature mixed' in him.

Life, as the cliche goes, is stranger than fiction. Gandhi's life is a treasure house of contradictions, humanism, dictatorial, obsessive, drama, etc for a sensitive and cerebral fiction writer. Yet, this is where S.Ramakrishnan, noted contemporary writer and screen play writer, disappointed me most. His recent story about Gandhi narrates how women see Gandhi through the character of a woman, in an orthodox family, running off to meet Gandhi and being punished by her husband for that. The story is littered with another deified version of Gandhi with a cardboard like characterization. (

Gandhi's relationship with women is the most complex one, even beyond the by now oft mentioned experiments. In the morning as he walks for exercise when he comes across fellow women ashramites he would ask "sisters, did you have good bowel movements". Women would compete with each other to be seen as his confidant and being called to be his 'walking sticks'. Gandhi thought of himself as half woman. He once dreamt of himself being a mother to the world with breasts overflowing with milk. His relationship with Madeleine Slade, named Mirabehn by him, needs no embellishment for drama. He advised newly Jayaprakash Narayan to be celibate until India achieves freedom. He maintained that for those who conquer lust truly even the sexual organs will look different. Gandhi was also not averse to being naked in the ashram in the course of getting a mudpack treatment or just plainly having a bath.

With all that material what we get from S.Ra is a very benign saintly Gandhi. A cliche served up as literature. I don't remember who wrote the play 'Mahatma versus Gandhi'. It is a good attempt to portray a complex individual.

Gandhi has been ill served by the likes of Attenborough and S.Ramakrishnan. I admire Gandhi not because he was a re-incarnation or a saint. Far from it. Gandhi remains an admirable person to be studied because he was a human being who tried, everyday, to be a better human being than anybody else. 


MSATHIA said...

Thanks AK for this detailed write up. I admire your effort in putting these blog posts.
I understand the frustration on a lost opportunity of a film titled Gandhi (not Mahatma). I am not much bothered about the acclaim for that movie in western world's view. But, when I was young it was one of the greatest movies that were ever made on any Indian personality or about independence. Even now I have seen people admire that movie as if it is the story of our independence. Independence means Gandhi and Gandhi means Independence. That is the narrow view that exists even today.
Good to learn about your filters with which you are evaluating this movie. Unfortunately, I have not seen these movies (am not quite a movie buff). But, I am inclined to warn you that your bar of merit is way too high for the Indian mindset even now. Now you have kindled my interest in watching these.
I agree with your points on how we consistently hero worship Gandhi and never try to decode his life, views and even have not fully tried to understand his political decisions. Either we take a naive approach of rejecting him or hero worship by making him Mahatma. While I read more about Gandhi, more I see as a gap is his complete history on South Africa and his views on spirituality. It is surprising that every time Gandhi talks about truth he starts to borderline on philosophy and spirituality. I assume his philosophies toward religion are not fully developed otherwise he couldn’t have stayed in the center of the politics for a long time. He always had this dual focus on humanity and his own personal experimentations. It is an interesting contradiction. May be there is a good book on this subject out there. Why I am saying this is because of the nature of the vastness of the subject and time in which these happened.
Because of this reason, it is almost impossible to make a portrayal of Gandhi in full in any movie. What disappoints me and make me thank the effort by Attenborough is that even after so many years after this movie we were not able to produce any movie even at that level on Indian independence or history, let alone Gandhi. The lack of interest (on business) and lethargy is because of the majority of the audience were not taught well enough about history (your earlier blog-post).
I don’t have much to say on SRa's fiction. That was a pretty ordinary writeup. He tried to portray a view that women understand Gandhi than men because of his ideologies towards motherhood, community service, inclusivity and spirituality. But, it didn’t quite come out well, I guess. It just repeated the same view over and over and became a tiring read. In a shorter, crispier form would have made a better impact.

Suresh-ET said...

Most your assessments are completely meaningless because of this one disclaimer the films starts with:
" No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its
allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What
can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record, and to try to find one's way to the
heart of the man . . ."
Now, without entering into Gandhi's life and the history that it encompassed let me point a few simple facts. The film does fail as an artful craft on several occasions. It falters on many places simply on poor execution, but it's questionable as to whether the director had to subscribe to a portrayal that ‘nuanced’. Exactly what is considered nuanced in a biopic that runs for roughly 3 hours but attempts to squeeze in the life of a 78 year old man? Let alone the fact the man in question is considered one of the largest icons of modern mode of organized dissent; one whose life, as you have pointed out, is intertwined with the lives of 30 million ‘commoners’ and thousands of ‘not-so-commoners’. As a Tamil and an ardent admirer of Periyar, maybe I should complain about the films exclusion of the critical interplay between Periyar, Jinnah and Ambedkar in seeking Dravidisthan – a failure of which sealed the fate of all Tamils under the current Indian government.
I think I’ve made my point already. But I’ll belabour it a bit more (kaasa panama?). One could argue whether the chosen format was indeed suitable of the subject matter. But 35 years after independence and not a single effort of any kind, this man story had to be told. It had to have a start and an end. It had to be, dare I say, ‘comprehensive’. The director decided to present Gandhi with what he thought was an adequate mix of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ – especially with respect to his relationship to the country’s independence.
The film presented a thesis, it still awaits an acceptable anti-thesis (meaning, there’s no dialectic here). Besides, films cannot be thought of be all and end of all, well, anything. That’s what tomes of text are there for. If the reader (of the film’s text) craves/seeks nuance, s/he better hit the text directly.