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. 

Monday, July 22, 2013

Gandhi And The Failure Of Indian Education

Hating, misrepresenting, misunderstanding and mostly not understanding Gandhi is the latest fad in India. It is fashionable to say that the British left India because they were exhausted by War and could no longer control India from afar and India's independence had nothing to do with Gandhi. It is easy to ridicule 'Satyagraha' as an inefficient and impractical instrument of protest against powers unlike British and like Hitler or Rajapakse. From the political left and the right the man who comes in for equal hate and ridicule is Gandhi. Ferreting quotes without context for a man who lived to 79 and wrote or spoke voluminously over 50 of those years is easy. Ascribing conspiratorial motives for Gandhi 'selecting' Nehru over the more popular and duly elected 'Patel' is a national pastime. To cap it all is Gandhi's own shameful brahmacharya experiments are taken and made out to look like the man did nothing in his life other than sleep with women. Then there is the contentious Poona pact with Ambedkar that can be mined for selective re-telling to portray, of all people, Gandhi as a reactionary Hindu who was disinterested in the upliftment of the Untouchables, the Dalits, or 'Harijans' as he called them.

Yet, Gandhi is revered in the West. Louis Fischer, William Shirer, George Orwell, Stanley Wolpert, MLK Jr, Richard Attenborough, Time Magazine editorial committee and legions of other intellectuals across a political spectrum. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner included Gandhi alongside music composer Igor Stravinsky amongst a list of people he chose to study 'creativity'. Joseph Lelyveld in his biography marvels at the untouchability tour by Gandhi when he collected a princely sum to be devoted to projects for Dalits. Lelyveld wonders why no one speaks of it in India today.

The chief culprit is Indian education. Our school textbooks have deified Gandhi without humanizing him. As much as American textbooks may not speak of Jefferson fathering a child with his slave I do not expect Indian textbooks to speak of the Brahmacharya experiments. But every fault of Indian education is brought out clearly in how little or how wrongly Indians have understood Gandhi. That applies both to his detractors and to many admirers.

In response to the draconian Rowlatt act of 1919 Gandhi called upon Indians to observe a 'day of prayer' and remain in their homes. It was called 'hartal' (in Hindi). Tamil Nadu's insipid 'Equitable Education' textbook for 10th grade deals with this in 3 sentences: "In order to face the revolutionary movement in a successful manner, the British government passed the Rowlatt Act in 1919. It empowered the British Government to arrest any one without warrant and imprisoned without trial. The Indians under the leadership of Gandhiki opposed it. There was country wide hartal on April 6th 1919".

Classic Indian textbook. In order to encourage higher pass percentage a pivotal event is reduced to 3 badly written sentences. There is no detail on whether the protest succeeded, why such a protest was novel, no sense of wonderment or appreciation for what a one time tongue tied lawyer achieved in a country that spoke 30 languages and hundreds of dialects with so many religions and castes.

I understood the greatness of that 'hartal' from Larry Collin's and Dominique Lapierre's 'Freedom at Midnight' and from the third rate movie 'Gandhi' by Richard Attenborough. Gandhi and his people face an oppressor that was an Empire across continents. An impoverished people who last rebellion was a sham and a total failure had to find a way to tell their oppressor that they did not like a law. Gandhi, with no government propaganda machinery, asked Indians to do a simple act. 'Remain indoors'. It was a genius of creativity because only Gandhi thought of way for Indians to express their displeasure without hurting their rulers physically and opening the possibility of being hurt in return. The movie will show the Viceroy receiving reports of India, one fifth of humanity, coming to stand still. Napoleon and Alexander did not wield such power.

The same textbook then deals with Dandi march in a shameful manner. In 3 very short paragraphs, the most pivotal event of the most glorious freedom movement in all of human history is dismissed off. Within those 3 short paragraphs of just two-three lines each the student learns the dates and the distance covered. I am sure that students would hunch over and try to learn by rote memorizing the dates and the distance.

Overlooking the Great Depression Time Magazine exulted in declaring Gandhi as 'Person of the Year' in January 1931 for the Salt March. Collins and Lapierre reconstructed how a frail 61 year old man with a bamboo staff in his hand 'shook the pillars of the Empire' and 'dominated the world press'. Nehru, the Harrow-Candridge educated aristocrat, when he hears of the Salt March at first demurs. Later seeing its success he feels humbled before a man who had searched for his 'inner voice' to identify a suitable struggle to protest. Most western commentators have marveled at Gandhi's genius for choosing to protest the salt tax as it touched a commodity used by all Indians in as basic a function as cooking food. Even today it is ranked as one of the most successful protests in the quest for justice by a people in all history.

Irwin thought Gandhi will walk to Dandi in a little noticed event and what he got was newsreels of a half-naked fakir challenging an Empire where the sun never set. Gandhi included Dalits in his march much to the chagrin of upper caste Congress members. In every town that he crossed he insisted on staying in the poorest hut. Every penny of funds collected was accounted for no expense was too little to be scrutinized for impropriety. Only children and vainglorious adults will be thrilled reading about Alexander crossing into India or Ceasar crossing the Rubicon. No march by any army in history has left humanity a better place like Dandi March.

New York Times's report Webb Miller filed his immortal report of the Dharasana Salt March that told the world what it was to be Satyagrahi. At Dharasana, in one of the beautifully filmed scenes in the movie 'Gandhi', we see stoic satyagrahis walking up to receive mortally wounding blows without raising a single finger to strike back. Miller wrote "not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend of the blows. They went down like ten-pins'. C.E.M. Joad, writing for an anthology in honor of Gandhi's 75th birthday, said 'Gandhi's greatest success was in inspiring men and women to allow themselves to be beaten to pulp without raising a single finger in defense". In an age when suicide bombers are spoken of admiringly I think of those brave satyagrahis. A suicide bomber needs courage for just a minute and does not live with the consequences. Those satyagrahis were mostly poor and could not even afford hospitalization costs for the injuries suffered. Most injuries were life altering too. Gandhi, unlike Prabakaran and Arafat, led by example.

When Gandhi visited Liverpool factories the workers, mostly women, mobbed him affectionately. Here is the man who, by his boycott of their products, was causing them misery and unemployment. Yet, those workers understood Gandhi better than any modern Indian citizen. They knew and understood who Gandhi was fighting against. Many Indians would look at the photograph and glide by without pausing to wonder if any rebel in all history has ever been so affectionately received by those who were affected by a rebellion.

The 10th grade textbook remains shamefully silent on the horrendous riots during partition. It was the greatest migration undertaken by a people, again, to use an overused word phrase now, in all of human history. India was torn asunder and a civil war situation prevailed. Collins and Lapierre detail harrowing events like a train arriving from Pakistan with all its occupants killed and on the walls of the train was scrawled 'gift to Nehru and Patel'. Yasmin Khan's book 'The great partition' is a compelling read and is without the sensationalism of Collins and Lapierre.

West Bengal that had seen thousands of Hindu's killed on Jinnah's 'Direct action day' was ready to reap vengeance. With millions of muslim lives at stake and no police or military force to spare Mountbatten and Nehru appeal to the only man who can achieve what no military could have done. Gandhi undertook his fast unto death. He remained the only force between hordes of murderous thugs and quivering Muslims afraid for their lives. No man as leader has ever used his personal charisma to such a use saving thousands of lives. It is this act that Ambedkar, with personal animus, called 'blackmail with body as political tool'. If Bengal's riots had gone on unchecked India would have splintered in no time. Yet Indians write that an exhausted oppressor just ceased to oppress and India was born. Ever since Christ was crucified by his own people never was a man who led his people to freedom so disrespected.

Meena Kandasamy, a so called 'activist', raised shackles in a college event by quoting Gandhi's letter to South African authorities protesting against clubbing Indians together with 'kafirs', as he referred to blacks. The letters are actually in the 'Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi'. Little do we realize that Gandhi, just like Lincoln, was not born a liberator. Its a life's journey that he undertook. Also we do not even notice the fact that Gandhi arrives in South Africa in 1893, aged just 24. Just, 24 years old. He leaves South Africa in 1914 aged, just 44 years. In an age and time when worldly knowledge and experiences were limited he was maturing into a leader. Let us not forget that Thomas Jefferson, aged just 33 in 1776, declared 'all men are created equal' while holding slaves. Lincoln never believed that blacks were 'equals' to whites. In a nation where learning history is so shoddy Meena Kandasamys proliferate and prosper.

While Indian speaker Thamizhachi sought to discredit Gandhi slanderously American professor Howard Gardner exults that Gandhi was probably the greatest leader in a 1000 years. Watch "" .

Is Gardner naive? Would Gardner not know about Gandhi's warts? Why did William Shirer, a man who understood Hitler before most did, think Gandhi towered above his warts like being dictatorial at times or titular even? Did Lelyveld not know about his Brahmacharya experiments? Nothing has been a better stick to beat Gandhi with than his patently shameful Brahmacharya experiments with women associates. Sudhir Kakar wrote that several women were mentally affected. It was Nirmal Bose's 'My days with Gandhi' that laid bare the details of those experiments for the first time. Collins and Lapierre too dwell on it for some length. What no one has accused Gandhi was of molesting or abuse. Nirmal Bose's book paints a more complex picture. I reject attempts to whitewash this part of Gandhi but I equally reject attempts  to portray him like a Casanova. The experiments were consensual amongst adults who freely consented. This part of Gandhi's life is the most taxing on any person who admires him. Yet, it is this part that clearly calls for a perspective rooted in a historical appreciation of the man's life as a whole.

In a way we can extend the failure of Indians to understand historical personalities due to shoddy education to Nehru too. Nehru is easily ridiculed for Kashmir, being soft on Pakistan, of course his affairs with Edwina and others, focusing on heavy industries and more. Nehru was Washington and Jefferson combined. No man since Nehru has worried about educating Indians as he did. In an age when politicians send their children to English convents while asking others to study in mother-toungue  we should worship a Cambridge alumnus for trying to create the equivalent of Harvard and MIT in India.

Nehru nurtured the nascent institutions of government with a democratic zeal that was almost herculean in proportions. As Prime Minister he was insistent on attending the question hour in the parliament. He wrote incessantly to state CM's educating them on every matter conceivable as relevant to shaping a country. His writings run to 50 volumes and is still incomplete. The steady leadership of Nehru in the turbulent early 17 years was instrumental in cementing India as a country. Even his economic policy, which I disagree with, was actually in tune with the times. Harry Truman and FDR were to the left of Nehru on economics.

Indians, thanks to such shoddy education, lack the intellectual discipline to understand a life as complex and varied as that of Gandhi's. We don't even know how to mentally reconstruct events and understand their historical nature. In an education that focuses on dates and data without context a race to score marks ensures that the mind is incapable of contemplation and understanding complexity.

A recent discussion on Facebook summarizes this blog.
The photo on the right (of Gandhi) is fake

Here is Subhash Bose walking past a guard of honor by the army he raised. On the side is Gandhi in a dancing pose with a white lady, a fake photo. The question was "who did more for Indian freedom?" Bose, in his hatred for British, thought Hitler and the Japanese were nothing worse if not better. One shudders to think a what if about Hitler winning the war. Such is the level of historical perspectives amongst Indians.

An American school textbook I read had a chapter on Gandhi. At the end a question was posed as a debate exercise "would India have won freedom earlier if Gandhi had adopted violent means of protest". I'd point them to Gandhi's own writings of Satyagraha as a strategy and Orwell's essay on Gandhi where Orwell is skeptical if Gandhian methods would work against Hitler. Gandhi did advice Churchill to hand over the British Isles to Hitler and convert him by 'soul force'. Thankfully Churchill did not listen. At the same time lets not forget how MLK Jr adored Gandhi and found in Gandhi a mentor for the Civil Rights struggle. Indians cheekily ask "can Gandhi's method work against tyrants". They dont have the knowledge of world history to ask "could Kurdish people have adopted MLK Jr's methods against Saddam".

Gandhi and Nehru should be rescued from Indian education and re-introduced to Indians through Western presentation. Irony.

Suggested Reading:

1. Gandhi: A Biography -- Louis Fischer
2. Freedom at Midnight - Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.
3. Gandhi: 75th Birthday Anthology by S.Radhakrishnan
4.Gandhi - 8 volumes by D.G. Tendulkar
5. Gandhi: A memoir - William Shirer
6. The great Partition - Yasmeen Khan
8. Creativity - Howard Gardner
9. Gandhi - Stanley Wolpert
10. 'Great Soul' - Joseph Lelyveld.
11. My earlier blog "Thamizhachi Thangapandiyan's Slander on Gandhi"