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Sunday Reading

New Delhi, 30 September 2018

Mahatma & Cinema

By Nikhil Gajendragadkar


Mahatma Gandhi’s personality and his thoughts continue to influence India even today. Long before India gained independence, Indian writers were writing poetry, stories which had clear impact of his thoughts. Cinema, an art form born in the 20th century, could not have been aloof to Mahatma’s ideology. Yet Indian cinema did not do justice to this great man’s philosophy or the man himself. Now as the nation is preparing to celebrate his 150th birth anniversary year, it will be interesting to take a look at the effect of the man on the medium.


A frail man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi touched Indian shores and soon became the guiding light of a nation, which was fighting to gain independence from a Colonial power. He propagated the idea of ‘Ahimsa’ or Non Violence as a weapon in this struggle. In no time he was nicknamed ‘Bapu’ and later people started calling him ‘Mahatma’.


Mahatma Gandhi’s ideology had spread to every corner of India and inspired many minds in early 20th century. Many writers were portraying protagonists, who were ready to sacrifice their home and love for the sake of the well-being of the nation. Cinema was a nascent medium then. Majority of the films were coming from England or the UK and few from the US. But the medium had attracted many youngsters from various parts of the country, Maharashtra and Bengal (then undivided) being in the forefront.


The father of Indian Cinema, Dadasaheb Phalke’s and India’s first feature film was influenced by Gandhian thought. His film was about a king ‘Raja Harishchandra’ who upheld value of truth. This king was Gandhi’s idol.


In the transition from silent to sound films, ‘Bombay Talkies’ a famous and revered production house, produced a milestone film titled ‘Achoot Kanya’ (1936). It depicts a love story between a boy from socially upper strata section and a girl from then prevailing custom, the lower strata of society. Debika Rani, owner of the Bombay Talkies’ was a well-established actress and a new comer Ashok Kumar portrayed the hero. It was a courageous step to portray such a forbidden relationship in those days.


The film has clear influence of Gandhi. All through his life, Gandhi strived for the upliftment of the downtrodden, to give them a place of acceptability in society. He used to call them ‘Harijan’. Earlier, a film by Debaki Bose handled a similar theme. His ‘Chandidas’ (1932) tells a love story between a so-called upper caste boy and a girl, considered then as from a lower class.


But a film by ‘Prabhat Film Company’, a powerful and influential production company operating from Pune, Maharashtra, stands out as a classic. Directed by legendary V Shanataram, ‘Dharmatma’ is based on the life story of a 16th century saint-poet Eknath. The film focuses on an incident when Eknath went to the house of a family of an ‘outcast’, according to the then prevailing belief. The film promotes social harmony and propagates idea of equality, so dear to Gandhiji. The film’s original title was ‘Mahatma’, naturally inspired by Gandhi himself. But British censorship objected to it as they whiffed ‘nationalism’ in it. So the title was changed. Sensitive direction made the film thought-provoking but was not propagandist.


Besides these, not many films were made which can be said to have been influenced by Gandhi’s thoughts. Commercially successful film ‘Kismat’ (1943), again made by ‘Bombay Talkies’ had a song ‘Door hato ai Dunaiwalon Hindustan Hamara Hai…’ echoing ‘Quit India’ movement of 1942 started by Gandhiji. In the shadow of the Second World War, censorship was harsh and raw films got scarce; Indian, particularly Hindi cinema, became more commercial. Every producer wanted his investment back. So films turned more entertainment-oriented, there was no place for any serious thought. And after independence, cinema became unashamedly escapist.


Still Mahatma Gandhi is perhaps the most filmed personality. There are many documentaries related to him and his struggle. Most of the footage was filmed by British authorities, not because he was a great leader, but to keep a record of his activities. Fortunately, that turned out to be the treasure trove for documentary makers later. Such an attempt was first made by A K Chettiar. He shot extensively in India, the UK and South Africa. The documentary titled ‘Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet’ was released on 23rd August 1940. But soon it was withdrawn from theatres because of harsh British censorship. It was re-released in 1947.


Now only two short versions of the film are available in the US. The original footage collected and shot by Chettiar is lost. There were other documentaries too, but these used the same old footage so there is nothing new. In 1953, the Government of India toyed with the idea of making a film on Gandhi’s life but had to abandon it due to lack of expert human resource.


But in the same year, an American feature film was made, titled ‘Nine Hours to Rama’. It was based on a novel of the same title by Stanley Wolpert. It is a fictional account of the last nine hours in the life of Gandhiji. As per the novel and the film, the attacker gets caught before any untoward incident. There is no way to know how the film was received in India then.


There was no feature length film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi till 1982, when the film ‘Gandhi’ directed by great British director Sir Richard Attenborough was released. This is a brilliant ‘bio-pic’. It shows the journey of a Barrister to Mahatma, his conviction, belief in non- violence, his relationship with his colleagues and Colonial forces and much more. The film famously bagged several international awards and remains the best film on Mahatma’s life.


Later, the character of Gandhi appeared in feature films based on or related to India’s freedom struggle or people from that period. Still mainstream Hindi cinema was aloof to this great man. It seems the fear that their film might hurt somebody’s feelings and sentiments, kept them away from this subject.


So, after a long pause, Gandhi once again appeared in a mainstream or commercial Hindi film titled ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’. The makers touted it as the film which spreads and re-introduces thoughts of Mahatma to the young generation. Released in 2006, the film was a huge box office success. It popularised the term ‘Gandhigiri’, which sounds similar to ‘Dadagiri’, the Hindi word meaning acts of a goon. Cooperation and boycott were non-violent means used by Gandhi as weapons, and to term these as Gandhigiri is a fallacy.


The protagonist of the film is a criminal (it is difficult to forget the past of the actor, who is in the lead role) who falls in love with a radio jockey, who happens to be a good looking girl. To win her over, he decides to come out of the shadow of his past. So, this is basically a love story with a twist. But did its success lessen, if not eliminate, crime from Indian society? Did it reduce hatred?


The strength of ‘Lage Raho….’ is its cleverly written script, which entwines the character of Gandhi and his few thoughts. While Gandhi also championed sacrifice and simple living, these ideas do not find a place in the film. So the claim that the film ‘promotes’ Gandhian thought is very generalised and sweeping statement. This film now has become a thing of the past.


People like to use Gandhi’s name conveniently. In the world of Cinema ‘notes’ with the picture of Gandhi is more valued than his thoughts. India’s film world neglected this great man and that sadly is the reality.---INFA


(Copyright, India News & Feature Alliance)

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