The Magic of the Mahatma: What films and books capture
A Tribute to Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi on his 150thbirth anniversary
By Ratnottama Sengupta
“By 1930 all of India and its British rulers too were uttering one name with awe: Gandhi. One evening it came to my ears that the Mahatma would reach Patna at 7am the next morning, spend the day in the city and leave by the Punjab Mail at night.
I did not sleep well that night, I was up at the crack of dawn and left home 5am on the pretext of getting a book from a friend.
But I could not get anywhere near the Patna railway station, which was teeming with people who had arrived before sunrise. It was no different along the path he would be driven down. I hung around at one end of the platform, eyes glued to the exit gate.
Policemen on horseback trotted past me. A police van was parked close by. Those patrolling the platform carried bayonets and batons. Because of my green years, and my small built, I was allowed to inch ahead. From time to time, the sky was rent with the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai! Long live the Mahatma!’
All of a sudden, perhaps to steel myself, I started to whisper ‘Vande Mataram*! Vande Mataram!‘ As if on a cue, the man next to me cried out aloud: ‘Vande Mataram!‘ The crowd roared in an echo: ‘Vande Mataram! Vande Mataram!!‘
Suddenly a train rolled in with a long whistle. And people all around me broke into the cries of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!’ ‘Bharat Mata ki jai**!’ ‘Vande Mataram!‘ I found myself matching their voice…
Soon people started saying, ‘There he goes…’ Some cars came forward with Gandhi-topi clad volunteers. And then, there was the face so familiar from the newspapers, peering out of a hood-open Ford. Mahatma Gandhi, clad in a knee-length khadi dhoti, a chadar*** draped over his bare torso, a volunteer on either side, was greeting everyone with folded hands. What an inspiring image!
I also broke into the cry of ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai!‘ The crowd had started running behind the moving car. I joined them, without a pause in the slogan. A few paces later I bumped into someone and fell down by the wayside. As an elderly gentleman lifted me up and soothingly dusted me off, I felt a resolve surface in my thoughts: ‘Freedom must be won!’”
This excerpt, friends, is from the ‘Shhh… Don’t Tell Anyone’ section of Me and I by Nabendu Ghosh. He was, then barely 14 and long years before he became my father, feeling the magic of the Mahatma when he visited Patna, the city where the writer-director was raised.
I felt the magic of the man whom Rabindranath Tagore gave the name of Mahatma — Great Soul — when I was well into my forties, and was doing a fellowship in Oxford on a Charles Wallace award, on John Ruskin and his influence on Gandhi and Tagore. Then, almost 20 years passed, and we were nearing the critical juncture in time when we were completing 70 years of his passing and approaching his sesquicentennial birth anniversary. That’s when I started wondering: What does Mohandas Karamchand mean to those acquiring voting rights in India today?
Is he only the face on every Indian currency note? Is he only M G Road — the high street of every city in India? Is he a boring memory who forces every one of his countrymen to shun drinking on his birthday? Or, is there any valid reason to recall what he said — in Natal and Transvaal and Pietermaritzburg; in Kolkata, Chowri Chowra, Noakhali, Dandi, Bombay and Delhi? Is there anything in his actions that can change the lives of not only Indians but everywhere in the world where people are tired of terror strikes and gunshots and discrimination in the name of caste or creed or colour?
And as I started thinking, a series of films rose to my mind to answer my queries. And I started planning the festival in Singapore ( September 27thto 29th) — while in a parallel festival, films on Gandhi continue to bring in new viewers to the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata. As I did so, I found that many of the directors too had the same worries. Here, sample some of them.
Jahnu Barua made Maine Gandhi ko Nahin Mara (I have not killed Gandhi) “to underscore the absence of Gandhi/ Gandhian values in modern India”. The film devolves around a retired professor who is gradually forgetting that he no longer teaches, that his wife is dead, that he doesn’t play with guns aimed at newspapers reporting Gandhi’s assassination. “Through Uttam Chowdhury we see a society that is forgetting its voice of conscience,” says the director. “We hardly realise that half the chaos we face today is due to this lacking. And, to me, it’s a huge opportunity lost.”
Girish Kasaravalli’s Koormavatara (Tortoise Avatara) brings us face to face with a municipal clerk with a striking resemblance to Gandhi. This man is asked to be the Mahatma in a teleserial. But when he thinks or behaves like Bapu, he is silenced. Through this protagonist, the director reminds us of what Gandhi emphasised through his life: the need for moral and ethical values in all our actions — be they personal, professional or political. “But in the consumerist model of society which the world has embraced, where marketability rules the roost, does this Gandhian approach hold any water?”
When Gandhi My Father was about to be released, Feroz Abbas Khan was advised to ‘market’ the film about Harilal and his iconic father as a clash between the old and their dogmas with the young and their hopes. Their tale could be painted as the tyranny of principled action over the aspirations of a son who is forced to live up to high expectations. But the director did not reduce this into a David versus Goliath story “because these were real people whose struggle was instructive.”
Kecho, the street urchin, at the core of Babar Naam Gandhiji ( My Father’s name is Gandhi), is told that his father was a big man, M K Gandhi whose photo is printed on currency notes. But when he writes that in a school application, he is dubbed a fraud. This makes the young director Pavel ask: “Is Kecho’s experiment with truth merely a lie, then? Or is Gandhi the Father of a Nation where false values rule?”
However when Munnabhai, a Mumbai Don, trades ‘Dadagiri‘ (bullying) for ‘Gandhigiri‘ (peaceful, non-violent behavior); or when Hasmat Ullah, a devout Muslim in contemporary India, transforms the thoughts of his fanatical brethren over the immersion of Gandhi’s ashes in the holy Triveni Sangam in Road to Sangam; and when Bombayite Gour Hari Das uses with exemplary success the same dignified ‘Insistence on Right’ — the passive resistance christened ‘Satyagraha‘ (holding on to truth, non-violent resistance) — our heart swells with pride. And we understand why Albert Einstein, the creator of the atom bomb, reacted to the news of Gandhi’s assassination with these words: “He has demonstrated that a powerful human following can be assembled not only through the cunning of political manoeuvres but through the cogent example of a morally superior conduct of life.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had tumbled upon this disarming weapon when he was a practising lawyer in South Africa. How he wielded that weapon honed him for the struggle he led on his return to India. This journey of a humiliated individual Mohandas into the martyrdom of Gandhi is the story of Mohan Se Mahatma Tak— The Making of a Mahatma. Befittingly Shyam Benegal’s bilingual film opened the Gandhi for Millennials Festival on the eve of his 150th birthday. Based on South African scholar Fatima Meer’s book, Apprenticeship of a Mahatma, this film is a slice of life that shaped the history of several nations, including that of distant USA, of South Africa on the other side of the hemisphere and, of course, the Indian subcontinent.
May the Magic of the Mahatma be with us, throughout the world!
*I praise thee mother – a song in praise of the Motherland or India, written by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay for his novel Anandamath (1882)
**Long live Mother India!
***dhoti – A cloth wrapped around the lower part of the body in a complex fold, traditional wear for Indian men.
Chadar – a shawl used as an upper covering for the body
Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics (2018). Formerly Arts Editor with The Times of India, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication, writings books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written widely on Hindi films; served the CBFC, the NFDC Script Committee, the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National award. In recent times she has authored, translated and edited Chuninda Kahaniyaan, Kadam Kadam, Me and I, That Bird Called Happiness.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article is that of the writer and do not reflect the views of Kitaab.
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