Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi — whose 149th birth anniversary we celebrated last week — still remains the most internationally-acclaimed Indian, apart from perhaps Gautam Buddha. As it happens with most historical icons, the Mahatma has, over the decades, been reduced to a symbol who is remembered only during his birth anniversaries. His teachings — as exemplified by his political agenda and personal lifestyle — is simplified to the point of readymade panacea for all evils, if only we cared to follow them. In recent times, he is being evoked for the Swachh Bharat mission, geared more towards political agenda.
As a nation we always tend to simplify our heroes in black and white category, without daring to look into the complexities that make up such characters. Of course, there is always the fear of the moral brigade that wouldn’t hesitate to pounce on artistes if they dare to deviate from the politically-conditioned and socially-accepted stereotypes that have been fed to us through generations.
Given such attitudes, it becomes very difficult for any serious artist to depict such national icons by exploring the grey areas that make up an individual. Filmmakers especially have to strike a very delicate balance, dealing as they are with a medium that has a wide reach, compared to the print media — trying to avoid the extremes that could make their films controversial and earn them a ban.
Gandhi as a political figure and a thinker has inspired many filmmakers to interpret him — some populist, few critical, and most often — reverential, tinged with awe. Ben Kingsley’s portrayal of Gandhi in Richard Attenborough’s 1982 Oscar guzzling magnum opus remains the most popular till date that struck a very fine balance between the man and the icon. It is ironical though, that it was left to a foreigner to showcase an Indian idol to the Indians.
Much later, in 1993, Gandhi appeared in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar, based on the life of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Annu Kapoor played the role of the Mahatma. In 1996, Rajit Kapur portrayed Gandhi in his award-winning role in Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma which depicted Gandhi’s 21 years in South Africa. In 2000, actor Mohan Gokhale portrayed Gandhi in Jabbar Patel’s biopic on Dr B R Ambedkar while in the same year, Naseeruddin Shah played Gandhi in Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram. The film portrayed a would-be assassin of Gandhi —played by the director himself — and the dilemma faced by his co-conspirators in the turmoil of post-partition India.
Actor Surendra Rajan portrayed Gandhi in three films – Ved Rahi’s Veer Savarkar (2001), Rajkumar’s Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) and Shyam Benegal’s 2005 biopic Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero.
Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006) popularised the term Gandhigiri and made Gandhi cool. Dilip Prabhavalkar acted in the role of Gandhi who appeared in the film like a leitmotif to provoke a Mumbai underworld don (Sanjay Dutt) and inspire him to help ordinary people solve their problems.
Theater director Firoz Abbas Khan made a very interesting film in 2007 called Gandhi, My Father which explores the troubled relationship between Gandhi (played by Darshan Jariwala) and his son Harilal Gandhi. The film, produced by Anil Kapoor, is amongst the very few that explores the man behind the icon.
Outside India, actor Sam Dastor played Gandhi in Pakistani director Jamil Dehlavi’s Jinnah (1998), a biopic of the founder of Pakistan – Mohammad Ali Jinnah; and in Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy, a British mini-series made in 1986.
Perhaps the most interesting film made on Gandhi is Mark Robson’s British production Nine Hours to Rama (1963), based on a book by Stanley Wolpert. The film is a fictional narrative set in the nine hours in the life of Nathuram Godse that lead up to his assassination of Gandhi, played by J S Casshyap. As he prepares for the shooting at Gandhi’s residence, flashbacks recall Godse’s hostility to Muslims, his adherence to a militant Hindu group that hatches the plot and his involvement with a married woman and a sex worker. Meanwhile, a police officer who stumbles across the conspiracy, attempts to find the killer before it is too late.