Is the Mahatma forgotten and irrelevant to the new India, asks an academic.

While Mahatma Gandhi's life and work have fascinated film-makers around the world, he himself had a very low opinion of cinema describing it as “evil” on one occasion, according to new research by a leading British Indologist.

In his entire life, Gandhiji saw only part of one film — Vijay Bhatt's Ram Rajya — and showed no interest even in India's ground-breaking first feature film, Dadasaheb Phalke's Raja Harishchandra. Nor did he use cinema to spread his message

Contempt for cinema

Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at the School of Oriental and African Studies, says that Gandhiji openly expressed his contempt for cinema telling the Indian Cinematograph Committee in 1927-28: “Even if I was so minded, I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to a cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if it has done any at all, remains to be proved.”

“Gandhi was not even interested in meeting the greatest star of his day, Charlie Chaplin, thinking he was just a buffoon, until persuaded he was a working class hero,” Prof Dwyer told TheHindu.

She reckons that it was perhaps Gandhiji's aversion to technology that put him off cinema but is not sure if that's the full explanation pointing out that he did use the “news media” to popularise his campaign. As much as she is intrigued by Gandhiji's withering contempt for cinema, she is even more intrigued by what — in a study to be published shortly to mark the centenary of the publication of Hind Swaraj —, she describes as “the case of the missing Gandhi in Hindi cinema”.

Only Attenborough's film

Prof Dwyer argues that although many Hindi films have dealt with Gandhian themes there is no indigenous, “Made-in-India”, biopic of Gandhiji himself — “the man and his role in the national drama, the historic struggle for independence, the most important event in the 20th century India”. For many young Indians, Richard Attenborough's brilliant but often factually flawed Gandhi still remains the only introduction to the “father of the nation”.

“The version of Indian history created by Attenborough's film has become part of the way in which India knows Gandhiji. So much so that a biopic of Gandhi's elder son Harilal, Gandhi My Father, by Feroze Abbas Khan copies many scenes of imagined stories in Attenborough's film such as being thrown out of the train in South Africa and beaten up for burning the passes whereas in fact he was served with summons to appear in court,” she points out .

Prof Dwyer says films like Lago Raho Munna Bhai “typify” the mainstream Indian film-makers' approach to Gandhiji which means packaging him as a “fairy godmother” for India's “new middle classes” fed on the “India shining” slogan.

“It is not the historical Gandhi, a challenging and difficult figure who urges us to abandon consumerism, but a Gandhi of India's new middle classes. This is not a political Gandhi but a Gandhi who is an inner conscience and moral guide, as well as a Fairy Godmother who will help us to realise today's dreams,” she argues.

Past attempts

Even as Gandhiji was ignored by Indian cinema, there was a scramble among film-makers in the West to “do” Gandhiji, even if not always for altruistic motives. As far back as in 1923, the pioneering Hollywood director D.W. Griffiths was “approached” by the British Government to make an “anti-Gandhi film” but nothing happened. Others who considered making a biopic of Gandhiji, according to Prof Dwyer, included the Hungarian film-maker Gabriel Pascal, and David Lean. The latter, in fact, travelled to India in 1958 but failed to get approval for his script. Four years later, he made Lawrence of Arabia instead.

Then, in 1962, Attenborough got a call from a British Indian Gandhian Motilal Kothari inviting him to discuss the idea for a film on Gandhiji and sent him Louis Fischer's book The Life of Mahatma Gandhi. When a year later, he met Nehru in New Delhi to seek his approval for the project, Nehru's only advice to him was: ``Whatever you do, do not deify him — that is what we have done in India —and he was too great a man to be deified.”

There has been some criticism that Gandhiji is played by a non-Indian (apparently no Indian actor was ever considered for the role) but surprisingly Nehru's own choice also was a non-Indian — Alec Guinness. Apparently, he quipped that the “idea of being portrayed by an Englishman would have made Bapu laugh a great deal”. In the end, of course, the role went to Ben Kingsley, son of a British doctor of Gujarati origin.

Prof Dwyer believes that, for all its cinematic brilliance, Gandhi remains an “outsider's view” of India and its most famous leader. And yet, by sheer default, it has come to be regarded as the “definitive” biopic of Gandhiji.

“What is remarkable,” she points out, “is that even after 30 years and the great social changes and reappraisal of history in India, this one version remains unchallenged.”

This, she says, raises questions about Gandhiji's place in India: “Where is Gandhi in India today? Is he forgotten and irrelevant to the new India? What does it say about the popular Indian cinema and its depiction of history on film? Why is the Mahatma from this important medium?”

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