The Case of the Missing Mahatma: Gandhi and the Hindi Cinema
M. K. “Mahatma” Gandhi (1869 – 1948) is regarded as the father of the Indian nation, or as Bapuji. Yet while Gandhi left many volumes of his work and many biographies have been written; his image is well known in India and throughout the world, mostly through photographs and chromolithographs ( Pinney 2004, chap. 6); every Indian town has his statue, and his image appears on every Indian banknote; and even an opera on his life has been composed (Philip Glass’s Satyagraha, 1980), there are surprisingly few Indian films about him and his role in the national drama, the historic struggle for independence, the most important event in twentieth-century India.
Gandhi made the freedom struggle a popular movement in part through his manipulation of symbols such as khadi, the spinning wheel, and his dress, yet though a prolific writer, he eschewed the new medium of film for promulgating his message. Gandhi’s low opinion of cinema was recorded in his interview with the Indian Cinematograph Committee ( ICC 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.”1
Gandhi famously saw only part of one film in his life, Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya (1943); his curiosity was never aroused by the first all-Indian film, D. G. Phalke’s mythological film, Raja Harischandra (1917 ), although it retold the story of Harischandra, one of Gandhi’s role models ( Gandhi 1982 : 23). Perhaps the reason is, in part, that in Gandhi’s lifetime the only film star he was said to resemble was Mickey Mouse, according to his close friend Sarojini Naidu. Gan-dhi was not even interested in meeting the greatest star of the day, Charlie Chaplin, whom he thought of as just a buffoon until he was persuaded that Chaplin was a working-class hero ( Lester 1932).
The historical figure of Gandhi has appeared in a number of films. This article concentrates on Gandhi’s absence in Hindi commercial cinema and raises questions about how life stories are depicted in historical and other genres in Hindi films and how, without this most popular medium for learning about history, Gandhi’s life remains known in India.
Images of Gandhi
In addition to the many photographs of Gandhi ( Rühe 2004), there is a huge amount of publicly accessible documentary footage of the freedom movement, much on newsreel, providing images of Gandhi, his manner of moving, and the sound of his voice. Some of the newsreels were edited into documentaries ( Garga 2007: 93), including A. K. Chettiar’s 1940 film Mahatma Gandhi, which has footage of Gandhi from 1912 that was shot by many cinematographers. The original, made in Tamil, seems to have been lost, but a shortened version remains in Mahatma Gandhi — Twentieth Century Prophet (1953) ( Chettiar 2007). Once Bombay’s theaters reopened after Gandhi’s assassination, two films on Gandhi were shown: The Light That Shone (1948) and the Rajshri Vishwadeep Gandhi, a three-reeler, directed by Dwarka Khosla ( Dwyer 2006: 70 – 71). These do not seem to have survived, unlike many later films about Gandhi, including Vitthalbhai Jhaveri’s Mahatma — Life of Gandhi 1869 – 1948 (1968).
Gandhi appears as a character in many historical costume dramas (fictional stories set in historical times) about the freedom struggle, where his ideas play a key role in the salvation of the hero/heroine. These include the Indo-Canadian film by Deepa Mehta Water (2005), where becoming a follower of Gandhi allows a widow a new life, and Kamal Haasan’s Hey! Ram (Oh, Lord) (2000), where the South Indian hero Saketh Ram, whose wife is raped and killed on the day of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s “Direct Action Day,” a pro-Pakistan protest by the Muslim League (August 16, 1946), joins a Hindutva group and plans to murder Gandhi but ultimately accepts Gandhianism to resolve his conflicts.
Another group of films called “Gandhian ethos films” raise Gandhian views indirectly. These include the Marathi Prabhat devotional films (see below), as well as Tamil films such as Thyagabhoomi (1939), directed by K. Subramaniam and written by “Kalki” on the theme of untouchability, with an image of Gandhi seeming to give his blessing, and another on untouchability, A. V. Meiyappan’s Naam iruvar (1947), where in a song-and- dance scene the film star sings in praise of Gandhi before his statue.2
The 1950s are often referred to as the Nehruvian period in Hindi cinema, but the films are mostly quiet about Gandhi and are concerned instead with issues of modernity and the new nation. However, the occasional social film picks up the Gandhian ethos, including the controversial and long-banned Nastik (dir. I. S. Johar; 1954; see Dwyer 2006: 139), Do aankhen barah haath (dir. V. Shantaram; 1957; see Dwyer 2005: 82 – 84), and Naya daur (dir. B. R. Chopra; 1957; see Dwyer 2005: 175 – 76 ). Although Gandhi’s image is seen in many films, it is not until the 2000s and the new historical film (see below) that Gandhi returns as a screen presence. However, there is a marked Gandhian ethos in the films of Ashutosh Gowariker, notably Lagaan: Once upon a Time in India (2001) and Jodhaa Akbar (2008), but most clearly in his Swades: We the People (2004), which specifically refers to activist Rajni Bakshi’s 1998 book on neo-Gandhianism, Bapa kuti. In Swades, the character Mohan leaves behind his work for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and returns to India, where he discovers his true self in village life, with his beloved, tellingly named Gita, as he becomes involved in promoting education for all and participating in anticaste activities.
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- Adams, Jad. 2010. Gandhi: Naked ambition. London: Quercus.
- Alter, Joseph. 2000. Gandhi’s body: Sex, diet, and the politics of nationalism. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. • Nehru, the Jewel of India (dir. Kumar Kiran; 1990), Hindi, dubbed into English• Sardar: The Iron Man of India (dir. Ketan Mehta; 1993), a biopic of Vallabhbhai Patel, in Hindi (Annu Kapoor plays Gandhi)