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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Untold tales of the MAHATMA

An unruly mop of hair covers his face. His clothes are torn. He lies abandoned in a hospital bed. When prodded, he utters his famous father’s name—Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi—in a voice heavy with agony.

This promo of Feroz Abbas Khan’s forthcoming film, Gandhi, My Father, is a pointer to a fresh attempt to humanise the Father of the Nation, who struggled to rescue his son from the vortex of alcoholism and bring him back home. The film, inspired by Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal’s book Harilal Gandhi: A Life, talks about Gandhiji’s relationship with his troubled son, and, in the process, reintroduces Bapu as a father and a family man.

“It is very comfortable to place him on a pedestal and forget him,” says Khan, who also directed the critically-acclaimed play Mahatma Vs Gandhi, based on the same theme. “Gandhiji’s values had a deep impact on his family life. My film portrays the clash between the aspirations and expectations of a son and the principles of a father,” he adds.

Over the years, intermittent attempts have been made through films, plays and books to give Gandhiji’s demi-god persona a human touch. Yet, the preacher of non-violence has never been seen as an ordinary father or husband. There have been noticeable references to Gandhiji in Hindi films like Hey Ram, The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara and most significantly in Lage Raho Munnabhai.

The Sanjay Dutt-starrer simplified Bapu’s principle of non-violence and truth and made Gandhigiri fashionable. The mass response that this popular film garnered was similar to what Richard Attenborough’s multiple Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982) had received decades ago. But these movies have presented Mahatma as one of the greatest leaders of the world, without providing much insight into the tangible human being behind the undeniably great soul.

Ace director Shyam Benegal points to a plausible reason for this failing. “Gandhiji was a man of such a complex personality that it’s not possible to feature everything about his life in one single film. It’s logical for filmmakers therefore to focus on only selected aspects of his life in each film,” he says.

Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (released in the mid-’90s), set in his early days in South Africa, touched upon Gandhiji’s personal relationships, particularly with his wife Kasturba, to trace his evolution into the ‘Mahatma’. “Gandhiji’s relationships don’t form the central theme of my film. But it’s true that he had a somewhat functional relationship with his children,” adds Benegal.

Indian theatre, too, has seen some stray but significant efforts to ‘demystify’ Gandhiji in the recent past. Sammy, a hugely popular play by Lilette Dubey, shows how ‘Mohan’, an ordinary man with his flaws and weakness, comes to terms with his ideology and emerges as the Mahatma. Mahadevbhai, a play based on Gandhiji’s letters to his long-time secretary Mahadevbhai, and the Marathi play Gandhi Virudh Gandhi,too, deserve mention in this context.

“In the case of Gandhiji, it is very difficult to separate the real person from the historical figure. That’s one of the reasons why most films or plays prefer to deal with his political life,” says Jaimini Pathak, actor-producer of Mahadevbhai.

Recently, Rajmohan Gandhi’s book, Mohandas: A True Story of a Man, had its first few pages dedicated to his great grandfather’s “spiritual relationship” with Tagore’s niece Saraladevi. It triggered a series of discussions on unexplored aspects of Bapu’s character.

These efforts haven’t raised the hackles of Mahatma’s countless admirers. Instead, they have been hailed by Gandhiji’s relatives and Gandhian scholars. “Any responsible attempt to demystify the Mahatma is welcome. Gandhiji was a transparent person and welcomed scrutiny of his actions during his lifetime. Such initiatives will encourage people to respect him more and follow his ideals,” says his great grandson Tushar Gandhi.

Agrees Pratap Sharma, who researched on Gandhiji for 20 years before coming up with the script of Sammy. “Much of Gandhiji’s efforts were dedicated to improving his soul and spirit, which at times were not practical in terms of leading a normal family life. It deserves to be stated that Gandhiji was a difficult person to live with,” he adds.

Researchers also point to those aspects of his life that can lend themselves to fascinating screen adaptation, but these have so far been overlooked by filmmakers. “His relationship with women has been intriguing. He encouraged women to come to the forefront in public life though he was known to be quite tough with Kasturba,” adds Sharma.

“From his childhood days to his youth, his days as a student in London to his relationship with Kasturba, his famous march in Noakhali to the mystery of his murder—there are so many untold stories about him,” adds Gandhi’s great grandson. It’s time for a long-overdue revisionist thrust.

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