15th August 2013, Thursday: Mahatma Gandhi’s antagonists mostly were candid in their admissions that they had all undergone an unwitting mutation during their confrontations with him. Richard Attenborough, on the other hand, was no antagonist of Mahatma. But for Motilal Kothari, an Indian living in the 1962 London, Attenborough would never have been part of the deal. In a bid to realizing his dream of presenting Mahatma to the world on celluloid, Kothari coaxed Attenborough into reading Mahatma’s own autobiography, his ‘Satyagraha in South Africa’, and Louis Fischer’s ‘Life of Mahatma Gandhi’. The impact it created on Attenborough turned out to be much beyond Kothari’s expectations. It kept the British film maker going for 20 years, despite objections from many nationalist quarters in India, in his relentless pursuit of making the biopic ‘Gandhi’, winning eight Academy awards in the process, including those for best picture, director, screenplay, actor and cinematography. That was as far back as 1983.
Sheila Sim was moved to a care home after she was diagnosed with senile dementia. Eighteen months later Attenborough too joined her in the special care facility, where older and sick from the entertainment community are being taken care of. The news of the British movie maker’s displacement somehow prompted me to watch ‘Gandhi’ a second time leading to a proliferation of my perceptions about the moving narrative pitted against historical actualities. In his 240-page book ‘In search of Gandhi’ Attenborough tells how in 1963, with the help of Lord Mountbatten, he presented his case to Jawaharlal Nehru. Arranging funds for the 22 Million Dollar production was a daunting task mainly because National Film Development Council’s contribution to the total production was as little as of 6.5 Million Dollars. When funds ran out and work came to a standstill, Attenborough was forced to accept part time acting roles. The duration of air travel he had undertaken during the 20 years in the making of ‘Gandhi’ put together, should stretch over 3 most productive years of his life.
The story of ‘Gandhi’ without doubt is also the story of more than half a century in the history of the unbridled, but alluring India. Attenborough has been scrupulous in admitting that “of course it’s a cheek, it’s an impudence to tell that kind of history in 3 hours”. Unlike David Lean (Lawrence of Arabia), Attenborough has not bothered to analyze his protagonist neither as a politician nor as a person. “I have no interest in being remembered as a creative film maker”, said Attenborough in an interview 29 years ago. That’s exactly the reason why he has been recognized more as a chronicler by choice rather than a deliberate story teller: from the point of a young barrister’s conflict with cultural prejudices in an apartheid foreign land to an act of history’s great ironies, the life-long crusader of nonviolence falling prey to an assassin’s bullet in a Delhi prayer ground bounded by flowerbeds in full bloom. In doing so, Attenborough has not only left out several historical figures of that time, but also decided not to dwell on some of the contentious traits in his lead character, like the fall out with his youngest son and testing of his vow of celibacy by sleeping unclothed in the company of young women.
Perhaps by injecting drama and exaggeration Attenborough may have hoped to attract more viewership that actually resulted in his narration depart from facts to a certain extent. About his first rail road journey in South Africa, “He (the constable) took me by the hand and pushed me out of the first class compartment”, says Mahatma. In the movie Mahatma has been pushed so hard by the policeman that he fell flat on his face. The 3 baton blows Mahatma receives from a policeman in the scene where the burning
of his own and other Indians’ registration certificates take place is also unduly exaggerated, whereas Mahatma doesn’t make reference to any policeman in his own narration of the incident. Another example is the visit by the English missionary C.F. Andrews while Mahatma is shown to be in jail in Bihar in 1917. Mahatma, actually, was never in that jail, nor such a visit by the missionary had ever taken place. There are more deviations from what actually had happened on numerous occasions in the movie.
Mahatma’s trysts with reticence, supplication and abstinence ran deep in his spiritual wits out of which he drew his fortitude that served him navigate through unpathed waters. Especially when in times of self-doubt, he says, he used to wake up from sleep listening to an ‘inner voice’ that would steer him clear through heavy traffic and placate him back to the tranquil anger-free audacity before adversities. Despite common belief, it would also be unfair to judge Mahatma that he had disapproved of violence in its entirety. On the contrary he was quite resolute in drawing the line between cowardice and spirited use of nonviolence. He advocated the path of taking up arms for his country when it came to defending her honour rather than being a gutless witness succumbing to inglorious belligerence. Yet he also believed that nonviolence was infinitely superior to violence, forgiveness was more manly than punishment.
Leonardo Da Vinci is known to have had the curious habit of leaving hidden codes and messages for coming generations in his works of art. Attenborough had no such concerns to deal with, for Mahatma’s life held no veiled crescendos beneath its exterior. Admittedly, Mahatma too, like anyone else, had the luxury of living only one life time, yet his footprints weigh down the scale of history in the same gravity in this millennium as it did in the previous.
[ This article appeared in a ‘Khaleej Times’ -published from Dubai- special report in August 2013.]