Richard Attenborough, friend of India
It was one of those coincidences. On Sunday night, with nothing much to watch on television, we decided to dust out an old CD of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari. It was my wife’s idea: she had never seen Ray’s only feature-length Hindi film. I had watched the film several times over the decades. But it is quite possible that the CD, bought some years ago, had never been played.
Some minutes into the film, just as the audience is being introduced to General Outram, sent by Company Bahadur to annex Awadh, our disc gave up its ghost. We were left staring at the back of Sir Richard Attenborough’s head (the audience had not yet been shown his face), frozen on the TV screen. We tried the usual tactics—fast forward, rewind, pop the CD out of the player and re-insert it and play it again—nothing worked. We accepted defeat and put on Amadeus.
Less than 12 hours later, I learnt on the Net that Attenborough had passed away during the night.
Most Indians—certainly I or anyone I knew—had never heard of Attenborough till Ray selected him for Shatranj..., but since the beginning of the 1980s, he has been a household name in India. His labour of love, Gandhi—a film he had spent over 20 years trying to make—brought to life the Father of the Nation for millions of Indians, and for a billion people across the world. Of course, it won many awards, including eight Oscars, but the real impact of the film far transcended those ephemeral laurels and baubles. It inspired freedom fighters and human rights activists across the planet. In India, it became a sort of national cultural monument, with Doordarshan—and later private TV channels—religiously airing it on 2 October and Independence Day. As a result, many of its scenes are carved permanently into the minds of countless numbers of Gandhi’s countrymen.
The film had definitely served its purpose, though right from my first viewing of it, I found it unsatisfactory. Salman Rushdie tore it apart in a long essay which is available in his collection Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie’s point, if I remember correctly, was that it was finally an Oppressor’s view, a subtly self-serving recounting of history that pretended to be an apology. I agreed to some extent, but certainly didn’t feel the outrage that Rushdie vented.
If one watches Gandhi carefully, one would feel that the British did not commit much wrong in India except for that gruesome aberration of Jallianwala Bagh, and even in that case, we are immediately shown General Dyer being hauled over the coals by a government panel, which even includes an Indian! It is not mentioned that the Viceroy’s Council ultimately decided to avoid prosecution of Dyer due to political reasons. He was found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and sacked.
Every incident that Attenborough’s researchers could find in which the British showed Gandhi courtesy and respect is included in the film, like a judge standing up in the courtroom when Gandhi is brought in for trial. Every British man and woman who worked with Gandhi—notably Charles Andrews and Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn)—is given more time on screen than they deserve in the historical context. There is no Bengal famine—a man-made Holocaust that rivals the worst deeds of humankind in its pure careless evil. Surprisingly, the Quit India movement is over in a minute or two, and of course the brutal British reaction is never shown. (The British crackdown was so ferocious that Gandhi, for the only time in his life, justified the use of violence against the forces of the Raj, but we can’t have that here, can we?) In fact, the impression a non-Indian would carry away from the film is that it was Gandhi’s Dandi march in 1930 that led directly to independence. (Martin Sheen as an American reporter covering the March, shouts to his editor in New York over the phone: “India is free! India is free!”)
The Mahatma is portrayed exactly as that in every frame—as an out-and-out saint, with everyone around him—other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an arrogant malevolent figure—in 24/7 awestruck and reverential mode. Ironically, Attenborough himself wrote that in his last meeting with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the only piece of advice she had (she graciously refused to read the film’s script, saying that she had full faith in Attenborough) was that the director should keep in mind that Gandhi was not a god, he was a human being.
These are some of the complaints I have about the film. Yet, few can come away from a viewing without being touched at some level. And without sensing Attenborough’s deep unqualified admiration for his subject matter. In Attenborough’s other films too, you see a liberal and progressive mind working, imbued with an empathy for the human condition that is straight from the heart. You see that in Cry Freedom on South African revolutionary Steve Biko. You see it in his biggest-budget film A Bridge Too Far, about the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, an ill-planned, pointless and failed Allied operation that achieved nothing except a massive loss of lives. You see that even in Chaplin, perhaps his worst film (it is astonishing to believe that anyone could manage to make a grindingly boring film on Charlie Chaplin, whose life was filled with more drama than the average Hollywood movie, but Attenborough achieved it).
When he passed away, he was planning a biopic on Thomas Paine, the British author of a slim volume called Common Sense, that galvanized the American people and provided the ideological basis for their War of Independence. The years had not dimmed Attenborough’s admiration for men who fought for great and right causes.
And whatever one’s reservations about his most famous film, one has to accept that the director’s heart was always in the right place, and his Gandhi did invaluable service to India in spreading the word across the planet about a vast nation and one of its greatest sons.
RIP, Sir Richard, friend of India.