As I came out of a multiplex late last night after watching Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, the first thought that struck me was: Could such a film have been made in India about Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi? And that was not a tough question to answer at all. No, it can’t be made.
Let me explain for those who haven’t seen Lincoln. It deals with the last four months of Abraham Lincoln’s life, from his re-election as president of the US to his assassination. The Civil War is dragging on, though it is now only a matter of time before the Union forces emerge victorious against the pro-slavery Confederates. Lincoln is determined to have the 13th amendment to the US constitution, which will abolish slavery for all time to come, passed before the war ends. Most of his cabinet is against the move, some ideologically, others because even if every Congressman from Lincoln’s Republican Party votes for the amendment, they would still be 20 short of a two-thirds majority needed to pass a constitutional amendment. But Lincoln is adamant. If the amendment is not passed before the war is over, his Emancipation Bill, proclaimed two years before could be proved illegal in a court of law, the institution of slavery will remain unaffected, and the very concepts of freedom and equality would remain perverted for ever. By hook or by crook, get me those 20 votes, Lincoln tells his secretary of state, William Seward.
It has to be by crook. Seward employs Bilbo, a shady political fixer (delightfully played by James Spader, who has gone unacknowledged in most reviews), who sets about buying Democratic Party Congressmen with offers of lucrative government posts (which imply a steady income that can be easily increased many times through corrupt practices) after they leave Congress. Meanwhile, Lincoln makes sure that the Confederate representatives who are coming to negotiate a surrender never manage to reach Washington DC before the amendment goes to a vote. If the war ends before the amendment is passed, it will die a natural death, and slavery will never be abolished.
Lincoln’s wily machinations hardly end here, but let’s just stick to these two tactics. One, he bribed weak and corrupt men to vote for his cause. Two, he allowed the war to continue for at least two months longer than necessary so the amendment could be passed; that is, he allowed hundreds (if not a few thousands) of men to die on the battlefield as he waited for the amendment to go through. For Lincoln, his moral objective—which would transform the US, and be an inspiration to people across the world for ever—justified the means. One and a half centuries later, no one watching the film faults this extraordinary man for what he did.
Lincoln was without doubt one of the greatest heroes of the last millennium, and history textbooks deify him. But he was also one of the wiliest politicians who ever trod this earth. And it was this quality above all which was crucial to achieving what he did. In the real world, having a high moral cause is hardly enough, you have to have the street smarts and sometimes an ice-cold heart to see it through to the end. (To learn more about Lincoln’s cunning mind, one has only to read Gore Vidal’s immensely researched novel Lincoln, and the more serious reader can go to historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s exhaustive Team of Rivals: The Political genius of Abraham Lincoln (on which the film Lincoln is partly based, and which also happens to be a book that Barack Obama has acknowledged as having inspired many of his leadership strategies).
Now, Mahatma Gandhi was as wily a politician as they come. But we have made him a God, and there’s a storm of controversy every time anyone suggests that he was anything less. I am not talking about his weird ideas about medical remedies, bowel movements and sex; I really believe that Western historians making a big deal about these aspects of Gandhi’s life say more about the historians themselves and their cheap-thrills mentality than about Gandhi. He had his kinks, but they hardly affected the course of history. But can an Indian film be made on the true story of Gandhi’s life in South Africa, where he conceived the idea of satyagraha?
Let me quote historian Patrick French here, since he has said it better than I would be able to: “Take the episode when the newly arrived Gandhi is ejected from a first-class railway carriage at Pietermaritzburg after a white passenger objects to sharing space with a coolie (an Indian indentured labourer). In fact, Gandhi’s demand to be allowed to travel first-class was accepted by the railway company. Rather than marking the start of a campaign against racial oppression, as legend has it, this episode was the start of a campaign to extend racial segregation in South Africa. Gandhi was adamant that “respectable Indians” should not be obliged to use the same facilities as “raw kaffirs”. He petitioned the authorities in the port city of Durban, where he practised law, to end the indignity of making Indians use the same entrance to the post office as blacks, and counted it a victory when three doors were introduced: one for Europeans, one for Asiatics and one for Natives.”
Even Shyam Benegal’s film The Making of the Mahatma, about Gandhi’s years in South Africa, skirts this issue, which is not a very well-kept secret among Indian historians (who, however, hardly ever speak about it).
Could we ever make a historically authentic film about the two Gujarati barristers who changed India for all times to come—Gandhi and Jinnah? How it was Gandhi who introduced religion into politics (something that has subsequently borne devastatingly poisonous fruit) much to the chagrin of the staunchly secular Jinnah? Could we attribute the origins of “vote-bank politics” to Gandhi, when he allied with the Khilafat agitation to broadbase his Non-Cooperation Movement, much to the horror of progressive Muslims (like, yes, Jinnah)? Several Hindi films have been made on Bhagat Singh, but none mentioned that a word from Gandhi could have saved Singh from the gallows. Gandhi did not say that word. This is extensively documented in A.G. Noorani’s The Assassination of Bhagat Singh.
I have not seen Bose: The Last Hero, the only biographical film in Hindi made on Subhash Chandra Bose, but I would certainly be very pleasantly surprised if it delved deep into the behind-the-scenes powerplay that Gandhi made to defeat Bose’s bid for re-election as president of the Indian National Congress at the Tripuri session in 1939. When his candidate Pattabhi Sitaramayya lost to Bose, Gandhi went into an extraordinary sulk and got all the members of the Congress working committee to resign, and then tried to get Bose’s powers as president curtailed. Finally, Bose resigned and quit the Congress.
One could go on. For instance, Gandhi’s decisions on Congress election strategy during the state elections held during British rule repeatedly indicate that he was a strong believer in democracy, as long as the Congress was the majority party.
Does all this detract from what Gandhi achieved, taking political consciousness for the first time in India to the grassroot level, building a mass movement of a size rarely seen in human history, of convincing the world that the cause of Indian independence was a moral one, not political? Gandhi achieved feats that very few men have done in history, and in a wholly unique manner, and has had a profound influence on men who came later, from Martin Luther King Jr to Nelson Mandela. Like Lincoln, he is one of the greatest figures of his millennium.
But can an Indian film ever be made (and more importantly, released, without politicians going apoplectic and theatres being attacked) which also shows what a cunning and wily politician he was? (Which are necessary qualities for a good politician and the ends may often justify the means, when seen in a broader historical perspective.) No, such a film can’t be made and released, certainly not in the foreseeable future. Perhaps, some day, when we are more mature as a people, when we can accept our idols with a few warts, and our gods as being flesh and blood creatures... But that day seems rather far off. We are still scared of people getting offended if we show Al Qaeda members as devout Muslims, and paintings of the naked female body get our Hindu saas-bahus out on the streets. Yes, that day is far off.
Do watch Lincoln, and throw that CD of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in the trash can. I do believe it should be our duty to try to know more about the Mahatma. It won’t take too much away from his glory, but it’ll certainly help us judge the world in a deeper and better way.