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A classic, 'Gandhi' ignores merciless cruelty unleashed on militant freedom fighters

By Harsh Thakor 

The movie ‘Gandhi’ produced by Richard Attenborough, which was released 40 years ago on November 30th, 1982, was classic in it's own right. Ironical that it took an Englishman to embark upon the making of a film on this legendary figure.
I can't visualize a better pictorial portrayal of Gandhi's life or an actor getting in the skin of the character an exuding the mannerisms as actor Ben Kingsley.
Episodes are crafted and grafted surgically, illustrating how Gandhi wove fragmented bits into a cohesive force, to confront he British empire. Most boldly the movie unfolds how British colonialism subjugated the Indian people to barbaric cruelty.
With great mastery the cinematography captures the vast Indian landscapes and essence of livelihood of Indians under colonial rule.
The movie most illustratively shows the crystallisation of anti-colonial fervour from the embryonic stage and how it fermented into an integrated movement.
In a most subtle manner it illustrates Gandhi’s transition from a stalwart of the British into a die hard enemy of colonial rule.
The movie reveals the methods Gandhi adopted to win over the masses through his deep simplicity in style of living and his deep-rooted mastery of the psyche and idioms of the people, at the very grassroots. This was illustrated in the scenes from the Tolstoy Farm in South Africa itself, when Gandhi shows his adulation for manual labour, making his wife clean the latrine. Vibrations are given of an Indian version of Tolstoy, in the movie.
It illustrated Gandhi’s genius in innovating methods to bring in millions into the fold of the Congress party. Heart touching scenes of Gandhi touring India, in a third class train, examining India's poverty. I can’t forget a scene of Gandhi in a meeting, personally placing his tea cup back in the kitchen. The movie manifests what Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh stated “I and others may be revolutionaries but we are disciples of Mahatma Gandhi, directly or indirectly, nothing more nothing less.”
The salt march of 1930 is projected at its maximum intensity projecting how it manifested anti-colonial spirit at helm through galvanising people like a mighty army, revealing how it embarrassed the colonialists in their very den.
The event of Jallianwallah Bagh is covered giving complete justice to the casualties. Heart touching scenes of Gandhi touring India, in a third class train, examining India's poverty. Also vividly delves on the injustice of the zamindari system, through projecting plight of Indigo planters.
Classically in black and white reels, it encompasses period of Gandhi visiting Lancashire workers when going for the Round Table conference.
Positive that it projects Gandhi as a champion of secularism, who in every juncture professes Hindu-Muslim unity, capped at Noakhali, where he fasted to prevent Hindu-Muslim riots. Poignant scenes of Gandhi and Nehru rebuking the RSS, which is relevant in this day and age, when Hindutva fascism is fermenting at an unprecedented height. Also noteworthy it projects Gandhi stating “I am a Hindu, Muslim, Christian and a Jew and so are all of you.”This is message all the more relevant today, with religious wars breaking up the world.
A very poignant scene in the movie, where General Dyer is placed on trial by the English jury, after the firing in Jallianwallah Bagh.It tends to portray a British sense of justice, even as a colonial power. Similar reflections when Gandhi is charged in court in the 1920s for sedition. Projects the evolution of parliamentary democracy and human rights concept in Britain. Whatever grave cruelties unleashed an the most malicious intentions, the roots of parliamentary democracy were laid down by the British.

Flaws

The main flaw of this film is projecting Muhammad Ali Jinnah as a villain, responsible for partition. It fails to highlight the role of the Congress in crystallizing this outcome, colluding with the British. The movie virtually depicts partition as an inevitable historical outcome, and absolves the conspiracy of the British in being responsible for breaking India. Even in riot scenes we witness grievances of Hindus but not of Muslims. It shows Jinnah sitting around with Congress leadership in Gandhi’s ashram after the 1931 Round Table Conference, rebuking the Mahatma: ‘After all your travels, after all your efforts, they sent you back empty-handed.’ Jinnah attended the Round Table Conference, from which everyone came away empty-handed, including him – so this would have been an odd thing to say. It’s even odder to picture Jinnah casually hanging out with Congress leadership in the 1930s: he had left the party in 1920, abhorring Gandhi’s ‘pseudo-religious orientation to politics’. During World War II, Gandhi is shown saying sadly that ‘Jinnah has cooperated with the British.’ He did, but let’s not forget that – whatever their crimes as imperialists – the British were on the right side in World War II. At the time, Jinnah’s cooperation was viewed by many as more morally defensible than Gandhi’s non-cooperation.
It fails to highlight how although Gandhi championed untouchability, to the last core he defended the caste system, by undertaking fast against Poona pact created by B.R Ambedkar.In important phases, Gandhi refuted Ambedkar and confronted the germinating of anti-caste movements.
There was no reflection of how in spite of morally championing the downtrodden Gandhi’s orientation was towards compromising class struggles. This was apparent in Champaran and when major peasant revolts sprouted, engulfing the whole country.
The movie did not touch upon the role of the Industrial working class and how Gandhi opposed class conflict between workers and Industrialists. The Ahmedabad workers strike was not shown.
The film obliterated how in junctures Gandhi obstructed genuine mass uprisings or revolts like Bhagat Singh’s movements or non-cooperation movement when it reached a height or even certain non-violent militant actions like Garhwali soldiers refusing to fire or Indian navy revolting were condemned by Gandhi.
The film obliterates Gandhi’s thoughts on Axis powers. A clear cut picture was not illustrated on Gandhi's reaction to World War 2 and fascism, portraying how Gandhi colluded with both Britain and the fascist powers, ideologically. Examples are Gandhi’s advising the Jews to surrender to Hitler, forecasting fascist victory as inevitable and showing hesitation in supporting Britain against the Axis countries n World War 2.
The Quit India movement of 1942, which was major turning point in the Independence movement, is not projected in the correct light. The compromising nature of the Congress is not unmasked, who subdued it in taking a militant turn.
A grave omission was the Bengal famine of the 1940's, which illustrated apathy towards suffering at magnitude rarely surpassed in a colonial country. It obliterated projecting not only the insensitive attitude of the British rulers but also the apathy of the Congress, who did not wet it’s feet to the slightest.
We do not witness Gandhi’s closeness to Industrialists like GD Birla, who often hosted him, inspite of being an ardent opponent of any strike of the Workers, and a staunch supporter of Hindu forces.
On 13 April 1919, British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer encircled several thousand men, women and children in a walled garden in Amritsar, where they were listening peacefully to political speeches. Without warning, he opened fire. Even the low official figures admitted at least 379 were killed, 1,200 injured. The film correctly illustrates, Amritsar immediately radicalised Jawaharlal Nehru, among others. However does not portray that the effect on Gandhi was slower with his first reaction to criticise the victims for having ‘taken to their heels’ rather than accept death naturally. It was over a year later when he finally handed back his British Empire medal and vowed to fight for Indian independence.
After Partition, Calcutta was torn apart by Hindu-Muslim violence. Gandhi declared he would fast until it ceased. It did, in little more than a day. Surprisingly, the film distorts this, projecting Gandhi demoralised and struggling in Calcutta. In real life, this fast was one of the most intense displays of the moral power for which he renowned. As Lord Mountbatten, then Governor-General of India wrote to him: ‘In the Punjab we have 55,000 soldiers and large scale rioting on our hands. In Bengal our forces consist of one man, and there is no rioting.’ That, surely, was a manifestation of the secular spirit.
No coverage of his racist attitude towards the black community in South Africa. During his entire South African tenure and for some time after, until he was about fifty, Gandhi was completely subservient to the colonial powers, bargaining for Indians the rights of Englishmen but relentlessly loyal to the crown. He supported the empire devotedly in no fewer than three wars: the Boer War, the “Kaffir War,” and, with the most extreme zeal, World War I.
In a critique Richard Grenier summarises how Gandhi’s full fledged desire to disentangle India from the British empire did not instill within him the slightest sympathy with other colonial peoples pursuing similar goals.. A trend encompassing his entire life displayed the most grosses inability to comprehend or even absorb people unlike himself—a trait which V.S. Naipaul considers specifically Hindu. Just as Gandhi had been totally unconcerned with the situation of South Africa’s blacks (he hardly noticed they were there until they rebelled), so now he was totally unconcerned with other Asians or Africans. In fact, he was diametrically opposed to certain Arab movements within the Ottoman empire .Gandhi—ignoring Arabs and Turks—became an adamant supporter of the Khilafat movement out of strident Indian nationalism.
The movie does not highlight how Gandhi’s adherence to Ram Rajya and Bhagavad Gita,and how he made Hinduism penetrate into the agenda of the freedom movement. Quoting Richard Grenier “During the key part of his life, Gandhi devoted a great deal of time explaining the moral and philosophical meanings of both ahimsa and satyagraha. However the theme of the film projects Gandhi to the point where one would mistake him for a Christian saint, and illustrates India to the point where one would take it for Shangri-la, it places into oblivion Gandhi’s ethical and religious thoughts, his complexities, his qualifications, and certainly his vacillations, which modifying leaves us with pacifism. It is true that Gandhi was much impressed by the Sermon on the Mount, his favourite passage in the Bible, which he read over and over again. But for the entire Sermon’s inspirational value, and its service as an ideal in relations among individual human beings, no Christian state which survived has ever based its policies on the Sermon on the Mount since Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman empire. And no modern Western state which survives can ever base its policies on pacifism. And no Hindu state will ever base its policies on ahimsa. Gandhi himself—although the film dishonestly conceals this from us—many times conceded that in dire circumstances “war may have to be resorted to as a necessary evil.”
Arguably the film misses out on the merciless cruelty unleashed on militant freedom fighters, portraying are relatively lenient approach to the Congress led struggles.
A proper distinction is not clearly made on Gandhi being a social reformer, and not a social revolutionary.
---
Harsh Thakor is a freelance journalist who has undertaken extensive research on life of Gandhi

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