Gandhi on my Mind

Written by  //  October 2, 2010  //  Media & Popular Culture  //  1 Comment

Celebrating Gandhi Jayanti, 2nd October, 2010

Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munnabhai were released within a year of each other. While Hirani’s comedy went on to achieve great popularity and financial success at the box office, Barua’s film was frozen into fatal categories like ‘most critically acclaimed film of the year’ and soon disappeared or, worse, was replaced by the popular sibling. They were siblings because they were both trying to say somewhat similar things- about how Gandhian values are disappearing in contemporary India but not all hope is lost and we can still perhaps go Gandhian when the occasion permits.

Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara(2005)tells the story of a retired Hindi professor, played by Anupam Kher, who spirals into the terrible throes of dementia and believes that he was responsible for the assassination of Gandhi. The film moves into the slot of a psychological drama and sets out to find a ‘cure’ for his condition, something that would communicate to Uttam Chaudhary, the professor, that he is mistaken and is confusing a childish game with the real assassination. The doctors achieve this by simulating a dramatic trial which would pretend to exonerate him from his imagined crime. The cure may have worked, but we are still harangued into depression by the good professor when he tells us, in essence, that we have all killed Gandhi by failing to adhere to his values. By pushing the film into this final bracket, however, Barua abandons a lot of interesting possibilities that he seemed to be developing over the first half.

The image of the professor’s family is perhaps the key to understanding the film’s position. Chaudhary has two sons and a daughter. He lives with his younger son and daughter while the eldest seeks his fortune abroad. The daughter Trisha (played by Urmila Matondkar) works for an NGO. We get snapshots of the family bonding over badly rolled chapattis and pretty poetry about being courageous and standing up for your beliefs. In many ways like this we are intimated with the idea that these modern, liberal, middle-class sensibilities which structure their lives and responses is now the shorthand for Gandhian values, whatever they were. It comes, therefore, as a real shock when the veneer of respectability is whisked away by his descent into Alzheimer’s and he ‘misreads’ an innocent, childhood memory for a violent event which may have altered the course of the entire nation’s history. The small, insignificant details of the daily routines of this nondescript family suddenly appear to mean much more than they did before. When an unsuspecting man puts a coffee cup on a newspaper-picture of Gandhi, Chaudhary is deeply agitated and denounces the man for his cavalier attitude. Inevitably, this extreme sensitivity brought on by his illness puts a strain on his relationships. Trisha’s boyfriend backs out of a marriage proposal and her brothers contemplate putting him in a mental asylum.

We are never told explicitly by the director if the film wants to be critical of the dilution of Gandhism from its many complicated social and political interpretations to one that involves framing him inside a pretty picture frame or pin a strictly conscientious reading to the Gandhi myth and capture it in stirring chants and phrases. But it doesn’t matter since Gandhi lends himself to this ambiguity perfectly. Not only was he the most imperfect Gandhian by his own admission, we cannot prove that he did not pose for the pictures at some point.

The idea of delusion features prominently in Lage Raho Munnabhai(2006) as well. Munnabhai (played by Sanjay Dutt) hallucinates and imagines Gandhi- a friendly, avuncular Gandhi- to come to his aid and help him in various ways. In a crucial scene, although one suspects it beforehand, we learn that it is not the ghost of Gandhi who is visiting him, but a Gandhi that has been created by him after hours of study at a library to impress a radio jockey. Therefore, the spectral Gandhi does not (and cannot) tell him anything he does not know. In other words, similar to Jahnu Barua’s interpretation, Gandhi is employed to play the role of conscience-keeper. The plot is then suitably tailored to bring into focus some of the salient features of Gandhism, like in a student guide-book, and coin a catchphrase or two. Non-violence is good only if you can afford to be a beefcake like Sanjay Dutt and knock someone out if you want to. You may turn the other cheek, but if the bad guy slaps that one too, Gandhi doesn’t tell us what to do.

In an early scene in Lage Raho Munnabhai, when Munna is trying to figure out a way to crack a quiz on Gandhi so that he can meet the radio jockey with the attractive voice (Vidya Balan), he asks his faithful sidekick (Circuit, played by Arshad Warsi) what happens on the 2nd of October. Circuit can only remember it as being a ‘dry day’. It’s a funny joke and also a frank admission by the director that the bar today is set pretty low.

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