“An eye for an eye will make the whole world blind,” is a famous Mahatma Gandhi line that, like the rest of the world, had impressed the then US President Ronald Reagan’s speech writers very much. They wished to quote the line in one of Reagan’s forthcoming speeches. Except, they were unable to figure out exactly when and where Gandhi had said it. 

Anybody would sympathise with Reagan’s fact-checkers—as much for the lack of Google back then as for the fact that, well, let alone books on and by him, records of Gandhi’s personal writings (speeches and letters included), stretch to about a hundred archived volumes. 

Reagan’s speechwriters therefore approached John Briley, who had scripted Gandhi, the 1982 Richard Attenborough film, for help. Briley told them Gandhi had never said, “An eye for an eye…” It was Briley who had written that twist on the Biblical command, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” for Ben Kingsely’s part in the movie. This is that moment in the film when Gandhi is upset over the Chauri Chaura incident. 

Such is the reach and power of a medium that one of the most famous quotes (it was even the opening slate of Anurag Kashyap’s film Black Friday), attributed to one of the most quoted men in history, belongs not to the person himself, but a film based on his life. 

This is ironic, and I’m sure Gandhi would have disapproved. Because he admittedly hated the movies, and chose to stay away from them all his life, except once, it is reported, when he watched a mythological Ram Rajya by Vijay Bhatt. Of cinema he said, “The evil it has, or is doing, is patent. The good, if any at all, remains to be proven.” 

I heard the John Briley story from Abhijat Joshi. Abhijat, also a screenwriter, along with director Rajkumar Hirani, had similarly attempted to capture the spirit rather than the mysteries or merely history of Gandhi in the film Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006), seizing public imagination with homilies and ideas such as ‘get well soon’ and ‘Gandhigiri’. 

Before the release of the comedy Lage Raho… the filmmakers were shit scared about angry mobs attacking them for inadvertently poking fun at a national symbol. Their fears were unfounded. The film was a massive hit. Everyone agreed that the post-liberalisation young, who had little memory or use for Gandhi, besides on notes that bore his face, had ended up discovering the father of the nation anew.

Gandhi died in 1948. He inspired several disciples even after. Martin Luther King Jr in the early ‘60s, and Jaiprakash Narayan, fighting the Emergency in ’75, are only two best known examples. By the ‘80s, one assumes Gandhi’s global appeal could have waned. And suddenly it appeared to soar again. There can be only one reason: Attenborough’s film. There are enough movies made on history, none that I know that’s made history to this level, outside the arena of films.  

As Salman Rushdie reported in the late ‘90s,

“Such is the efficacy of this symbolic Gandhi that the film, for all its simplifications and Hollywoodisations, had a powerful and positive effect on many contemporary freedom struggles. South African anti-apartheid campaigners and democratic voices all over South America have enthused to me about the film’s galvanizing effects.”  

This, coming from Rushdie, is significant. He was deeply critical of the film. Many others, like him, saw it as an unabashed hagiography. Gandhi is too complex a figure to be contained or consumed in 3 hours, 11 minutes. There is a 5 hours, 10 minutes’ documentary, Vithalbhai Jhaveri’s Mahatma: Life of Gandhi (1869—1948), available on YouTube. Even that may not be enough to fully appreciate the bundle of contradictions that Gandhi was. His several idiosyncrasies still repeatedly open themselves to some or the other retard’s ridicule on social media.

Gandhi, the film, spanning 55 years of his life—since he got de-boarded from a first class compartment in South Africa to when he died—has neither the time nor the patience for personal trivialities. There are quite a few gentle, personal moments, yes. But the backdrop is most visibly India’s freedom movement. For all his flaws, what the film recognises is that Gandhi’s ideals of non-violence and his genuine respect for philosophies behind all faiths could still save the world some day. 

What’s so beautiful about Attenborough’s Gandhi is that firstly, it is such a beautiful looking film, with warm colours splayed out on a wide, natural canvas. The richly detailed production design also matches the picturesque photography. The images look ageless. Which can’t be said for Steven Spielberg’s ET that lost out on the ‘best film’ Oscar to Gandhi, prompting detractors to remark that the Academy was supposed to be rewarding cinematic excellence, not handing out the Nobel Peace Prize. 

The massive scale of the film itself, I suspect, must have overwhelmed audiences watching it for the first time on the big screen. The funeral scene (that the film begins and ends with) still holds the Guinness record for most number of extras employed for a movie—300,000. Few days before that shoot, billboards were placed across Delhi asking people to just show up on Rajpath. The filmmakers also had insane access to locations. The film was partly sponsored by the Indian government.

Despite all eyes on the bigger picture, Gandhi is still a very intimate film about a wholly personal journey. The scenes are so delicate and subtle. One of my favourites is from the early stages of Gandhi’s return to India. He seems every bit a misfit among Indian nationalists, who admire him no doubt, for his successful experiments with satyagraha in South Africa. But they also view him wholly as an odd fellow, and rightly so.

Few minutes into the film (and few years in the timeline), we watch Gandhi discussing the draconian Rowlatt Act with the said ‘suited-booted’ Congress gentlemen—Nehru, Jinnah, Patel, Kripalani etc. (although by then Nehru had moved to kurta-pyjamas). This is at Jinnah’s imperial mansion. The butler walks in with tea. Gandhi casually takes the tray away from him, starts serving everyone himself, continuing with the conversation. His colleagues look on. 

Of course none of this ever actually happened in real life. The scene is a figment of the filmmakers’ perceptive imagination. In that second, it manages to convey so much about Gandhi’s thoughts on equality and dignity of labour, and how he was so different from fellow elites also fighting for India’s independence. 

There is then another short and effective scene set in South Africa—which I’m told was also written for the film, rather than it being from Gandhi’s life—when he, along with his frightened white friend Charles, walks straight into a group of racist men heckling him on the street. He looks the bullies straight in the eyes. They ignore him. Which reminds me of another famous Gandhi line: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” No, that is not there in the film. Nonetheless, Gandhi never said it either!

Einstein did famously say of Gandhi,

“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”

 

We do believe many decades later. 

One of the reasons is we have seen Ben Kingsley play the part as if he was Gandhi himself, in flesh and blood, radiating in turns kindness, wit, insouciance and an unrelenting spirit. It’s strange though that given a country that produces the largest number of films in the world, Attenborough had to fake a Britisher for the Indian’s role. 

Bollywood as a term would have already been coined by the early ‘80s. There was also a robust New Wave cinema in India by then, with some very fine performers belting out realistic performances on screen. One of the actors who had been shortlisted for Gandhi’s role was Naseeruddin Shah. For some reason, Naseer says, he had been eyeing that part since he was 14. 

News of the film had been doing the rounds since the early ‘60s when one Motilal Kothari, a Guajarati gent in London, had first presented a copy of Louis Fischer’s The Life Of Mahatma Gandhi to Attenborough—on which he based the film, and even dedicated it to Kothari. By the time he got down to making the film, Naseer was both an adult and a well-known art-house actor. 

Attenborough offered him Maulana Azad’s part (he could easily pass off for him). Naseer said he had to play Gandhi or nothing else. He was invited to London for an audition. It turned out to be a paid vacation, with a Rolls Royce to drive him around. One look at Kingsley at Attenborough’s studio and Naseer knew the director had already cast for the main role.

Indians would have found it hard to digest a Britisher playing the father of the nation. Naseer says a canard was concocted in the press that Kingsley in fact had Parsee/Indian roots and that his real name was Krishna Bhanji—all of it being totally untrue. 

Enough actors have played Gandhi pretty well since—Rajit Kapoor (in The Making Of The Mahatma), Annu Kapoor (in Sardar), Dileep Prabhavalkar (in Lage Raho Munnabhai), Darshan Jariwala (in Gandhi, My Father)…. Naseer himself has in Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram, and on stage, in Mahatma Vs Gandhi. 

We’ve seen plenty of images and documentary footage of Gandhi. Still, if you shut your eyes and think of him, chances are the portrait on your mind will be Kinglsey’s. And he actually looks nothing like Gandhi. Clearly Attenborough had his instincts in the right place.

Like practically everyone of my generation with a TV set, I grew up watching Gandhi at least thrice every year. It played on all national holidays (Jan 26, Aug 15, Oct 2) on Doordarshan, the only channel or choice we had. That’s about 30-40 repeat screenings to start with. 1982, the year the film released (on December 3), was also the year colour television was introduced in India. 

To top that, the cleaner for my video player was an original copy of Gandhi. I had to play the film every so often to clean the tape. Watching the movie from any point to another gives you a sense of how flawless every scene is. Why am I talking about it so much? Because October 2, like August 15, and January 26 come every year? No. 

That I have watched it yet again—almost like an annual ritual? Yes. And it’s occurred me, for the first time in almost three and half decades, that repeated viewing has oddly robbed the film of its grand place under the sun. It shows up in no one’s best movies’ list. It’s always been around. So we’ve taken its greatness for granted. Is it the most over-watched, under-rated movie ever? I think so.