Gandhi in Films: A Decolonial Reading
— Narendra Kumar
(First published in Relevance of Mahatma Gandhi’s Thoughts in the Twenty-First Century. Eds. A.K. Ranade et. al. KVP College, Dombivli. ISBN: 978-81-925842-1-9.)
Mahatma Gandhi’s relevance has time and again been both contested and reiterated. This half naked-fakir in loincloth, mobilizing masses against the British with the magic wand of truth and non-violence, subverting his own and family’s life for the service of the principles and the nation, has come to be described as Mahatma, the father of the nation, and at the same time, a paradox, an antimony etc. His ideals of Satya and Ahimsa, the methodology of satyagraha and active/passive resistance, non-cooperation etc. have not only received scholarly attention but have also been recreated in films having mass appeal. The present paper studies films on and about Gandhi and Gandhian ideals from the decolonial perspective as presented by theorists like Anibal Quijano, Walter Mignolo etc.
Comprehension of decoloniality begins with the unravelling of the workings of the colonial matrix of power or coloniality of power (Quijano, 2008). Coloniality of power, as Anibal Quijano observes, has survived the demise of the colonial empire. It has survived because it constitutes, modernity argues Walter Mignolo in his book the Darker Side of Modernity. Modernity and coloniality may appear to be chicken and egg problem to some and hence, arise an ambivalent attitude. However, the school of decoloniality recognises that modernity is the disguise and not the logic of coloniality. The starting point may be modernity (enlightenment) for Europe but coloniality for the non-European and thereby resulting in genocidal violence in Americas, the Caribbean, Australia and Africa, and consequent demolition of a high culture, as well as cultural subjugation and suppression in Asia. Why it was more violent at places other than Asia may provide fascinating insights into the operations of colonial matrix of power, however, is outside the scope of this paper.
Be it colonialism, racism or patriarchy, the coloniality of power works through hegemonic control of knowledge and thereby subjectivity which ultimately perpetuates the control of economic resources and authority. The colonial matrix of power can be roughly represented as:
Colonial Matrix of Power
Colonialism survives not through the brute force of military but through, what Antonio Gramsci calls ‘hegemony.’ It fosters consensual adherence to social control:
…Dominant groups in society, including fundamentally but not exclusively the ruling class, maintain their dominance by securing the ‘spontaneous consent’ of subordinate groups, including the working class, through the negotiated construction of a political and ideological consensus which incorporates both dominant and dominated groups. (Strinati, 1995: 165)
Hegemonic control is the control of the subjectivity of the colonizer and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed simultaneously. Decolonial thinking perceives ‘colonial matrix of power’ as a Eurocentric organization of the world which gains such legitimacy through the promise of modernity and benefit the colonial/capitalist forces. They ‘delink’ (Mignolo, 2007) from such configurations recognizing the ‘darker side’ of it and present ‘colonial matrix of power’ as one of many options for organizing the world and thereby, subverting its universalizing claims.
Ashis Nandy in his book The Intimate Enemy: Loss and Recovery of Self under Colonialism (1993) describe colonialism as a state of mind inflicting both the colonizer and the colonized. It is sustained though, he writes, making both the oppressor and the oppressed see the legitimacy of hierarchically arranged binary opposites of white/black, male/female and West/East, former representing the superior and the latter its surrogate inferior. The same is endorsed by the decolonial thinkers in their assertion of White-Christian-Male as the foundation of Eurocentric thinking.
The process of decolonizing involves the dismantling of the means that the colonizer employs for the creation and maintenance of coloniality – non-violence against colonial violence, elimination of binaries, the emotion of love against economic rationality etc. Gandhian instruments of the fight against enlightenment off-shoot coloniality can be traced in religion and tradition. He tells Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn), ‘When I despair I always think that all through history the way of truth and love has always won’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi).
The present paper uses three categories (loosely classified) of films on/about Gandhi to unravel Gandhi’s practice of decoloniality: 1. Biopics of Gandhi: Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982), Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma (1996), and Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi My Father (2007); 2. Biopics of Gandhi’s contemporaries: Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1993), and Jabbar Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000); 3. Films depicting Gandhi as an idea/ survival of Gandhi: Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005), and Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). The purpose of such a large selection is to review Gandhi as a protagonist, as part of other protagonists’ lives, and as the after-life as an idea. Gandhi as a political leader actor is both affected by the prevalent political circumstances and affects the lives of other political actors, and continues doing so even after more than half a century of independence.
Gandhi’s first recognition of the modernity hiding coloniality happens in 1893 while travelling from Durban to Pretoria. He never encounters during his London stay. Coolies (Indians) and natives (Africans) are not allowed to travel or walk with Europeans. This is how modernity exhibits its darker side in the colonies. Gandhi is a product of Christian enlightenment and English education and strives first to claim his right to be ‘equal citizen of the Empire’ (Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma), and subsequently undergoes a journey of transformation uncovering the colonial pathologies of the Empire.
Gandhi’s fight against discrimination and oppression is, as Shyam Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma informs us, influenced by the Quran’s idea of Jihad, the Bhagavad Gita’s Dharma Yudh and the Bible’s love and sacrifice for others’ sins. Gandhi after being thrown out of the first class compartment of the train reads the following English translation verse 4:75 of the Quran, given to him by Dada Abdullah for reading on the way:
Gandhi reading the Quran after receiving first taste of racism at Pietermaritzburg in Shyam Benegal’s Making of the Mahatma
‘And why should ye not fight in the cause of Allah and of those who, being weak, are ill-treated (and oppressed)?- Men, women, and children, whose cry is: “Our Lord! Rescue us from this town, whose people are oppressors; and raise for us from thee one who will protect; and raise for us from thee one who will help!”’ (Quran, Verse, 4:75)
For Gandhi, the worldly struggle is always informed by the inner conflict and hence, in Gandhian practice, there is always an attempt of self-purification leading to the love of the other. In Gandhian philosophy, unlike the colonial binary of self/other, the other is always a part of the self. The colonial ‘other’ is a surrogate other – half savage, half child – for the colonizer demanding enslavement and subjugation for carrying out the ‘White Man’s Burden’ (Kipling, 1898) of civilizing the uncivilized. For Gandhi, the ‘other’ in the colonized is not an object of hatred or revenge but of love and hence, requiring reformation. Gandhian battle of decolonization (i.e. ending human oppression) fought with Christian notions of love and self-sacrifice cannot be fought without the self’s Dharmayudha against vices and temptations as preached in the Bhagavad Gita. For him, Kurukshetra is the battlefield of his life. He has to fight within and without.
Gandhi’s proclamation, to protesting (against Asiatic Act) Indians in South Africa, that Satyagraha is the path of truth demanding truthful means for a just cause and ‘truth means our actions cannot be violent. This does not mean that we shall not undergo any suffering because it is through suffering that we can change the minds and hearts of those that oppress us’ (Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma)
Gandhi, as he informs the member of Congress, is always in favour of the fight, yet this fight is to change and not to punish. That is the reason why it cannot resort to any of the violent means. His resistance, which is initially not understood by the members of Congress, he says, is ‘passive nothing.’ It is ‘active and provocative (Attenborough’s Gandhi).’ Addressing the agitating Indians in Natal, protesting against the new legislation compelling Indian’s for registration (New Asiatic act), Gandhi invokes non-violent protest against the vice of oppression. He says, ‘I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger not to provoke it… And through our pain, we will make them see their injustice…’ (Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma). Gandhi in the same meeting baffles the present agitated and insulted European soldiers, and makes them join the congregation, by ending it with the national anthem of Britain, ‘God save the King…’ He keeps doing so and becomes untenable for the colonizer. The then Prime Minister of South Africa General Smuts, in Attenborough’s Gandhi, calls him a ‘shrewd man.’ Being the colonized he understands the colonizer (Fanon, Wretched of the Earth), yet his method is not appropriated in the scheme of the latter. Answering the suspicion that the British may ignore his Salt Satyagraha, he tells the journalist Walker, ‘I am in command’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi).
Commenting on the method Smuts tells Gandhi, ‘it would be easier to deal with you if like the Railway strikers you got on to the old-fashioned riots…. You reduced me to sheer helplessness. What am I to do with you?… How can we lay our hands upon you and not appear as villains?’ (Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma) Thus, Gandhian Satyagraha succeeds in exposing the injustice and the oppressor realizes it.
Gandhi and Native Political Elite:
Gandhi, fighting against the Eurocentric racism and oppression, is not unaware of political elite class replacing the White colonizers and their indifference to the masses. In his first address, after his return from South Africa and tour of India, from the Indian National Congress’s platform, he categorically observes this:
Gandhi’s (Ben Kingsley) first address to people from the stage of INC (Attenborough’s Gandhi)
Since our return from South Africa, I have travelled across India… What we say here means nothing to the masses of the country…. Here we make speeches to each other, and those English liberal magazines that may grant us a few lines. The people of India are untouched. Their politics are confined to bread and salt. Illiterate they may be but they are not blind. They see no reason to give their loyalty to rich and powerful men who simply want to take over the British in the name of freedom (Attenborough’s Gandhi).
He further questions the claim of Congress of representing India, without any mass participation. He says:
My brothers, India is seven hundred thousand villages not a few hundred lawyers in Delhi and Bombay. Until we stand in the fields with the millions that toil each day under the hot sun we will not represent India. Nor will be able to challenge the British as one nation (Attenborough’s Gandhi).
For Gandhi mass mobilization is important to make the people feel as one nation but also to absolve them from the ghosts of fear and unworthiness infused in them by colonial rule.
Comparisons have been made between decolonial methods of Gandhi and Frantz Fanon. The latter, although like the former believes that ‘violence begets greater violence,’ conceives the necessity of the release of violence begotten by the colonial suppression. Hence, for Fanon, the colonized can regain its decolonized self and self-consciousness through a violent act. Decolonization, observes Fanon, is the violent process of turning the binaries where the ‘last’ becomes the ‘first’ (Fanon, 2).
Gandhi, contrary to Fanon, envisions the elimination of colonial logic of binaries. Ashis Nandy observes:
The principle of non-violence gives men access to protective maternity and by implication, to the godlike state of ardhanarisvara, a god half‑man, half‑woman. But given the cultural meaning of naritva, non‑violence also gives men access to the powerful, active, maternal principle of the cosmos, magically protective and carrying the intimations of an oceanic and utopian beatitude (Nandy, 74).
Thus, Gandhi’s adoption of non-violence allows him to empower naritva without the maintenance of male/female binary. His repudiation of sexuality in feminine and proclamation of motherly, on the contrary, allows his fight to become active, provocative and reformative. Gandhi realizes, as Nandy observes, that the colonizers were as much victim of the colonialism as the colonized and thus, needed a path for redemption.
Gandhi and his Family:
Gandhi’s adherence to his principles and demand for the same from others estranges his relationship with his family. It is visible in Kasturba’s objections to cleaning the toilets, Gandhi’s vow of celibacy and the alienation of Gandhi’s son Harilal, a promising Satyagrahi whose life ends as a ‘drunkard, destitute and homeless’ (Khan’s Gandhi My Father). Harilal is sensitive, energetic, independent thinking as a young boy who cannot understand the sainthood that his father’s politics involves. Gandhi’s denial to have Chimanlal Patel’s scholarship, for study in England, all for Gandhi’s family, but insistence on having the entire Phoenix settlement a beneficiary of it, and then, the selection of others (first Chhaganlal and then Sorabjee) in place of his own ambitious son, disappoints Harilal. It makes Kasturba demand him to ‘just once, only for once, not as Gandhi, but as a father, listen to the voice of [his] children,’ and Gandhi reply as ‘we’re parents to all children in this settlement, Kastur. They are our own children’ (Khan’s Gandhi My Father). Harilal is further distanced from his father when he tries to leave for India under a forged identity of a failed businessman Pranlal Mehta, and not allowed to do so on account of his identity of a Satyagrahi and Gandhi’s son. One of the few father-son conversations prove how helpless Gandhi feels and how suffocated Harilal is:
Harilal (Akshay Khanna) and Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala) having a strained conversation (Khan’s Gandhi My Father)
Harilal: To the world you are Gandhi, and I am your son junior Gandhi. Yet I’ve never known a father. And love? I’ve never known it. I have no education, no family, no future.
Gandhi: The world is waiting for you, son.
Harilal: Not for me, Bapu. For you.
Gandhi: You are free Hari.
Harilal: What kind of freedom is this? You define the freedom, Bapu and you set the limits? My independence is restricted to following your principles, my thoughts must conform to your ideas….
Harilal: Bapu, I’m suffocated by the burden of following your dreams. I want to breathe.
Gandhi: We’re in the midst of a battle here son, of right against might, of justice against injustice. I depend on you.
Harilal: I have opted out. I must find my own path, search for my identity.
(Khan’s Gandhi My Father)
Gandhi is a father to everyone but Harilal. Gandhi’s children must have been denied his time and affection given to his political commitments. Contemplation of Gandhi’s success or failure as a husband or parent may be quite contentious, yet out of scope for this paper. What is being brought home is Gandhi’s conduct as a political person. In an age where politics is becoming a family business in India, it shows a torch of light for the ethical conduct of politicians. Gandhi goes to the extent of recommending judicial trial against his son for his illegal conduct and renouncement of Harilal as his son on discovering the misuse of his name in his son’s name for cheating people. Gandhi’s conduct deconstructs the colonial snare of ‘us’ and ‘they.’
Gandhi: an Antinomy:
Simon Gikandi in one of his lectures in 2015 in a Theory Praxis Course on Decoloniality used the Kantian term ‘antinomy’ for Gandhian paradoxes. Antinomy is ‘contradiction, real or apparent, between two principles or conclusions, both of which seem equally justified’ (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Some such examples in Gandhian practice can be seen in his support of the British Empire against the Zulu rebellion of South African natives, in spite of knowing that natives were just. He extends the same support to the British in the I World War but denies the same in the II World War. During the trial for sedition charges after the non-cooperation movement in 1922, Gandhi says: ‘… I believe Non-cooperation with evil is a duty and that British rule of India is evil’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi). Although, he support of the Empire is grounded in his being a British subject. It seems that Gandhi realizes the monstrosity of the British colonial rule with the passage of time. The first stark revelation comes to him during the Anglo-Zulu war in 1905 when after observing the atrocities on young natives, he speaks in pain, ‘this isn’t a war, this is a manhunt’ (Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma). Gandhi decides to denounce all worldly attachment to share others’ pain. He tells Kasturba,
When I was carrying the wounded and the dead… I felt so small, so inadequate. How can I help those who suffer if I can’t feel their burden of pain? If I have to serve others. I have to empty myself of all desire… detach myself of all the ties… wealth… the family… the wife. [….] I want to free myself of the desire for you.
(Benegal’s The Making of the Mahatma)
Another such event is the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in 1919 after which he starts demanding Swaraj and launches non-cooperation movement. In the meeting with the then Governor General of India, Lord Chelmsford, he states, ‘there is no people on earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi). Four years back a suspicious of the native elite now becomes desperate for self-rule.
Gandhian method of fast has also received a lot of critical attention during his own time and afterwards. Congress party members were not happy with the withdrawal of non-cooperation movement after the Chauri Chaura incident in 1922. His fast brings all the Congress leaders to their toes. Gandhi at times himself suspects his stubbornness. He asks Madeleine Slade whether she finds him stubborn to which she replies, ‘I don’t know. I know that you are right. I don’t know that this is right’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi). And thus, voices her uncertainty of his method.
Ambedkar (Mammootty) and Gandhi (Mohan Gokhale) negotiating the terms of reservation (Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar)
Gandhi’s fast on the question of the separate electorate (which was agreed upon for Muslims, Sikhs and Christians) to Dalits frustrates Ambedkar who is being demanded, at times threatened, emotionally appealed to, by virtually everyone to succumb to the demands of Gandhi and save Gandhi’s life. Ambedkar, addressing his people on that occasion says, ‘Gandhiji has a way of making people bend to his will. We too must show our willpower. By going on fast he is making villains out of us’ (Patel’s Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar). The fast ends with a compromise in favour of reservation. Gandhi’s choice of Jawaharlal Nehru as the first Prime Minister of India in place of Sardar Patel, whose candidacy is backed by provinces, may be seen as another example of Gandhi’s imposition of his will.
Of course, the attempt here is not to accuse or absolve Gandhi for his contradictions but rather different. These paradoxes/ antinomies allow his humanity to be visible against the dangers of deification. This makes his viewpoint or philosophy as one of the many and not the only one undermining the remaining, and thus, fosters decoloniality.
The afterlife of Gandhi:
General Smuts in his farewell speech for Gandhi on the latter leaving South Africa describes Gandhi as ‘a politician trying to become a saint’ (Khan’s Gandhi My Father). Unfortunately, in the present day world, this politician-saint is neither remembered for his politics nor for sainthood. Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara laments the symbolic death of Gandhi where Prof. Uttam Singh undergoing an irreparable memory-loss, confuses his killing of Mahatma Gandhi in a game of blind arrow hitting a picture, taken to be an ill omen bringing forth the killing of Mahatma through a gunshot. Uttam Singh once gets infuriated on the ill-treatment of Gandhi’s picture and states, ‘This photo is the symbol of Truth… symbol of our freedom’ (Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara; translation mine). The lament on the abuse of the symbolism of Gandhi becomes poignant when exorcised and exonerated of the guilt in the mock court scene at the end of the movie, Uttam Singh makes the following statement: ‘Your honour, the truth is that I have killed Gandhi, but you have also have done so, we all have done so… Gandhi would talk to me in the prison and say, ‘I am present everywhere but in the hearts of people because whoever carries Gandhi in his heart scares everyone… Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi scares India… I am scared of such nationalists whose love of their country is the love of power, who are nonviolent only in façade… I am scared of you people’ (Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara; translation mine). The same lament is reiterated in Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai where Gandhi urges for his removal from every other place and keeping him in people’s heart.
Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai attempts to reinvent and reestablish Gandhian ideals in Gandhigiri, where it is not the larger-than-life protagonists but a bunch of Gandhi followers led by Munna Bhai (Murli Prasad), who lead the transformation. In an age, when the critical scrutiny of Gandhi is more common than of his ideas, his symbolic presence on currency notes and in Government offices fails to deter people from monstrous corruption, individualism and nepotism take precedence over social service, religious and caste divide, and class inequalities are huge, Gandhigiri of Munna Bhai offers a new way of reformation. Hirani says, ‘Gandhi bashing was a fashion. And till I watched Attenborough’s Gandhi, he was just a chapter in my history lesson and a face on our currency….’
In Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Lucky is a henchman of colonial/capitalist interest (represented by Khurana) who employs goons like Munna Bhai and Circuit to terrorize people for extortion, land acquisition etc. Batuk Maharaj (astrologer) provides the validating framework for Khurana’s deeds. Prakash Jha’s movies like Chakravyuh (2012) and Jai Gangaajal (2016) also engage with the similar themes of displaying the darker side of colonial/capitalist interest, however, in Munna Bhai, the focus is more on Gandhian Satyagraha.
Munna Bhai who, coincidently, pounces upon reading Gandhi, exhibits signs of transformation, even before he employs Satyagraha. Gandhi that we see in the movie is the voice of his inner conscience acquired through a three-day-long reading and introspection on Gandhi. He voluntarily discards the arms of goons – torture and violence – and adopts the path of truth and love. He and the like who adopt Gandhigiri are untenable by the oppressing and corrupt forces. The latter deploys the colonial snare of temptation, threat, and finally, scientific rationality. The movie exhibiting struggle and revolution of Gandhigiri ends in the transformation of Lucky, and the triumph of truth and love.
Munna Bhai (Sanjay Datta) starting Satyagraha (Gandhigiri) against Lucky (Boman Irani) (Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai)
General Smuts describes Gandhi as ‘a politician trying to become a Mahatma’ (Khan’s Gandhi My Father). He also states, answering the question what is Gandhi, Gandhi is the person who was making sandals for him in the prison while Smuts was inflicting torture on Gandhi’s people. Gandhi, thus, triumphs over evil through love. The life of Mahatma Gandhi is a journey of an ordinary person who is first given to all human passions and emotions, is enamoured by the Empire, and then, successfully mobilizes the masses to expose the darker side of it, makes the authority see the injustices it imposes, and leaves behind a legacy of truth and love for future generations.
Gandhi’s paradoxical conduct in different circumstances, his struggles within and outside in the political domain prevent universalization of his conduct. This allows decolonial scrutiny possible about a personality in an age where political personalities quickly regress into ‘holier than thou’ argument and sainthood thrives on being untainted and incapable of becoming so, thwarting all critical scrutiny.
Gandhi says, ‘Poverty is the worst form of violence’ (Attenborough’s Gandhi) and any system that increases inequalities reflects the inherent vice. Gandhi’s message of ‘truth’ and ‘love’ will find a greater relevance in a scenario becoming increasingly aware of how ‘power’ is organized around a system of what Quijano calls, ‘control of labor and its resources and products’ (capitalist enterprise), the ‘control of sex and its resources and products’ (bourgeois family), the control of ‘authority and its resources and products’ (nation-state), and the control of intersubjectivity (Eurocentrism).
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Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. Dir. Jabbar Patel. NFDC, 2000. DVD.
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Gandhi. Dir. Richard Attenborough. NFDC, 1982. DVD.
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Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara. Dir. Jahnu Barua. YouTube, 2005. Film.
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The Making of the Mahatma. Dir. Shyam Benegal. NFDC, 1996. DVD.