Posts Tagged ‘Gandhi’

Richard Attenborough, friend of India

Wednesday, September 3rd, 2014

Mint, 26 August 2014

It was one of those coincidences. On Sunday night, with nothing much to watch on television, we decided to dust out an old CD of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari. It was my wife’s idea: she had never seen Ray’s only feature-length Hindi film.

I had watched the film several times over the decades. But it is quite possible that the CD, bought some years ago, had never been played. Some minutes into the film, just as the audience is being introduced to General Outram, sent by Company Bahadur to annex Awadh, our disc gave up its ghost. We were left staring at the back of Sir Richard Attenborough’s head (the audience had not yet been shown his face), frozen on the TV screen.

We tried the usual tactics—fast forward, rewind, pop the CD out of the player and re-insert it and play it again—nothing worked. We accepted defeat and put on Amadeus.

Less than 12 hours later, I learnt on the Net that Attenborough had passed away during the night.

Most Indians—certainly I or anyone I knew—had never heard of Attenborough till Ray selected him for Shatranj…, but since the beginning of the 1980s, he has been a household name in India. His labour of love, Gandhi—a film he had spent over 20 years trying to make—brought to life the Father of the Nation for millions of Indians, and for a billion people across the world.

Of course, it won many awards, including eight Oscars, but the real impact of the film far transcended those ephemeral laurels and baubles. It inspired freedom fighters and human rights activists across the planet. In India, it became a sort of national cultural monument, with Doordarshan—and later private TV channels—religiously airing it on 2 October and Independence Day. As a result, many of its scenes are carved permanently into the minds of countless numbers of Gandhi’s countrymen.

The film had definitely served its purpose, though right from my first viewing of it, I found it unsatisfactory. Salman Rushdie tore it apart in a long essay which is available in his collection Imaginary Homelands. Rushdie’s point, if I remember correctly, was that it was finally an Oppressor’s view, a subtly self-serving recounting of history that pretended to be an apology.

I agreed to some extent, but certainly didn’t feel the outrage that Rushdie vented. If one watches Gandhi carefully, one would feel that the British did not commit much wrong in India except for that gruesome aberration of Jallianwala Bagh, and even in that case, we are immediately shown General Dyer being hauled over the coals by a government panel, which even includes an Indian! It is not mentioned that the Viceroy’s Council ultimately decided to avoid prosecution of Dyer due to political reasons. He was found guilty of a mistaken notion of duty and sacked.

Every incident that Attenborough’s researchers could find in which the British showed Gandhi courtesy and respect is included in the film, like a judge standing up in the courtroom when Gandhi is brought in for trial. Every British man and woman who worked with Gandhi—notably Charles Andrews and Madeleine Slade (Mirabehn)—is given more time on screen than they deserve in the historical context.

There is no Bengal famine—a man-made Holocaust that rivals the worst deeds of humankind in its pure careless evil. Surprisingly, the Quit India movement is over in a minute or two, and of course the brutal British reaction is never shown. (The British crackdown was so ferocious that Gandhi, for the only time in his life, justified the use of violence against the forces of the Raj, but we can’t have that here, can we?)

In fact, the impression a non-Indian would carry away from the film is that it was Gandhi’s Dandi march in 1930 that led directly to independence. (Martin Sheen as an American reporter covering the March, shouts to his editor in New York over the phone: “India is free! India is free!”)

The Mahatma is portrayed exactly as that in every frame—as an out-and-out saint, with everyone around him—other than Muhammad Ali Jinnah, an arrogant malevolent figure—in 24/7 awestruck and reverential mode.

Ironically, Attenborough himself wrote that in his last meeting with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the only piece of advice she had (she graciously refused to read the film’s script, saying that she had full faith in Attenborough) was that the director should keep in mind that Gandhi was not a god, he was a human being.

These are some of the complaints I have about the film. Yet, few can come away from a viewing without being touched at some level. And without sensing Attenborough’s deep unqualified admiration for his subject matter.

In Attenborough’s other films too, you see a liberal and progressive mind working, imbued with an empathy for the human condition that is straight from the heart. You see that in Cry Freedom on South African revolutionary Steve Biko. You see it in his biggest-budget film A Bridge Too Far, about the Battle of Arnhem in World War II, an ill-planned, pointless and failed Allied operation that achieved nothing except a massive loss of lives.

You see that even in Chaplin, perhaps his worst film (it is astonishing to believe that anyone could manage to make a grindingly boring film on Charlie Chaplin, whose life was filled with more drama than the average Hollywood movie, but Attenborough achieved it).

When he passed away, he was planning a biopic on Thomas Paine, the British author of a slim volume called Common Sense, that galvanized the American people and provided the ideological basis for their War of Independence.

The years had not dimmed Attenborough’s admiration for men who fought for great and right causes. And whatever one’s reservations about his most famous film, one has to accept that the director’s heart was always in the right place, and his Gandhi did invaluable service to India in spreading the word across the planet about a vast nation and one of its greatest sons.

RIP, Sir Richard, friend of India.
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Why we love conspiracy theories

Wednesday, November 20th, 2013

Mint, 14 November 2013

There’s total bedlam out there, with Narendra Modi turning dubious history teacher, Rahul Gandhi revealing his till-now unsuspected knowledge of planet Jupiter, a Congress leader demanding the Bharat Ratna to be taken away from Lata Mangeshkar for endorsing Modi, the stock market and the rupee doing random calisthenics, Tamil leaders forcing our Prime Minister to stay away from the Commonwealth conference in Colombo, and hardly any aam aadmi getting tickets for Sachin Tendulkar’s last Test.
Next on the agenda will surely be many conspiracy theories, so, given that the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is only a week away—22 November, it may be a good time to ponder over them.
Opinion polls in the US have shown that 60-80% of Americans do not believe that Kennedy was not killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald—there was a deeper conspiracy that led to his death. As much as 25% believe that 9/11 was engineered by the George W. Bush administration, and investigators constantly produce masses of “evidence” to prove this claim. An equal number are convinced that Barack Obama is foreign-born (so cannot be a legitimate US President) and faked his birth certificate.
The moon landing was, of course, a giant hoax, shot in the deserts of Nevada. The AIDS virus was created in the secret labs of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a tool of quiet genocide. But the virus escaped and the dark-science guys couldn’t control its spread. And you can always draw a line from almost any sort of calamity to big corporations like energy companies and global banks, or the “military-industrial complex”. And amateur Biblical scholar Joseph Atwill is claiming that Jesus Christ never existed, but was a fiction thought up by canny Roman administrators to subdue Jewish insurrections.
In India, nothing will ever convince the believers that Subhash Chandra Bose died in a plane crash in 1945. Theories range from Bose being captured and executed by the Russians under direct orders from Stalin and with the full knowledge of Lord Mountbatten, to him turning to spirituality and living the rest of his life as a sadhu near Ayodhya.
Many in the BJP believe that Syama Prasad Mookerji, founder of the Bharatiya Jana Sangh, precursor of the BJP, was poisoned in a Kashmir jail, after he defied the government’s dispensation that no Indian citizen could enter the state without a special permit.
In contrast, Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, in 2010, officially released a book by Urdu journalist Aziz Burney that claimed the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attacks were a conspiracy of the RSS, aided by CIA and the Mossad. Conspiracy theories abound about the Nehru-Gandhi family, many of them aggressively promoted by that tireless trouble-maker Subramanian Swamy. A decade ago, a senior Armed Forces officer, a few drinks down, whispered to me that Pervez Musharraf, then ruling Pakistan, was the highest-placed Indian agent on earth (he gave his reasons for believing so, which I won’t get into here).
Of all these, the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory is the most powerful, in the sense that it never goes away, and has already spawned hundreds of books, and hundreds more are threatening to hit the stands to coincide with his death anniversary. There seem to be three reasons for this. One, that, as US president, he was the most powerful man on earth, and the bigger the disaster, the more conspiracy theories thrive. Two, at that point in time, a lot of people could have had reasons to kill Kennedy: The Soviets (the USSR had just been humiliated by Kennedy over the Cuban missile crisis); the Mafia (whose thriving businesses in Cuba had been shut down by the country’s new boss, Fidel Castro); Castro (who may have learnt of CIA’s covert attempts to kill him, and decided to give it right back to them); anti-Castro Cubans (who felt let down by Kennedy after he refused to provide US air support to the failed Bay of Pigs invasion); CIA (which also felt let down over its carefully-planned Bay of Pigs operation); the Federal Bureau of Investigation (whose supremo J. Edgar Hoover was being systematically hunted down by attorney general Robert Kennedy); and white supremacists (who were aghast at the way Kennedy was proceeding towards equal legal rights for African-Americans). Three, it is quite amazing that Oswald, though trained as a sharpshooter in the US army, was able to hit a target in a moving car spot-on, twice, firing from a sixth-floor window. No clear motive was ever established except that Oswald was mentally disturbed. And before he could have his say in court, he was shot dead by Jack Ruby, who also died in prison soon after, apparently from lung cancer.
The question that remains is: Why do so many of us love conspiracy theories? In fact, I think everyone (even though the vast majority of us are not secret-plot zealots) believes in some conspiracy theory or the other (I certainly do). The most obvious reason would be an innate distrust of the establishment. But maybe it runs deeper. Is it because most of us feel that we don’t have full control of our lives, and our belief in our pet theories vindicates our core insecurities? Do we all suspect that the world we see around us is a veil hiding most of its actual machinery—the wheels and gears and levers? Maybe conspiracy theories confirm our worst doubts, and give us a perverse pleasure. Hey, you can’t fool me, I know what really happened! And the pleasure is proportionate to the scale—or sometimes, bizarreness—of the theory. It lets us wear a knowing smirk at least some of the time in our generally clueless lives.