Posts Tagged ‘Indira 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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Remembering 31 October 1984

Sunday, November 4th, 2012

Mint, 31 October 2012

On the night of 30 October 1984, after dinner at our hostel mess, some of us friends went for a walk. For some reason I forget, we were in a celebratory mood. So we bought cigars. And as we lit the first cigars of our lives, we saw a convoy approaching fast. There was one car in the convoy where a light had been fixed on the top of the glove compartment to shine on the face of the man sitting by the driver. As the car flashed by, this man smiled and waved at us. He was gone before we could react, and anyway, none of us were the waving-back-to-unknown people type. Only after the cars were some distance away did we realize that it had been Rajiv Gandhi. What a fool, we thought. Waving at random people on the road! And this guy thinks he’s going to be prime minister!
About 21 hours later, to our general incredulity, he was PM.
Today, 28 years to the day Indira Gandhi was assassinated, most people may not recall that at that time, her popularity had hit a new low. She had tried one of those old tricks of hers to get rid of an elected state government, but this time the whole plot was so blatant and outrageous that it only caused widespread national anger and failed miserably.
In August 1984, when Andhra Pradesh chief minister N.T. Rama Rao (NTR) was in the US undergoing heart surgery, his finance minister N. Bhaskara Rao broke away from the Telugu Desam Party with a bunch of MLAs and, in a total mockery of constitutional norms, managed to be sworn in as chief minister with the support of the Congress. This ridiculous government lasted only 31 days and NTR was reinstated when Bhaskara Rao and Co. could not prove their majority in the assembly. (This misadventure’s principal legacy was the creation of a new young leader, NTR’s son-in-law N. Chandrababu Naidu, who rallied the remaining Telugu Desam MLAs, literally hid them away, and made sure that the Congress could not buy their loyalty.)
Rajiv Gandhi was by now very centrestage, and all of it looked like a bit of a sad joke. The general was lost in her labyrinth, and her son didn’t seem up to the task she had in mind for him. It’ll remain one of the great unanswered questions of history: if Mrs Gandhi had not been assassinated, would Congress have won the next Lok Sabha elections?
Later that night, we came to know that Rajiv Gandhi would be addressing some meetings in nearby towns and villages. This seemed as good an excuse as any to bunk class. Next morning, some friends convinced their entire class to go “absent without official leave” for one lecture. “Mass bunk” was a proud tradition, though rarely fully successful; but this time, for this class, it was. They wrote a message on the blackboard for the unfortunate teacher: “Sir, we have all gone to see the future Prime Minister of India”, and retired to the canteen or to their hostels to pursue other interests. Of course, no one went for Rajiv Gandhi’s meetings. He was still, as far as we were concerned, a joke.
Next time these students met the professor, he goggled at them and asked: “How did you know?”
Then came the news. Stories floated, All India Radio and Doordarshan would only say that she had been wounded and was in hospital. We had no idea that she had taken 33 bullets, but almost all of us seemed to know that she was no more. Around noon, we heard Radio Australia say that she was dead, killed by her Sikh bodyguards. A numbing sense of shock swept through the campus. No one was playing carrom or table tennis in the common room any more. The music systems were off. No one was shouting or laughing. Very few thought of going to class.
The next morning, none of the Kolkata papers reached the campus, which was three hours by express train from the city. A few of us cycled down to the railway station a few miles away and managed to buy some papers. One of the Bengali papers had a headline that screamed: “India has lost its mother.” There were pictures of Rajiv Gandhi standing by a highway, next to his car, maybe 30 miles from where we were, receiving the news of his mother’s death.
For the next few days, nothing moved on the campus. There was a sort of confused stasis. Newspapers were difficult to come by, and Doordarshan and All India Radio remained in a state of bland mourning. Far away from any big city, we had no idea what was really going on. Then, a Sikh classmate, who had gone home to New Delhi on some personal work, returned. He had shorn off his hair and beard. That’s how he had survived. He told us about the riots, how neighbours had gone crazy and burnt alive Sikh families they had known and lived alongside for years.
In that cocoon of an elite campus, we had never been touched by the nation’s broader political currents. We had never thought about concepts like “secularism” and “communalism”. Friendship, camaraderie, and academic and sports rivalries more or less defined our naïve and ignorant existence. It was an awakening that also thrust a mirror at us, but we didn’t have the maturity to fully understand what we saw in it.
A year later, we were all cheering for Rajiv Gandhi. He seemed to represent a new vision that we could relate to as would-be technocrats (and even so many years later, I feel no embarrassment at all for the hope we felt at that time in Rajiv Gandhi, and the trust we reposed on him). The future lay ahead of us, modern and full of promise. Within a few months, we were finding it difficult to remember what our Sikh friend had looked like with his straggly beard and the long hair he used to let free over his back on weekends. There were inter-hostel sports tournaments coming up, and there were GRE and CAT to prepare for.