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Gandhi, the character

Though Mahatma Gandhi openly disliked cinema and talked about its “evil” effects, he was filmed extensively in his lifetime. Nearly 75 years after he passed away, movies on him continue to be made. The Mahatma on Celluloid: A Cinematic Biography, by film archivist Prakash Magdum, takes an in-depth look at the numerous attempts made to trace his life on the big screen.

The book begins by drawing a parallel between the rise of the Indian motion picture industry and the Indian freedom movement. “… the first feature film in India was made in 1913 [and] Gandhi had entered the scene of the struggle for India’s independence in 1915,” writes Magdum.

Soon, he was interviewed by journalists around the world. In his broadcast interview with the Associated Press, Gandhi said, “I do not like this kind of thing, but I shall reconcile to it… I know also that it will serve to advertise the cause which I represent — India’s independence.”

Indian movies paid their respect to him by making oblique references. In Hero No 1 (1939), a song about him opens with these words, “Gandhi tu saare desh ka abhimaan ban gaya…” Bhakta Vidura (1921) was banned because its protagonist appeared in a Gandhi cap and khaddar shirt.

Meanwhile, Western film studios sought the support of the Indian government to helm their own projects. While Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was keen on it, the Indian film industry wasn’t. Baburao Patel, the editor of Film India, wrote a scathing editorial in 1948 with the headline ‘Don’t Murder the Mahatma Again’. Most of those projects failed due to poor scripts, lack of permissions, or disagreements over the film’s tone.

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But director David Attenborough never gave up on his long-cherished dream of making a biopic on the leader. When Gandhi (1982), starring Ben Kingsley, was released to multiple Oscar wins and widespread acclaim, many films followed. Shyam Benegal focussed on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa in The Making of Mahatma (1996). Feroz Abbas Khan explored the strained relationship he shared with his family in Gandhi, My Father (2007).

Some Indian filmmakers have focused on what-if scenarios. In Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (2005), a retired professor starts believing that he killed Gandhi. Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) depicts a gangster trying out the Gandhian way of life. Koormavatara examines Gandhi’s philosophies in the modern age.

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This book’s impetus came when Magdum discovered 30 reels in celluloid format in metal cans with the name ‘Gandhi’ written on them, stored in a warehouse in Mumbai, not far from Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi used to stay during his visits to the city. One wonders if there are more such footages of the iconic leader still lying undiscovered.

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