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Mahatma in Movies

By: Gaurav Malani, IndiaFM
Tuesday, October 03, 2006
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, more popularly known as Mahatma Gandhi, is undoubtedly one of the most eminent freedom fighters any Indian will recognize with. From early days every child must have acquainted himself with this political figure through the curriculum history textbooks that has liberal footage of Gandhiji.

The father of the nation has also had a strong association with the movie world. From textual depiction in curriculum chapters to the live portrayal on the Bollywood big screen, Gandhiji has been a source of inspiration for many filmmakers not just in India but also across the globe.

It would be as good to say that any movie on the Indian independence theme or any biography on a real life historical character around the independence era is incomplete without the mention of Gandhiji. So integral was Mahatma Gandhi to Indian independence and thereby to the films on related themes! 

Gaurav Malani takes you to a trip articulating all those Bollywood actors who portrayed the character of Gandhiji on the silver screen over the years.

Ben Kingsley in Gandhi (1982)

Ironically, one of the first films on the father of Indian nation was made by a foreign filmmaker. From this very fact one can imagine how intriguing was the story of Gandhiji that a prolific filmmaker as big as Richard Attenborough was fascinated to make a film on his life history. (For the uninitiated, Attenborough is the same man who played John Hammond in Jurassic Park, the brainchild behind the park).

Ben Kingsley who was a TV star till 1982, made his big screen debut with Gandhi and put in a spell-binding performance in the title role. Despite being of British origin his portrayal of Gandhi fighting against the Britishers in India was so impressive that Kingsley even won the Best Actor Oscar award for the film. His face was an apt choice to remind you of Gandhi.

"It took one remarkable man to defeat the British Empire and free a nation of 350 million people. His goal was freedom for India.
His strategy was peace.
His weakness was his humanity.
Gandhi - His triumph changed the world forever."
This was in short, the theme or in long, the tagline of the film.

The film begins with the assassination of Gandhi and then his huge funeral procession. The movie then flashes back to the young Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley) in South Africa where he fights against the injustice on the Indians and subsequently turns to the non-violent fight against Britishers in India.

The film also starred notable Indian names like Roshan Seth (as Nehru), Saeed Jaffery (as Sardar Patel), Alyque Padamsee (as Mohammed Ali Jinnah), Rohini Hattangadi (as Kasturba Gandhi), Virendra Razdan (as Maulana Azad) and Om Puri, Amrish Puri, Alok Nath and Neena Gupta among others.

Annu Kapoor in Sardar (1993)

Though this film was a historical biography on the life of Sardar Vallahbhai Patel, Gandhiji too was an integral part of the film. As they say the history of Indian independence is incomplete without the mention of Gandhi.

The much-underrated actor Annu Kapoor (popular as the host of the television game show Antakshari) played Gandhi in the film and with remarkable elan. In fact Gandhiji influenced Sardar Patel so much that he gave up his practice to join Gandhiji's civil disobedience and non-cooperative movements and functioned as his able lieutenant all through the Independence movement.

The current comedy-king Paresh Rawal played the title role of Sardar, which is one of his career best performances. The film also starred Benjamin Gilani (as Jawaharlal Nehru), Sri Vallabh Vyas (as Mohamad Ali Jinnah) and Tom Alter (as Lord Mountbatten). Ketan Mehta who is now more known as the director of Aamir Khan's Mangal Pandey, directed this film.

Rajit Kapoor in The Making of the Mahatma (1996)

Shyam Benegal's take on Gandhiji was different from Richard Attenborough's Gandhi in the sense that while the latter dealt with Gandhiji's freedom struggle, the former highlighted the process of transformation of Gandhi from the man to the Mahatma. The Making of Mahatma was about Gandhi's early experiments with truth.

Another underrated actor - Rajit Kapoor played the title role of Mahatma Gandhi in this film and his brilliant performance won him the National Award. The film was made in two versions (English and Hindi) and shot in India and South Africa.

Shyam Benegal had earlier made a documentary film on Jawaharlal Nehru and more recently made another biopic - Netaji: The Last Hero on the life and times of Subhash Chandra Bose.

Mohan Gokhale in Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar (2000)

This was one of the first films to show Gandhiji in a not very positive light. Basically a biography on Babasaheb Ambedkar, the film carried a complete different outlook on Gandhiji.

The late Mohan Gokhale played Gandhiji in this film, which represented Gandhiji more as a member of the Indian constitution than a freedom fighter. The verbal conflicts between Gandhiji and Ambedkar were very deftly portrayed in the film. The two had opposing viewpoints on reservation of seats in the assembly. Ambedkar wanted that the scheduled caste be given separate reservation of seats while Gandhiji opined that they should be considered as a part of Hindus.

Director Jabbar Patel had also directed a Marathi film on Babasaheb Ambedkar earlier in 1991. The English version released in 2000, fetched Mamooty the National Award for his title role of Ambedkar.

Naseeruddin Shah in Hey Ram (2000)

This was the only fictional story among all the films made on Gandhiji. And though Gandhi made a late appearance in the film, the movie theme essentially was based around Gandhi. Even the title of the film Hey Ram was derived from the last words that Gandhiji uttered before dying.

Naseeruddin Shah was superlative in his portrayal of Gandhi and was arguably the only one to get the Gujarati accent and body language of Gandhiji correctly, among all other portrayals of Gandhi onscreen. Initially Mohan Gokhale was to play Gandhi in this film (after Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar) but unfortunately for his untimely demise while shooting for this film in Chennai, the role went over to Naseer.

The film narrated the story of a Hindu man - Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan) who develops this belief that Gandhiji is the man responsible for the communal disharmony in the country (in the 1940's) and his ideologies and actions are responsible for the brutal murder of his beloved wife (Rani Mukherjee). This leads him into conspiring the assassination of Gandhiji but subsequently his thought-process changes. The climax of the film was a highpoint where Saket wants to make his confession to Gandhiji but before that Gandhi is actually assassinated by Nathuram Godse.

The film also starred Gandhiji's real-life grandson Tushar Gandhi (playing himself) apart from Shahrukh Khan, Atul Kulkarni, Vasundhara Das, Vikram Gokhale and Saurabh Shukla.

Sam Dastor

Sam Dastor, a small time actor who appeared quite often in offbeat crossover films in the 70's and 80's played Gandhi twice in his acting career. He first played Gandhi in Tom Clegg's British television series 'Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy' in 1986. The film was a biography on Lord Louis Mountbatten of Burma who was later selected as the last viceroy of British India. AK Hangal was the only other Indian actor in the cast of the film who played Sardar Patel in the series. Even the characters of Nehru and Jinnah were played by Englishmen.

The second time Dastoor played Gandhi was in Jamil Dehlavi's film Jinnah. Jinnah was based on the life of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan. This 1998 film was well received and also had Shashi Kapoor doing the narration.

Surendra Rajan

Small-time stage actor Surendra Rajan can be credited as the artiste who got to play the role of Gandhiji maximum number of times, onscreen. He played Gandhi in Ved Rahi's Veer Savarkar (2001), Rajkumar Santoshi's The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002) and Shyam Benegal's Netaji: The Last Hero (2005).

In Veer Savarkar, Rajan turned only in the final few reels of the film. Again the film showed contrasting views between Gandhiji and Savarkar. However the portions of Gandhiji's meeting with Savarkar in Ratnagiri in the film turned out to be unintentionally funny.

The Legend of Bhagat Singh showed Gandhi in a way responsible for the hanging of Bhagat Singh as he signed a pact which otherwise would have saved the life of the martyr. There was controversy too over this negative depiction of Gandhiji.

And for his final Gandhi portrayal, Rajan had a fall out with Shyam Benegal who paid him a meager amount of Rs 3000 as remuneration for playing Gandhi in his film Netaji.

Dilip Prabhavalkar in Lagey Raho Munnabhai (2006)

The tagline of Rajkumar Hirani's Lagey Raho Munnabhai, the second installment of the Munnabhai series, reads
Munnabhai and Circuit are back
And they are not alone.
So who's giving them company?

There's this one more important character in this film, who in fact, happens to be the central theme of the movie. But every member from the film's cast and crew aren't willing to divulge any details about this character and are keeping this character's idea and identity under wraps. But we have some dope on it.

This character is none other than Mahatma Gandhi. And the actor who plays this character is Dilip Prabhavalkar. Prabhavalkar has been a popular personality in Marathi cinema and has played small roles in Hindi films too. He was last seen in Shahrukh Khan's Paheli where he played Anupam Kher's younger brother, Kanwarlal.

It would be interesting to see Prabhavalkar play Gandhiji in the film since Lagey Raho Munnabhai happens to be the first film to showcase Gandhiji in a contemporary setting. But how is the character of Gandhiji used in a modern day setting? "He is just being called to kind of take stock of the present situation. I believe he still exists today by way of his ideologies", reveals music director Shantanu Moitra. So it is kind of a fictional character who takes the story forward. The film is about Gandhiji's principles holding relevance even in today's times.

The movie also has a song on Gandhiji where Munna and Circuit go about singing, 'Bande Mein Tha Dum Vande Mataram'. In fact when the film was first launched, it was titled as Munnabhai meets Mahatma Gandhi.

More Gandhi connections in Bollywood

Anupam Kher came up with a superlative performance in Jahnu Barua's Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara that released last year. The film didn't have anyone playing the character of Gandhi. However Mahatma Gandhi still had a strong significance in the script. Kher played a retired teacher in the film who suffers from partial amnesia and psychological problems. It is later revealed that his character is under the false impression that he is responsible for the death of Mahatma Gandhi.

We know so much about Gandhi. But how much do we know about his son? The long in making film Gandhi My Father explores this side of Gandhi. This film is a cinematic adaptation of the popular stage show 'Gandhi v/s Gandhi' directed by Feroz Khan (not father of Fardeen Khan). Anil Kapoor was so inspired by the play that he is producing the film on it which is being directed by Feroz, himself. The film supposedly talks about Gandhi's relationship with his son which has never been talked about so far in any film made on Gandhi. Akshaye Khanna plays Gandhi's eldest son, Harilal Gandhi who adopted Islam in the 1930s and renamed himself as Abdullah, deeply offending his father, who disowned him. He later converted back to Hinduism. Shefali Shah plays Gandhi's wife, Kasturba while Bhoomika Chawla plays Harilal's wife, Gulab in the film.

Finally there was Sunny Deol's film Gandhi. The film was not based on Mahatma Gandhi but had Sunny playing the character of Deodhar Gandhi who follows Gandhism in today's times. The film was supposed to be Priyanka Chopra's debut vehicle. The title of the film was soon rechristened to 'Deodhar Gandhi' to avoid any political controversies. The film is now shelved.

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