| Bollywood at its best
If “there is no such thing as Gandhism”, as Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi claimed in a statement to the Gandhi Seva Sangha in 1936, how can one explain a cult like Gandhigiri' The word’s etymological similarity with Dadagiri and Goondagiri offers an explanation. The craze, with its powerful commercial implications, is no more than an astute creation of salesmanship.
The old man would have understood. He understood fashion. Dismissing “men who wear khadi but in all other things indulge their taste for foreign manufactures with a vengeance,” he declared in 1931, “They are simply following fashion.” A less profiteering form of Gandhigiri explained his popularity among English liberals and prompted a verse in that Bible of the fashionable left, the New Statesman and Nation, that C.F. Andrews cited, “Hitler with his Brown Shirts, riding for a fall/ Mussolini with his Black Shirts, back against the wall/ De Valera with his Green Shirts, caring not at all,/ Three cheers for Mahatma Gandhi, with no shirt at all.”
It would be grossly unfair to dismiss all Gandhians — there are reportedly 43,870 groups worldwide — as people with an eye on the main chance. But it is entirely appropriate that many of those who have been in ecstasies recently over the satyagraha centenary and the October 2 anniversary should focus not on Gandhi’s concept of the village but on the fun and frolic of a paunchy, ageing sleazy-eyed “hero” of the Hindi screen.
That wise, old cinema guru, S.S. Vasan, once told me, as we chatted in his Gemini Studios in what was then Madras, that a successful film should have something for the heart, something for the ears, something for the eyes and a little something for the mind. Bengali films flopped, Vasan claimed (this was in the Sixties), because there was too much for the brain and not enough to see, hear and feel. Films from Bombay — no Mumbai then and even if the term Bollywood had been coined, it was not widely used — catered to the heart and even more lavishly for the ears and eyes but offered little food for thought. If Lage Raho Munnabhai’s runaway success is any guide, the formula hasn’t changed much.
Let me hasten to admit before that heresy raises hackles that I watch a Hindi or Bengali film only on the rare occasion when I sense some larger relevance. The relevance this time, I thought, was not that Rajkumar Hirani’s preposterously unreal but hilariously funny fantasia spreads Gandhi’s teachings but that it demonstrates how easily Indians are moved by tear-jerking sentiment amidst the splurge of song, dance and colour that is Bollywood at its best.
Whether or not it wins an Oscar, Lage Raho Munnabhai is beguiling entertainment. The principal characters are brilliant but only as caricatures, with Lucky, Circuit and Munna colourfully illustrating the effectiveness of reductio ad absurdum. A phantom Gandhi, uttering pieties and platitudes in the quavering voice that Bollywood and TV serials reserve for gurus and godmen, nicely sets off the song-and-dance extravaganza. But it has no bearing on the Mahatma’s ideas on modernization or whether these are still relevant to globalizing India.
I can think of many significant Gandhian themes. There is his 1909 message that “the railways, telegraphs, hospitals, lawyers, doctors and suchlike all have to go and the so-called upper classes have to live consciously the simple life of a peasant.” There was the anguished refusal of Ranjit Chetsingh, a leading Indian Quaker, to participate in the World Pacifist Congress “when that great pacifist Gandhi is exhorting the Indian troops in Kashmir to be prepared to die for their country.” There was his rebuke to socialites, who rose from “overloaded breakfast tables” in “spacious bungalows” and drove to the poor in “posh cars”, dangling “stylish vanity bags” from their wrists. To even mention such complexities in the context of a frothy film is to insult the Mahatma.
Apparently, that didn’t occur to the starstruck Sheila Dixit, whose confusion of medium with message set the ball rolling. But Gandhigiri has not prompted anyone to obey Munna’s instruction to knock down statues and put away pictures (“A church does not need a building”, Gandhi wrote) and enshrine his memory only in their hearts. The absolving and curative therapy of puja demands deities. Puja also produces profit.
The film has rollicking lines. Someone can recollect the Mahatma only as the chap on currency notes. Someone else identifies him as the father of Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. The man himself once pronounces Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi with an amusing “English” twang. Most Indians put on a bit of an accent in a Western milieu. There’s no reason to think that the Middle Temple barrister in starched collar and frock coat, the first outstanding NRI, was any different.
Richard Symonds, an English Quaker relief worker in whom Gandhi took an avuncular interest, recalls the “simple and charming scenes taken from Gandhi’s autobiography” among the murals outside Birla House. One showed him wearing a tail-coat and playing a violin. In another, he is “dancing with a lady of dubious respectability.” They were removed because some politicians thought they were disrespectful. “It was sad to see the Mahatma treated with such ponderous lack of imagination,” Symonds lamented. Those same people will scream “Sacrilege!” if one says Lage Raho Munnabhai is great entertainment but no more. Yet, they see no impropriety in cashing in on Gandhi’s name with the connivance of self-seeking state leaders to inflate box office takings.
Among them might be the “portly visiting businessmen” Symonds encountered at the Sabarmati ashram, where the communal meals were so bland that these visitors might be found “stoking up secretly behind bushes on biscuits and chocolates sold by cycling pedlars who would also purvey illicit cigarettes.” They — or their successors — trot out the film’s lofty fall-out.
Sanjay Dutt now understands the “value” of Gandhi Jayanti. People are again tying rakhis on a banyan Gandhi planted. With the small push of a $1 million fund from Switzerland’s Volkart Foundation, khadi has become stylish. But it’s not your common or garden homespun that designers like Rohit Bal and David Abraham or high-flying entrepreneurs like Rajeev Sethi and the princely Martand Singh are promoting. Gandhi’s “They are simply following fashion” might have to be revised to “following and creating” fashion. Under their patronage, fine khadi in rainbow colours might blossom into one of the world’s more desirable — and expensive — fabrics. For Gandhi, khadi was not an end in itself but “the first indispensable step towards the discharge of swadeshi dharma towards society.” Quality didn’t matter. When women complained that it was coarse and unattractive, he replied he had never known a mother throw away her baby because it was ugly.
Gandhi tried to stop the recuperating Symonds — whom he had nursed in Birla House for a month — leaving for Calcutta. Symonds protested that Bengal was his second home. “Exactly,” Gandhi replied, “You and your fellow Bengalis will weep over each other, and you will eat too much and have a relapse.” He was “a great tease” according to his friend, Agatha Harrison, secretary of the India Conciliation Group in London.
Among the galaxy of speakers — Lord Mountbatten, Philip Noel Baker, Dame Sybil Thorndike and others — at a meeting in London’s Friends House to observe the centenary of his birth in 1969 was a quiet man who had been the Yeravda jailer. He told us how a paste of a brown powder, milk and water that Gandhi produced cured the severe stomach ailment he was suffering from. When the overjoyed jailer asked what it was, Gandhi was at first reluctant to tell him. Pressed, he finally replied, “It is cow dung.” Gandhi lived and died before the age of designer medicines, designer babies, designer khadi or designer Gandhism. The last is called Gandhigiri, and it’s a damn lucrative business.