Amit degree in Gandhi hall

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By AMIT ROY in Leeds
  • Published 10.06.07

Leeds, June 10: The “Great Hall” of Leeds Metropolitan University, where degree ceremonies are held, was yesterday renamed the “Gandhi Hall” so to establish an enduring relationship between India and Yorkshire.

The renaming took place at a solemn occasion when three of the best known practitioners of Indian cinema — Amitabh Bachchan, Shabana Azmi and Yash Chopra — had Honorary Doctors of Art conferred on them.

As the Bachchan-led almost presidential-style cavalcade swept into the university campus in bright early summer sunshine, there was the sense that this was a very special day in the life of the university.

Indeed, on behalf of the university it was later stated from the platform that there would be many other degree ceremonies for its 50,000 students but none which would be as important.

Bollywood — a word Bachchan never uses except to disparage it (he prefers “Indian cinema”) — is spreading its tentacles in the West because it is reaping ever richer financial rewards for all involved: the stars who have bought or hired apartments in London since they have to come so frequently for promotional trips; the distributors, exhibitors and multiplexes which find cars packed with Asian families turning up to enjoy whatever movie is thrown at them (and there are some pretty dire ones, mixed with some great ones); and the fans themselves who are bathing in reflected glory.

Yesterday’s ceremony, dignified, well-structured and genuinely moving, did something else, harder to quantify in profit and loss terms, but just as significant.

It bestowed further intellectual respectability on Indian, especially Hindi, cinema. And it also demonstrated that the native people of Yorkshire are more than willing to embrace Asian culture and must be genuinely mystified why some Muslim youths in their midst should choose to return their hospitality by turning to terrorism aimed at the very society which has welcomed them. Namak Haram would probably be the name of this film.

The university played on its name to put up posters which read: “When Leeds Met Indian Cinema.”

On such occasions, Bachchan, tall, elegant in his robes and perfectly spoken, is at his very best. — indeed he could be mistaken for a man who has spent his life in academia.

Invited to rename the hall officially, Bachchan strode to the lectern and intoned: “It touches us deeply that Leeds Metropolitan University has chosen to create a legacy of this IIFA visit to Yorkshire by renaming your Great Hall. It is my great honour as IIFA ambassador to announce that from this day forward this beautiful auditorium is to be known as the Gandhi Hall.”

Cut. It was a perfect take. There followed thunderous applause.

He added: “Mahatma Gandhi had said as human beings our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world as being able to remake ourselves.”

Yesterday, it was also announced that two new chairs would be set up: the IIFA Chair in Global Cinema, believed to be the first one of its kind to be dedicated to the study essentially of Hindi movies. No doubt, future research will uncover deep meanings in K3G and DDLJ which may have escaped even the makers of these two blockbusters.

The holder of the chair, for whom a search has already begun in Juhu and beyond, will probably be nicknamed “Professor for Bollywood Studies”.

The other, the India 60 Chair, will get going after the 60th anniversary of Indian independence is marked on August 15 this year.

This is the not the first honorary degree to be awarded to Bachchan. He had one conferred on him by De Montfort University in Leicester last year.

But this was a three-in-one cassata affair.

It did not have the Latin and the ceremonial processions that characterise such elaborate occasions in Oxford or Cambridge but it was, in some ways, more moving.

Here were the academics of Yorkshire plus leading figures from England’s largest county doing honour to three distinguished Indians. On the expanse of the wall beyond the platform where the dignitaries sat, the university had unfurled a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi. It was not just three film folk who were honoured yesterday but India.

After the formal part of the ceremony, Bachchan, Shabana and Yashji emerged into the grounds outside, sipped orange juice and happily faced scores of digital cameras.

Terry Hodgkinson, over six feet tall and chairman of the development agency, Yorkshire Forward, told the audience (and later The Telegraph) that he had seen Bachchan in Black — “and I couldn’t help it, I wept”.