The Making of the Mahatma: Gandhi before India

Last Updated: Tue, Oct 01, 2019 19:19 hrs

Shyam Benegal's 1996 biopic depicts Gandhi's metamorphosis from a shy barrister to a global figure

Once called the 'Father of the nation' by Subhash Chandra Bose, Mohandas K Gandhi has come to represent India to the world in more ways than one. Jan Smuts, a man who had once been an adversary to Gandhi when both were younger, had later said of him: "I have worn these sandals for many a summer, even though I may feel that I am not worthy to stand in the shoes of so great a man."

The sandals Smuts refers to were made by Gandhi himself and gifted to Smuts before Gandhi's return to India in 1914. The Indian barrister had spent over two decades in South Africa and his life and times there had left a deep mark on him.

This is the period of Gandhi's life that veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal chose to focus on in this 1996 movie. Based on the book 'The Apprenticeship of a Mahatma' by Fatima Meer, who also penned the screenplay, the film explores the 21 years that Gandhi spent in South Africa.

Meer, an intellectual, academic and activist herself, said Gandhi "was not a saint who dropped from the sky. He was a domineering personality and it was the experience in South Africa which led him to appreciate his own culture."

Most everyone knows the broad details of the story: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a young England-educated barrister-at-law then practising in Rajkot in Kathiawad is invited by an Indian firm in South Africa to handle their law-suit. His services are required for not more than a year, and he would be paid "a first class return fare and a sum of 105 Sterling Pounds, all found."

Gandhi left India for South Africa in April 1893. He went there on a purely professional visit and had no idea of the previous history of the Indian emigrants. But during the very first year he was a witness to and victim of unjust humiliation and racist hatred. The political and social repression of all Indians in South Africa, and especially the desperate condition of those who went as labourers on a system equivalent to indentured servitude, had made a deep and lasting impression on Gandhi. Labourers were dubbed'coolies' by the Europeans.

Like many immigrants, one of the first moves Gandhi makes is to unify is his 'own' lot. Indians living in South Africa at the time were a deeply splintered lot. From their many communal distrusts to the oppressive caste hegemony amongst the Indian diaspora in South Africa. In a perhaps funny moment in the film, Gandhi brings two litigious Muslim brothers together and uses the opportunity to continually mend relationships between warring groups even as his definition of his 'own' kept becoming. This seemingly repetitive exercise allowed a young Gandhi to, as Lincoln put it, 'destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.'

As events developed, Gandhi had no option but to plunge into a long drawn-out struggle against injustice. The movie's long runtime (144 minutes) allows a detailed exploration of Gandhi's inner struggles, his conflicts within his family, the development of his many ideological propositions, his cultural influences which ranged from his Hindu roots to his deliberative understanding of other faith traditions (in a touching moment in the film Gandhi finds encouragement in a verse from the Quran). The movie also does not detract from the many contradictions in the man. This is an unformed version of Gandhi; not quite a tabula rasa and yet not wholly a final rendition of the man. Another part the movie sheds considerable time on is Gandhi's experiences in the second Boer war.

Of the many screen renditions of Gandhi, particularly before the 21st century, were mostly in English. The most known of these was the singsong rhythm that Ben Kingsley adopted. As an antidote to the beatific vision of Gandhi, Rajit Kapur's rendition of the man in The Making of the Mahatma works wonderfully. He speaks his words in a no-nonsense style, the sort of thing a young British educated lawyer would have. Kapur employs the opportunity to play a younger Gandhi to show the man's stubborn and sometimes even cruel nature. He allows his performance to suffuse the young Gandhi with a sense of unsurety. This is not a beatific vision of the man but rather a process of becoming being witnessed. It has less in common with Richard Attenborough's Gandhi than it does with a Mr Smith goes to Washington.

Pallavi Joshi wonderfully portrays Gandhi's wife Kasturba. Viewers may be surprised to see the atypical portrayal of Kasturba as a strong and vocal woman as against the appearance of a quiet, subdued spouse. Benegal, "People get the impression that she was a doormat, but she was very much her own person, and a strong-willed woman. She got him to change his views, and he became a strong supporter of independent women." In a deeply moving scene, a very ill Kasturba refuses to take beef broth to liven up her health. Joshi and Kapur's chemistry reveals how Kasturba and Gandhi had managed, as immigrants, to keep their own religious identity alive without sacrificing the ecumenicism that they had come to love.

Benegal had said The Making of the Mahatma was an attempt to understand Gandhi's evolution, both personally and as a world leader.

"The film was about his process of understanding things, his learning. It is a story of his evolution, his own attempt not only to understand the world around him but also his relationships with other people and how people should treat each other within communities. Because he was in South Africa and faced racism, he learnt all this," he added.

Gandhi went to South Africa as a shy, tongue-tied, average little man whose past was full of failure. But almost a decade later, he was dubbed a 'great soul' even by his critics.

The Making of the Mahatma true strength is in watching a man before the arrival of his hour. The process of changing from 'Mohandas Gandhi' into 'Mahatma Gandhi' is followed with a sharp eye for the man's many failings.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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