The Mahatma Gandhi Imprint: A look at India's cinematic muse down the ages

Mumbai: Mahatma Gandhi minced no words for his disdain for cinema, describing it as a "corrupting influence", but his imprint on celluloid has been indelible and varied, going from shades of black and white to technicolour.

Gandhi, whose beliefs inspired an entire school of thought, influenced films down many decades, some based on his life, others on the values he inspired in society and many in which he's the silent backdrop -- literally a picture on the wall -- to the hero's moral conflict.

From "Jagriti" in 1954 to "Lage Raho Munnabhai" in 2006, the arc is long.

Hindi poet Kavi Pradeep eulogised Gandhi in the "Jagriti" song, "De di azadi hamein bina khadag, bina dhaal, sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal' (You gave us freedom without using any weapons, o saint of Sabarmati, you are great), words which underscore reverence for the man and still reverberate.

Other films of the era recall the complex idealism that Gandhi represented. The 1957 Dilip Kumar starrer "Naya Daur" deals with the man versus machine debate. And V Shantaram's "Do Ankhen Barah Haath", released the same year, focuses on the rehabilitation of six criminals by a humane jail warden.

More recently, "Lage Raho Munnabhai" gave new meaning to "Gandhigiri" through the story of a simple-hearted goon who finds guidance in Gandhi's teachings.

Indian heroes until the 1980s were modelled on Gandhian ideology, taking up the torch of socialism, fighting oppression and abstaining from materialistic pursuits such as money and sex, according to Sanjay Suri, journalist and author of "A Gandhian Affair: India's Curious Portrayal of Love in Cinema".

"The hero must mandatorily be shown to face wealth to then turn away from it. He must be shown to face sexual possibilities to then turn away from these two. In this double about-turn lies his heroism," Suri writes.

There is an entire genre of films based on chapters from Gandhi's life. The most famous -- and most successful -- is Richard Attenborough's 1983 Oscar winner "Gandhi" with Ben Kingsley in the central role.

While "Gandhi" takes a sweeping view of Gandhi's life, right till his assassination, many films have chosen to focus on specific phases.

In "Gandhi, My Father", Khan dwells on the troubled relationship between Gandhi and his eldest son Harilal. Shyam Benegal's "The Making of the Mahatma" focuses on his South Africa years.

There are other films in which Gandhi plays a prominent role -- "The Legend Of Bhagat Singh", "Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero", "Viceroy's House" and the TV show "Samvidhaan" being some of them.

Various actors have played the man. Darshan Jariwala ("Gandhi, My Father"), Surendra Rajan ("The Legend Of Bhagat Singh", "Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose: The Forgotten Hero", "The Last Days Of The Raj" and web show "Bose: Dead/Alive), Neeraj Kabi ("Viceroy's House" and "Samvidhaan"), Rajit Kapoor ("The Making of the Mahatma") and Dilip Prabhavalkar ("Lage Raho Munnabhai").

Naseeruddin Shah, who played Gandhi in "Hey Ram", has written about his efforts to get Kingsley's role in his autobiography "And Then One Day".

"I later deducted that Ben had in fact already been cast as Gandhi and this whole process of tom-tomming all of us being tested and sneaking the news to the press in India that I had been chosen was a masquerade conducted to pre-empt objections that inevitably would have arisen if a white actor were announced straightway," Shah wrote.

In a 1926 article in Young India, Gandhi wrote that German papers accused him promoting a film company when he had never even been to a cinema. He said he refused to be "enthused about it and waste God-given time in spite of pressure sometimes used by kind friends".

"They tell me it has an educational value. It is possible that it has. But its corrupting influence obtrudes itself upon me every day. Education, therefore, I seek elsewhere," he wrote.

Gandhi watched just a few film in his life, including Vijay Bhatt's "Ram Rajya" in the 1940s.

According to Khan, Gandhi was against the "escapist" nature of movies and would have changed his opinion had he lived longer and seen biographies.

"He was a biography person. He wanted people to get inspired by great lives and do something interesting in their own. He did not want people to escape from life, he wanted them to confront life," Khan told PTI.

Benegal said his 1996 film "The Making of the Mahatma" is about Gandhi's process of understanding things and the story of his evolution.

"I do believe Gandhi's influence has been very profound on Indians. It may not necessarily show on the surface but somewhere it has to do with the idea of compassion, a sense of humanity," Benegal added.

Rohini Hattangadi, who played Kasturba in "Gandhi", said she did not immediately understand the magnitude of the film.

"When I was selected for 'Gandhi', the first thing that came to mind was, 'What kind of a film will be made?'... After I got the role, I read his autobiography and realised, this is the life one should follow," Hattangadi told PTI.

Darshan Jariwala, who enacted the role of Gandhi in "Gandhi, My Father", believes the Mahatma's "basic anguish" on communalism, economic disparity and casteism are still valid.

"As a nation we tend to appropriate when convenient to us and when it is not, then we tend to justify it with some other philosophy. His basic anguish about Hindu Muslim unity still remains valid, his basic preaching against casteism still remains valid."

Also Read: Did you know? Mahatma Gandhi’s first film was made when he was alive