It was apparently, a remark by late prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru against portraying Gandhi as a saint, that gave celebrated film maker Richard Attenborough a new direction to the Oscar-winning biopic Gandhi, says well known political theorist and Gandhian scholar Bhikhu Parekh.
London-based Parekh, who is former vice-chancellor of the MS University of Baroda, is a life peer in the House of Lords and is currently visiting home in Vadodara. It was Attenborough’s meeting with Nehru in connection with the biopic, in early 1960s that “changed the character of the film,” actor-director Attenborough, who served as the founder president of the Gandhi Foundation, had once told Parekh.
He has been with Attenborough in the Gandhi Foundation as its vice-president, and then president. The Gandhi Foundation is a UK-based voluntary organisation formed to spread the work and message of Mahatma Gandhi through various educational events and activities.
It was formed in October 1983 by Richard Attenborough, after his movie Gandhi won accolades all over the world and was praised for sensitive portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi by Ben Kingsley. The Foundation organises annual lectures and publishes a newsletter, The Gandhi Way. It also gives Gandhi International Peace Award, with actress Shabana Azmi and social worker Binayak Sen being its two Indian recipients.
Parekh told The Indian Express that while planning the movie Gandhi, Richard went to see Jawaharlal Nehru who told him all kinds of stories about his association with Gandhiji and showed him 100s of photographs, asking him to make a good movie. “Richard even asked him to inaugurate the movie. After the meeting, when Richard was leaving, he heard somebody shouting his name, asking him to stop. It was Panditji.
Panditji said, “Richard, whatever you do, don’t turn him into a saint. He (Gandhi) was much too human and complex to be a saint,” Parekh said. He added how during the filming of the movie, there was always a tendency to portray him into a saint, something that Attenborough resisted, recalling the words of Jawaharlal Nehru.
Attenborough succumbed to weak health on Sunday night at the age of 90, and Parekh learnt of it from a phone call he received from the Foundation at 2 am on Sunday. “It changed the character of my film,” Parekh recalled Attenborough as having said to him. “In the movie, Gandhi emerges as a great man who has his mistakes and doesn’t cease to be a human — against the tendency to make him a saint.”
The film, in which Ben Kingsley played the role of Gandhi, went on to win eight Oscar awards, including best picture, best director for Attenborough, and best actor for Ben Kingsley. Parekh was elected the vice-president of the Gandhi Foundation in 1991-92, and was elected its president in 2011 after Attenborough fell in his bath and broke his back, then suffered attack of dementia and said he could no longer continue to the post.
He recalled Attenborough as a person with a wonderful sense of English humour, generosity of spirit, and a great sense of injustice. “Which is why he decided to make a film of Gandhi,” he said, recalling how Richard loved India and visited here often. He also shared how Attenborough came to his rescue after he was attacked by certain quarters for describing in detail Gandhi’s experiment with celibacy, which have been construed by some as sexual abuse of women involved in the experiment.
In his 1989 book, Colonialism, Tradition and Reform, Parekh described this episode in great detail for which he was called “Hindu Rushdie,” as writer Salman Rushdie was during the same time under attack by Muslim fundamentalists for his book, Satanic Verses.
“People opposing this went to meet Richard to complain against the chapter in my book. Richard defended me in no uncertain terms, saying them that whatever Parekh wrote was done with great sensitivity and there was nothing wrong in it. People even asked him, then why didn’t you include it in your movie? He said in order to show it accurately in the movie, he would have required at least 20-25 minutes, and no film could have given him so much time. The depth and complexity of the episode is hard to explain in a movie,” Parekh said.