Champaran, a district in Bihar, is a pilgrimage destination only for researchers of India’s freedom struggle and die-hard Gandhians. A new play, Mohan Se Mahatma, gives an account of how Champaran transformed “Mr Gandhi from South Africa” and became the site for his first Satyagraha in 1917. The Pierrot’s Troupe production opened in Champaran on April 10, exactly 100 years after Gandhi arrived there. The first show in Delhi was held last week.
Tom Alter plays Gandhi, sitting on the floor and dressed in trademark white. The bulk of his actions is writing and thinking — yet Alter channels the leader powerfully through the hour-long production. The tilt of his head, the pursing of lips and the amused smile with which he observes his memories unfold on stage recalls the persona of Gandhi. “Gandhi was a dubla-patla Gujarati. My idea was not to mimic but to honour him. I wanted to show what he did in Champaran. He had no clue what was going on but he went and found out. He didn’t make some big speech and say, ‘Hum yeh karenge’. He came and solved the problem at the grassroots level,” says Alter
Alter, with an American-European ancestry, has been a veteran of firangi roles in Hindi cinema. The stage has stretched him wider. He has given textured performances as Maulana Azad in an eponymous play, essayed the poet of Persian, Munshi Har Gopal “Taftah”, in Ghalib Ke Khat, and the late psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in The Becoming Room, among others.
Repeatedly, he has returned to Gandhi. He has performed from his speeches, and played him in a play, Yadi, based on the premise that Gandhi is alive.“I was born in 1950, two years after Gandhi died. When we were growing up, he was all over the place. We saw him in all newspapers and news clips. I have a certain image of Gandhi in my mind The best thing about Mohan Se Mahatma is that it shows Gandhi’s fun side,” he says. His Gandhi teases and confesses, “I don’t remember Maulana’s sher. Urdu is very difficult for us Gujaratis.” “He had an impish sense of humour till the day he died,” says Alter.
M Sayeed Alam, who has scripted and directed the play, is the younger Gandhi. Comedy is his forte, seen in plays such as Ghalib in New Delhi and Chacha Chakkan Ke Karnamay. He, too, avoids a realistic depiction of Gandhi and presents an idea of him as a person out of his depth in a country he seeks to save but does not know. When struggling indigo farmers approach him, Gandhi confesses, “I do not have any idea about Champaran. Mujhe toh yeh bhi nahin malum ki Champaran Bharat ke nakshe mein kahan hai (I don’t even know where Champaran is situated on the map of India).” Alam delivers the line with a mix of wit and humility.
The play falters when it attempts a realistic portrayal of British officers, from the caterpillar sideburns to the dialogues in accented English. It is only the tight script, dotted with one-liners, which have come from My Experiments with Truth, that sustains the interest. “Main international se national hero banta ja raha hoon (I am becoming a national hero from an international one),” writes Gandhi in his autobiography. At another place, he says, “Main baniya hoon aur kuchh log chatur baniya bhi kehte hain. (I am a baniya and, some say, a shrewd baniya).”
Such as self-deprecating portrayal of Gandhi is rarely seen in the arts.“For me, the play helped to bring Gandhi out of the boxes we have put him in. He was much more than his spectacles and dhoti. Of course, Gandhi made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, Virat Kohli makes mistakes,” says Alter, a cricket addict who was a sports journalist for 25 years. He adds, “There is a strong attempt to rewrite history but a history that has never been written but actually happened, how can you rewrite that?”