A still from the 1957-film Naya Daur.
Title: A Gandhian Affair: India's Curious Portrayal of Love in Cinema
Author: Sanjay Suri
Publication: HarperCollins India
Pages: 256 pages
HOWEVER hard it may remain to capture him, from Dandi to Howdy, it’s hard to escape Mahatma Gandhi. Journalist Sanjay Suri’s A Gandhian Affair acknowledges this timing upfront, calling the book “a history of India through the preoccupations of its cinema under the spell of the Mahatma”, to mark his 150th-anniversary last year.
It's an interesting premise, and what better prism than Bollywood to render reality into any colour you want it to be? It’s not the first instance of the world’s largest film industry’s movies or songs being analysed to reflect the times they belonged to. Suri looks hard and long, and eventually harder and longer, to decipher Gandhi in them.
In the immediate years after Independence, this is an easy sell, with Bollywood’s protagonists invariably poor, morally upright, and consciously sacrificial -- vowing off both wealth and sex, as Suri underlines. But as the years pass, the argument is stretched thin and frays, even over the book’s slim length of 200-odd pages -- a fact Suri too seems to realise, rushing through what he calls the “Mahatma-to-Manmohan (as in Singh, not Desai)” transition.
Suri builds his case laboriously, sometimes marking the evolution of Bollywood in decades, sometimes in heroes, sometimes in songs, sometimes in politics, but more or less coming back repeatedly to its treatment of wealth and sex. As Suri observes, rather sharply, the films on which Gandhi loomed the largest, given their proximity to 1947, are more concerned with his moral message than his political message. Hence, the disdain for money and intimacy. Films like Naya Daur, in their conflict of the machine in the form of the bus versus the human factor in the form of the tonga, explore the Nehru vs Gandhi dichotomy on the question of the economic path the country should take.
Blank vertical book template.
It's only with the 1970s and the emergence of Amitabh Bachchan's angry young man, Suri argues, that Bollywood engages with Gandhi at a more political level -- interpreting that even he justified violence over tolerating injustice. After the forgettable 1980s, come the 1990s, and Shah Rukh Khan. Here, by now comfortable with wealth and even some amount of sex and desire, Bollywood clutches Gandhi by reiterating the hero's intrinsic "Indianness", especially if he happens to be an NRI.
It's when he is not trying to justify the title of the book that Suri makes his most acute points: about how India has never really cared for its abject poor but made heroes out of those who "give up" wealth to embrace poverty; about nothing announcing "worse than average poverty" as an unshaven look; about Bollywood producing "the most accident-prone heroes", "the largest number of orphans", rich-poor swaps and bathrooms with unlatched doors; about its heroines often being more "forward", but ending up being around only to show up the heroism of the men in giving them up; about Guru Dutt being both “personification of idealised defeat and defeated ideals”; and about Bollywood finding its way around censors through songs and their risque lyrics.
Of the last, while a description of Geeta Bali's ensemble as “concentric circles from the pinnacle of her blouse carry the print, and the point, of her seductive sexuality”, demands a quick search through Google images (Suri is bang on), another elaboration, “The hero preserves his resistance to wealth like a hymen” may have you wincing.
Any which way, you are guaranteed never to see many of your beloved songs the same way ever again. Or to forget that if on one side was Gandhi, on the other, in many of these films, stood Pran. His villainous run lasted approximately from 1942 to 1991. Some would argue Gandhi died long before.