GANDHI (Dir. Richard Attenborough, 1982, India/UK) – ‘Hey Ram!’


David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of my favourite films. It is a sprawling biopic in which the film’s grasp of history and politics is problematic to say the least. But Lean gives us some of the most poetic images committed to celluloid; a rousing spectacle that compensates for what is a dubious account of T.E. Lawrence’s exotic exploits. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was long in gestation, coming to fruition in the early 1980s, an Indo-British co-production which involved the NFDC at the behest of PM Indira Gandhi. Gandhi was an unusual project since the remit the NFDC had cultivated over the years was exclusively indigenous but this meant for the first time the NFDC worked in tandem with an external international body, GoldCrest Films, a British production company with ties to Channel Four. The film is populated by a plethora of Parallel Cinema faces while Govind Nihalani directed the second unit. It is certainly true that Gandhi would probably never have been made without the endorsement of the Indian government but one can only wonder what a filmmaker like Shyam Benegal or Mrinal Sen would have done with the project. Although Richard Attenborough had long pursued the dream of making a film on Gandhi, the final film was a resounding international success story, garnering many Oscars and a favourable critical response.

While the figure of Gandhi has been immortalised in many films, it has now become a revisionist task for film historians since the story of Gandhi continues to remain tentative. Attenborough’s Gandhi has become a significant point of reference for those who may be unfamiliar with the man. There is no denying Attenborough’s view of British colonialism is an accessible, populist representation of Gandhi’s achievements made palatable for a broad audience. However, the film is both inert in terms of its cinematic storytelling and simplistic historicising. Attenborough is so enamoured by the mythology of Gandhi, his view of history is disconcertingly linear in which equally influential political leaders like Nehru and Jinnah come away as ineffectual caricatures. Also amiss is the lack of focus on the ordinary people of the Quit India movement, the millions who were part of a seismic passive movement and the many who also gave their lives to the cause. Attenborough’s is an abridged history of modern India, cataloguing Swadeshi, Gandhi’s ascension, the end of British rule, the holocaust of Partition, to name a few. The calamity of trying to film history is the burden of history itself, which in this case is too much for Attenborough and his writers to studiously traverse.

While the defining gestalt is Ben Kingsley’s legendary performance, the film’s overblown critical reputation, much like Attenborough’s directorial career, can partly be attributed to the ambivalent critical halo of Oscardom. If anything Gandhi was the film that helped to revive the commercial fortunes of the NFDC that in turn led to a production and distribution surge in Indian Parallel Cinema. Although the term epic is often used to describe Attenborough’s film, it lacks both an emotional intimacy and cinematic zeal that Lean conjures so superbly for Lawrence of Arabia. It is not Attenborough’s linear view of history that is the problem, potentially a charge that can be levied at most films dealing with historical events, but a boring, inert and flat style of filmmaking that leads to a parochial, if not preachy, biographical tone. There probably never will be a definitive film on Gandhi and we do not need one as his legacy and story is one that is continually being fought over by historians, a site of ideological contestation so to speak. Contemporary films have been made on the topic of Gandhi notably Shyam Benegal’s The Making of a Mahatma (1996) and Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram (2000), both brilliant films in their own way while a populist film like Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) evokes the ubiquity of Gandhi to great satirical effect.

ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2012, US) – Cowboys and Indians

Ben Affleck as CIA agent Tony Mendez.

Argo opens with a glib lesson in shoddy Hollywood political objectivity, attempting to tell us that the geopolitical situation of Iran during the American Embassy hostage siege had its demonic seeds in the history of American interventionism. It is one of the few moments in the entire film that we witness a fleeting, if not grudging, attempt at political introspection. Ben Affleck’s latest directorial venture removes him from the geographical comforts of Boston but does political necessarily indicate a growing up in Hollywood cinema? It certainly has been the case with previous liberally inclined film stars turned directors such as Robert Redford and George Clooney. This growing up from traditional Hollywood film genres to more obscure, difficult and problematic material seems to mark some kind of a painfully superficial transition from an isolationist view of American life to broader transnational politics. Yet the sanitised liberal intentions including the serious subject matter, political context, 1970s period, extended conversation sequences and mixing of visual styles merely propagates a view that the ideological construction of such materials is what makes Argo a historically accurate representation of what is a true story. The problem that many of these so-called Hollywood political thrillers face is that by suppressing accurate and fair political content and context, those doing the re-presenting, namely Americans, engineer a historically biased discourse framed against current anti-Iranian sentiments that are regularly propagated by much of the benign mainstream media. No filmmaker has an obligation to be objective but surely every filmmaker has an obligation to be responsible in the way they represent a nation that is already undergoing a steady process of demonization by the western media. 

Argo fails on a number of political accounts, misrepresenting Iran and the Islamic revolution through a distant gaze that refuses to give the Iranian people an authentic or credible voice and instead disembodies them so their rage merges with familiar news imagery of state repression, executions, fanaticism and religious ideology. The Islamic revolution was a populist one and had widespread support amongst ordinary Iranians yet in the film, Khomeini and the new establishment are viewed with suspicion, derision and contempt by the American liberal gaze. Additionally, the refusal to fully explain the context of the Iran hostage crisis and what the Americans were actually doing in the Embassy smacks of selective amnesia. The mere suggestion of the Americans acting as spies in the Embassy is ridiculed and quickly rendered obsolete. However, by having the Iranians adopt this point of view makes them appear doubly paranoid and simply chasing a blood lust. In Rambo: First Blood Part II, John Rambo’s rescuing of POWs from a communist prison camp not only resurrected the spectre of the Vietnam War but his total annihilation of the landscape and its people saw a fictional re-enactment of having won a war America had lost. Such fantasy wish fulfilment resurfaces in Argo. The covert rescue operation mounted with the approval of Jimmy Carter in 1980 resulted in failure, resulting in the deaths of eight Americans and one Iranian. A film like Argo helps to conceal such political failures of the past, reconstituting American history and its humanist people working for the most morally deplorable of institutions (The CIA) as triumphalist, heroic and somewhat more liberal than those pesky gun totting incomprehensible Iranians. 

Even more worrying are the final titles, juxtaposing real photos of the event against stills taken from the film so that any questions to do with the truth, reality and authenticity are rendered almost invisible to the ordinary spectator. One leaves the cinema with the message that this is an accurate representation of a true story and categorically stating that Americans and the West are the good guys. But are we really?

LAND AND FREEDOM (Dir. Ken Loach, 1995, UK/Spain/Germany/Italy) – Transformative Political Cinema

The POUM militia – The Workers Party of Marxist Unification.
‘Come, join in the only battle wherein no man can fail,

Where whoso fadeth and dieth, yet his deed shall still prevail.’

The cinema of Loach is transformative. What this means is that his way of looking at reality, which is through a leftist internationalist political prism, is one that can alter the manufactured and largely consensual reality of the spectator who has been normalised into adopting apolitical conformist ideology. So much of mainstream cinema is intrinsically connected to the idea of the market that dissent is suppressed in favour of maintaining a derisory status quo in which materialistic ideals are aggressively promoted as a mass aspiration. Some mainstream filmmakers and industries justify the transparent propagation of the market as entertainment for the masses because apparently film should be viewed as an escapist and sensory medium. Such an obviously conformist position points to a cowardice and subjugation that is implicit in the way a film is produced, marketed and celebrated in the media at large. Any kind of political critique can rarely occur in the same space in which the film is celebrated because the media and subsequently film discourse tends to be patented by an infectious and at times myopic Euro centric agenda. What this means is that limited ways of thinking about certain films, genres and narratives circulate, thus political cinema specifically becomes obfuscated so much that its absence from critical discourse makes it appear unimportant and insignificant to the common perceptions of film. The worst kind of mainstream Hollywood cinema seems to give the impression of empowering the spectator when in fact it is asking us to obey and validate wider ideological ideals that contradict our own criticisms of the market. The film spectator is not merely gazing but fully participating in the spectacle of the market by maintaining the processes, thus transforming spectatorship into a secondary narrative that mirrors the fictional one. It seems almost sacrilege to accuse postmodern mashup artists such as Quentin Tarantino of dissolving ideology and rendering it obsolete because their work have become embedded within the history of film as beatnik bricolage, which means his films are hip yet apparently sophisticated given the depth of the intertextual discourse on display for our instantaneous diverted spectator like minds to savour. And savour we do, with the instantaneous preoccupations of a YouTube browser. If the market dictates what kinds of films are made and which are distributed then where exactly does Ken Loach fit in this corporatist universe? 

To begin with, filmmakers who usually have something overly political to articulate as part of an on going participatory discourse find it virtually impossible to work in the mainstream because of market regulations – this means that iconoclasm can only exist in a designated vacuum aimed at supposedly marginalised tastes. Another mismatch when it comes to political filmmakers is that they are usually middle class. The political disconnect between someone as middle class as Loach propagating politics of the working class left to a predominately middle class audience is usually a class dialectic that critics are quick to acknowledge in an attempt to skew the argument or to throw in doubt the true intentions of the director. It might actually be more accurate to propose that if Alan Clarke understands the psychology of the working class then Loach understands the politics of such psychology. Is Ken Loach the only British filmmaker to have been able to make a film about the revolutionary militia that took up arms against the fascist takeover of a democratically elected socialist government in Spain? He might be alone in having achieved such a political feat but he has done so on his terms and with collaborator Jim Allen, the film is resolutely political in its entire being. In the context of the market and mainstream cinema, Land and Freedom proves a critical point: transformative cinema functions on the intrinsic relationship between history and politics. The historical context is Spain in the 1930s and the conflict between socialism and fascism may seem likely candidates for points of ideological discussion but Loach politicises the narrative by training his gaze on the internal power struggle that occurred within the communist party of Spain. Additionally and perhaps most importantly the film internationalises the POUM’s revolutionary ideals as a Marxist class struggle. By opening and ending in Liverpool, the story of David Carr (Ian Hart) is interconnected through a working class solidarity that transcends nationality, culture and identity. Upon hearing a talk about the POUM in Liverpool, David volunteers to join the people’s army in Spain. The narrative charts David’s journey as part of the international brigades and his eventual face to face confrontation with Stalinist opposition to the militia, leading to the death of Blanca – a symbol of Marxist ideology. Ken Loach has argued that the rise of fascism was a direct result of Europe’s failure to stand up to Franco. The POUM was a true Marxist group betrayed by Stalinist propaganda, thus sealing the fate of an entire generation. The final reading of a poem by William Morris titled ‘The Day is Coming’, suggests that although the POUM were unsuccessful in their revolutionary aims of collectivism, political integrity and the refusal to compromise are aspects of a dissident ideology that should be celebrated in today’s largely apolitical apathetic society.

BOSE: THE FORGOTTEN HERO (Dir. Shyam Benegal, 2005, India) – ‘Chalo Delhi!…’

Revolutionary, leader, politician, humanist, socialist, Marxist, communist; Subhas Chandra Bose was a remarkable figure in the struggle for India’s independence. Director Shyam Benegal’s exceptionally researched historical biopic has an undeniably epic sweep complemented by a towering central performance from the wonderfully talented Marathi actor Sachin Khedekar – it is a faultless and charismatic turn by Khedekar exuding a defiance constantly expressed through his impassioned voice. Had Benegal not been at the helms of this project it is more than likely casting would have been a point of conflict for any other director up against the cynical economics of the box office. In a way, casting is what ultimately compromises the sincerity of recent historical films including Jodha-Akbar and Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey – both had the potential to be great films but the emotional and cinematic baggage brought by mainstream stars (who are weak actors) jeopardises audience engagement. If you are going to make a historical film that should be both didactic and entertaining then cast it properly even if this means turning to non professional actors. Of course the problem with this scenario for a producer is that the film may fail commercially but sometimes it is worth taking a risk so that the material does not lose its creative integrity.

However, the danger Benegal seems to have faced with dramatising the extraordinary intricacies of Bose’s learned life is a continuous deference to the performance of Khedekar who appears in virtually every scene. The film steers clear off providing a complete overview of Bose’s career, leaving some personal aspects including his childhood and the formative relationship with Gandhi in the background, and by focusing on what are the most controversial years of his life Benegal constructs a narrative dominated by the politics of revolutionary struggle. The emphasis on ideological debate makes this more of a political film than a conventional biopic and whilst the very nature of the subject matter cannot fail to adhere to some of the more crowd pleasing elements of the biopic genre, namely drawn out speeches and epic crowd scenes, the ideological significance of bringing the story of Bose to film and governing an authentic voice for him is immeasurably an achievement in itself.

Admittedly, much has written about Bose now and his position in the history of India’s fight for independence has become a point of celebration today. Benegal’s regular scriptwriter and collaborator Shama Zaidi approaches the narrative in three distinctly structured parts. The first part explores his escape from British house arrest in Bengal, entering Afghanistan and finally arriving in Kabul under the identity of a Pathan. Affectionately known as ‘Netaji’ (Respected Leader) by his friends, the first part also gives us an insight into his family life in Calcutta whilst the political threat he posed to the British establishment remained more volatile and revolutionary in its ideological stance than Gandhi’s passive position. Bose believed that India’s independence could only been achieved through violent uprising and an open call to arms; independence had to be absolute and not waged through protracted negotiation with the powers that be. In many ways, his hope of an intellectual awakening amongst those Indian soldiers subjugated by the British Empire fails to transpire. Instead, the Indian National Army that he attempts to build into a mighty military force with a strong ideological agenda falls apart and he duly acknowledges that perhaps Gandhi’s belief in civil disobedience was ultimately the most moral and just path to achieving an independence that could be regarded as dignified.

In Part Two, Bose finds political and military sympathy from the Germans, Italians and mostly notably the Japanese who encourage the expansion of an Indian National Army that could potentially be used as a force of liberation. In Nazi Germany, Bose meets with Adolf Hitler and though he denounces their racist policies he sees the liberation of India as the ultimate goal, thus in a way temporarily tolerating the Nazis to build a political platform for propagating the desperate need for a national army. His time in Europe also sees him falling in love with his personal secretary, the Austrian born Emilie Schenkl, whom he marries and has a daughter with. The endless meetings underline the lengthy negotiations and discussions that went on with both the Germans and Japanese in terms of granting political recognition to Bose’s make shift Indian government in exile. For me, Part Two is the most ideologically fascinating as it does not shy away from exploring the dubious political relationships Bose forms with both the Nazi Party and the Japanese, implying he was willing to forge uncertain political alliances so that the aims of achieving independence could be met at any cost.

With the escalation of World War II, the early promises of full military and political support never transpire and this forms the final part of the film, examining in detail the attempt to put together a formidable army and push through Burma to arrive in India. Whilst Bose’s dream of complete independence through military opposition ends sourly, it is the inspirational refusal to compromise both politically and personally that imprints itself on the conscience of the Indian people. It is still not clear how Bose exactly died. Whilst many argue he was killed in a plane crash due to a technical fault, some say he was assassinated and others contest he went into hiding. Benegal opts to reiterate the stance that Bose was killed in a plane crash but the film seems to hint at the possibility of a political assassination orchestrated by unnamed nation(s). Bose’s death is surrounded in mystery and deserves to examined in length in another film whilst on another point the life of Bose would arguably work well as a documentary.

I’m not so sure if this is one of Benegal’s greatest achievements but I do feel that Indian cinema as a whole needs to continue making films of such historical importance as it not only revisits the struggle for independence but constructs history through indigenous eyes. Benegal is supported by a cast and crew representing some of the finest talent in the industry, including stunning cinematography by Santosh Sivan and V. Manikandan, editing by Sreekar Prasad, lyrics by Javed Akhtar, costumes by Pia Benegal, a solid supporting cast, and of course A. R. Rahman’s moving soundtrack made up of 19 tracks including instrumentals. The song that sores is ‘Azadi’ which is sung beautifully by Rahman and patriotically rendered by the pen of Javed Akhtar. Oddly enough for such a prestigious picture that received international acclaim, it is very difficult track down a copy of the film on DVD. However, it is regularly and encouragingly shown on some of the Asian TV channels. I do hope a distributor is brave enough to pick this one up one day and give it a proper 2 Disc release including a making of and interviews with the cast and crew as it deserves a much wider audience and appreciation from film academia.