Mahatma and Quaid-e-Azam

February 5 2012

Mahatma: Life of Gandhi 1869-1948, a documentary, all five hours and ten minutes of it. It makes Attenborough look revisionist. Script, commentary and direction by Vithalbhai Jhaveri. Produced by The Gandhi National Memorial Fund in cooperation with the Films Division of the Government of India in 1968.

It is strange to hear that Gandhi read the Bhagavad Gita for the first time towards the end of 1889 in London while reading for the Bar, and in the translation, or poetic rendering, of an Englishman, Edwin Arnold, the author of The Light of Asia. It is true: Gandhi admits it in his autobiography. He had read it neither in Sanskrit nor in his native Gujarati. He read it alongside the original, but he knew English better than Sanskrit.

Whatever his knowledge of other Indian literature, wasn’t this an instance of what Toynbee called the “ordeal” of living between two cultures which was the fate of members of nineteenth-century intelligentsias? As it is the fate now of many British children and grandchildren of immigrants from the subcontinent?

Sergei Bondarchuk’s seven-hour War and Peace, another state-produced megafilm, but one of a higher imaginative order, was released in Russia between 1965 and ’67.

Jinnah, an acted film, so in a way a response to Attenborough. Less than two hours. Directed by Jamil Dehlavi, written by Akbar S Ahmed and Jamil Dehlavi and released in 1998 in the UK and Pakistan. Produced by Akbar Salahuddin Ahmed. Starring Christopher Lee as Jinnah, Shashi Kapoor as the narrator, James Fox as Mountbatten, Maria Aitken as Mountbatten’s wife Edwina.

It was a success in Pakistan at least, “a place”, according to Salman Rushdie in Shame, “insufficiently imagined”. (A brilliant phrase, but some Pakistanis probably find it patronising.)

Mahatma means Great Soul in Sanskrit, Quaid-e-Azam Great Leader in Urdu.

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