Below is a direct excerpt from my book, Movies Based on True Stories. These are my comments on just one of over 400 movies assessed in the volume. Not all are as long as this particular critique, although a few (Titanic, Zulu and The Alamo, for example) may even be longer. I make no apologies for my views on Mr Gandhi, for they are derived from data obtained from several accounts by reputable writers and historians. When it comes to history’s ‘heroes’, as more and more information comes to light, there appears to be no shortage of clay feet. Time can indeed be a great leveller.
Richard Attenborough’s movie conveniently ignores the less savoury aspects of Gandhi’s life, most likely because the Indian Government financed about one third of the production. As part of the deal they were given permission to study every word of the script prior to and during shooting. The Gandhi depicted here is the champion of interracial equalitarianism, yet he was a ‘caste’ Hindu who took about thirty years before he finally campaigned against this abominable system of his native land.
During his time in South Africa he not only ignored the plight of black Africans, he actually volunteered to form an Indian Brigade during one of the Kaffir Wars to put down a Zulu rising. He was even decorated for valour during the conflict. At this time he wanted nothing more than to be a Soldier of the Queen, an ambition in direct opposition to the non-violent image that permeates this movie version of his life.
As a young man in Africa
Gandhi also did not become a pacifist until he was nearly fifty years old! Until then he could hardly wait to dash into any conflict at hand. The Kaffir Wars, the Boer War and World War One are evidence of this. In fact, he formed and would have commanded the Indian Volunteer Corps, had he not been struck down by pleurisy at a vital time. On another occasion he even blessed the Nawab of Maler Kotla when the man gave orders to shoot ten Muslims for every Hindu killed in his state. After independence in 1947, it was Gandhi that incorporated the state of Hyderabad by force and waged war in Kashmir on secessionist Pakistan. The movie blithely omits each of these events.
The picture also wants us to believe that he first used his ‘fast until death’ ploy as a protest over the slaughter of police constables by an Indian crowd. Not so. He first fasted to protest the 1931 British proposal to grant ‘Untouchables’ their own electorate. In essence he almost died opposing affirmative action for ‘Untouchables’. Indians killed fellow Indians (between one and four million of them) in the bloodletting following independence, simply on religious grounds. Gandhi, as the spiritual leader who fought for that independence, must shoulder most of the blame for this. His non-violent policy that worked so well against a Britain sensitive to questions regarding its morality, proved utterly useless when applied to violent individuals in his own nation. In fact, it can be convincingly argued that the only thing holding together the scores of bitterly opposed factions of Indian society for centuries was the stabilising influence of the British presence. Once the British were out of the picture these factions descended upon one another like a pack of wolves.
Gandhi’s solutions to the problems created by Hitler and the Japanese in World War Two were, to put it mildly, naïve bordering on ridiculous. In a personal letter to the Fuhrer, sent at the zenith of Germany’s victories in Europe, he asked him to embrace all mankind’ irrespective of race, colour or creed’. To Gandhi’s surprise (but no-one else’s) his plea went unanswered. He then proposed that India’s best strategy as the Japanese marched through Burma towards her borders, was to permit the invaders to take as much of India as they wished. By way of retaliation the population should, ‘make them feel unwanted’. It is difficult to believe that even Gandhi seriously expected this to work.
To the British people he penned an open letter advising them to capitulate to Hitler’s forces. ‘Let them take possession of your beautiful island with your many beautiful buildings’, he wrote. ‘You will give all these, but neither your souls, nor your minds’. Uh-huh. To the Viceroy of India after Dunkirk, he wrote, ‘This manslaughter must be stopped. You are losing; if you persist, it will only result in greater bloodshed. Hitler is not a bad man…’ To the Jews, Gandhi proposed collective suicide, the moral triumph of which would be remembered, he said, ‘for ages to come’. They should also pray for Hitler. When questioned after the war about this particular slice of brainless advice, he stuck by it, adding that the Jews died anyway, so in his view they might as well have died significantly.
During the movie much is made of his abhorrence of the industrial age, technology, modern inventions and so on. Throughout most of the second half of the picture we see him busily spinning away at his loom, presumably to impress us with his single-minded devotion to the simple life. But Gandhi seldom adhered to his own principles. He often used the telegraph and even broadcast over All-India Radio during his fasts. When it came time to choose India’s first Prime Minister he once again pocketed his principles and hand-picked Nehru, a man committed to a policy of industrialization complete with Five-Year Plans and all the trimmings.
Gandhi and his wife
Gandhi’s wife would eventually die because he refused to allow a British physician to administer penicillin to her. His ‘inner voice’ told him it was wrong to put unnatural substances in one’s body via an injection. Years later, his ‘inner voice’ had a change of heart, however, and he allowed doctors to give him quinine to save his life. Later still, he underwent the alien outrage of an appendectomy, performed by British surgeons, again to save his life. We assume injections were administered. He disowned his oldest son Harilal because the boy wanted to marry. Harilal rebelled against his father, both personally and in print, converted to Islam, took to women and booze with a vengeance and died an alcoholic in 1948. Gandhi’s second son was banished altogether for giving a small sum of money to his struggling older brother.
Gandhi attracted a hysterical following of pretty teenage girls who fought for the honour of sleeping naked with the great man, which they did in considerable numbers during his years of abstinence. When confronted about his naked all-night cuddles with these young things, the septuagenarian Gandhi simply claimed they were there to ‘test’ his vows of chastity.
With two of his young admirers
Similarly, (and we are truly thankful for it), the daily enemas given by the girls to Gandhi and vice-versa, were also not permitted to sully his saintly image on screen. His daily ritual was to rise at three-thirty every morning, meditate for two hours and then have a bowel movement during which he would receive visitors. In fact, his abnormal interest in human faeces was the subject of much of his correspondence throughout his later life, especially detailed discussion about the all-important enemas! His naked one-hour daily massage sessions, administered by his teenage girls, were part of the chastity test and they, too, are not mentioned here. He married at 13 and enjoyed 24 years of sexual activity before deciding to adhere to the Hindu belief that the retention of seminal fluid nourished the body and soul. His sons were not quite so fortunate. Their father ordered them to live lives of chastity when they were very young men, before they had the opportunity to experience the alternative. They rebelled, and who could blame them?
Gandhi’s views on sex were uncomplicated. He was against it (or so he proclaimed in public). Not only that, he was quite certain (the fellow was annoyingly certain about everything) that women were incapable of enjoying the act itself and, therefore, did not desire it. So, he deduced, all that was needed to rid the world of this great sin was for men to declare themselves celibate. Of course, that would inevitably produce the unfortunate side effect of ridding the world of its people, but what well thought out plan doesn’t have its little drawbacks?
The Indian people admired Gandhi because he stood up to the British. They went along with his policy of non-violence because it was an effective political weapon. But they did not appreciate his openness about religion, nor did they embrace his idiotic ideas about celibacy. And they especially opposed his later attempts to gain equal rights for ‘untouchables’. Despite his endless preaching against violence, the sub-continent is as violent today as it ever was. Pakistani and Indian continue to eye each other warily, only now they have nuclear weapons in their back pockets. And 160 million ‘untouchables’ still live a miserable existence because the great majority of the population want it that way.
The final lines that appear on screen provide a fitting end to a film that is short on both truth and logic: ‘Tyrants and murderers can seem invincible at the time, but in the end they always fall. Think of it – always’. Let us, indeed, think of it. First of all, tyrants and murderers do not ‘fall’ of their own accord. Some-one (usually a lot of ‘some-ones’) must first give them an almighty shove. Second, even if the odd tyrant did manage to self-destruct, how long must those being oppressed wait for that to happen and what becomes of them in the interim? Had the world waited for Nazism to collapse of its own accord, how many ‘inferior’ groups would have ceased to exist altogether? Of all the half-truths and half-baked concepts in the movie this one is probably the most inept. Tyrants do not just fall of their own accord – never. Why should they?