India’s most well-known freedom fighter has had an incredibly busy afterlife. In the 70 years since independence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi has developed a persona in popular culture that towers over any other figure in India’s historical pantheon. There have been a range of depictions of the Mahatma, from the obvious symbol of peace and non-violence in period films to ultra-violent portrayals in animated productions.
More than three decades after its release, it is still Ben Kingsley’s portrayal in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) that has become indelibly linked with the great man. In the acclaimed movie, which was 20 years in production, Kingsley turned in the performance of his life.
Kingsley has become so closely linked with the role that the rest of his career has been an attempt to move away from it. The thespian even lampooned his performance in a derided appearance in the Mike Myers comedy The Love Guru (2008), in which he played Guru Tugginmypudha, a godman with a more than healthy interest in self-pleasure.
Iconic thought it might be, Kingsley’s performance is hardly the only one. The distinction for the most screen turns as the Mahatma goes to Surender Rajan, who played the role in four films: Rajkumar Santoshi’s The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002), Shyam Benegal’s Bose: The Forgotten Hero (2005), Carl Hindmarch’s TV film The Last Days of the Raj (2007) and the short film Gandhi: The Silent Gun (2012). In Santoshi’s film, Gandhi is partly held responsible for Singh’s execution by the British.
The Mumbai-born Parsi actor Sam Dastor comes a close second, donning the mantle in Jinnah (1998) and Lord Mountbatten: The Last Viceroy.
Gandhi’s charisma was explored in two films, Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1993) and Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram (2000). In both movies, Sardar Patel (Paresh Rawal) and Haasan’s assassin are converted to his non-violent ideology after a meeting with the Mahatma. While Annu Kapoor’s Gandhi in Sardar is more about the public figure, in Hey Ram, Naseeruddin Shah delivers a more intimate performance of a frail Gandhi in his older years.
While most films shied away from digging into Gandhi’s personal life, Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi My Father explored the father of the nation’s troubled relationship with his son Harilal (Akshaye Khanna). A more controversial look at Gandhi’s other life came in Dear Friend, Hitler, which is based on the correspondence between the Nazi dictator and the Mahatma and is a hackneyed portrait of complex historical facts.
In Jahnu Barua’s Maine Gandhi Ko Nahi Mara (2005), the idea of a nation haunted by past historical crimes is explored through a professor (Anupam Kher) who is afflicted by dementia and believes that he, and not Nathuram Godse and his associates, assassinated the Mahatma.
The most famous handling of the Gandhi mythos takes place entirely inside the mind of the titular gangster in Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006). Sanjay Dutt’s Munnabhai begins hallucinating (or to use his more poetic term, has “chemical locha”) and sees the freedom fighter (Dilip Prabhavalkar) everywhere. This prompts the creation of a new kind of non-violent ideology of Gandhigiri: Gandhi’s idea but in Munnabhai’s updated Mumbai lingo.
Gandhi’s continued engagement with pop culture came full circle in Welcome Back Gandhi (2014). The freedom fighter (played by S Kanagaraj) returns to the present to renew Satyagraha after noticing the evils plaguing modern Indian society. No mention is made of what the Mahatma thinks of his many depictions and worldwide fame.
Gandhi’s influence in the West doesn’t only come from Attenborough’s Oscar-decorated film, but from his influences on several key historical figures, most famously American civil rights leader Martin Luther King. Apple founder Steve Jobs tried to famously suggest in a commercial that he was next in line after Albert Einstein and Gandhi. Comedian Bill Burr was not impressed, saying in a stand-up performance, “Gandhi did not have a sweat shop. He didn’t have people leaping to their deaths, catch a net, only to get ricocheted back through the window to have to put together yet another iPhone.”
Indian filmmakers, perhaps fearing controversy, have never been able to take down the Mahatma a peg or two. Western productions, particularly animation, have found it easier to lampoon the leader. The 2001 animated television show Clone High is set in a school populated by replicas of historical figures. A Gandhi clone, who is friends with Abraham Lincoln, becomes a hard-drinking partygoer, burdened by the expectations of the Mahatma. The series proved to be controversial back home in India and caused a minor protest in Delhi, which was enough for MTV to cancel it after a hilarious 19 episodes.
South Park and Family Guy did not choose to get bogged down by this controversy. The animations frequently feature the Mahatma as a foul-mouthed crudely drawn figure. In Family Guy, Gandhi shows up in a bit part as a stand-up comedian, but his joke about the differences in the treatment of women by African Americans and Indians does not go down well. Perhaps Gandhi’s most damning portrayal comes in the South Park film Bigger Longer and Uncut, where one of the main characters, Kenny, encounters him in hell.
Rounding out the against-type appearances is an episode from the MTV show Celebrity Deathmatch, where animated celebrities take part in ultra-violent wrestling matches. Gandhi takes on Genghis Khan. Their brains get switched in a time travelling machine, so the non-violent revolutionary undergoes a drastic transformation and gives a brutal beating to the global conqueror, prompting the popular wrestling Steve Austin’s avatar to quip, “Gandhi has exchanged his philosophy of non-violence for a philosophy of whoopa––.”
Live action sources have also taken an opportunity to be irreverent towards the icon. In the long-running show Supernatural, one of the leads is a fan of the freedom fighter. In an episode, Gandhi shows up inside a museum and attacks his protege.
In the comedy UHF, starring parody artist Weird Al Jankovic, a fake trailer for the film within a film Gandhi 2 reveals an action sequel in which the freedom fighter shoots first and asks questions later, “No more Mr Passive Resistance, he’s out to kick some butt. He’s a one-man wrecking crew, but he also knows how to party.”
Two short films have a brilliant recreation of past history. In Gandhi at the Bat (2006), everyone’s favourite non-violent resister shows up in the United States to try his hand at the national past time (Gandhi never travelled to America in actuality).
In Mohandas and Betty: A Love Story (2002), a former archaeologist discovers letters from Gandhi to the Hollywood icon Bette Davis and uncovers a love story the world didn’t know existed.
“Our favorite little haunt Sanjay’s has shut down,” Gandhi writes. “I had such fond memories of my imaginings that we ate there together and I fed you sweet mattar paneer with my fingers and it melted in your mouth. And you suckled my fingers, as I suckled yours. We were like human pacifiers!”
Gandhi’s love life is also the subject of the popular sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode in the fourth season, lead character Elaine (Julia Louis Dreyfus) visits an old woman who is sickly and repellent but can spin a good yarn. She narrates a story of meeting a man called Mohandas and having a torrid love affair. “He used to dip his bald head in oil and rub it all over my body,” she tells a dumbfounded Elaine.
That is not the only reference to Gandhi in the hilarious show. In another episode, Elaine and Jerry ponder over what the Mahatma might have eaten before his fast.
Elaine: I wonder what Gandhi ate before his fast.— Seinfeld
Jerry: I heard he used to polish off a box of Triscuits.
Jerry: Oh, yeah. Gandhi loved Triscuits.
Gandhi’s frequent fasts form a recurring theme in American sitcoms. The nerdy Alex and the ditzy Haley from Modern Family debate on what prompted Gandhi to fast. He did it for what he believed in, says the former. He was ignored in the cafeteria, says the latter.
A passing reference to Gandhi’s famed hunger strikes also appears in Bruce Almighty (2006), in which God (Morgan Freeman) reveals to Jim Carrey’s character that one of Gandhi’s fasts was prompted by a trick he played on the freedom fighter.
A popular quote, often attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world go blind”, has been used in numerous films. In Martin McDonaugh’s Seven Psychopaths, two gangsters debate the logic of the statement. Sam Rockwell’s Billy says, “There’ll be one guy left with one eye. How’s the last blind guy gonna take out the eye of the last guy left, who’s still got one eye! All that guy has to do is run away and hide behind a bush. Gandhi was wrong.”
The penchant for quoting Gandhi is lampooned in the popular sitcom How I Met Your Mother by breakout character Barney Stinson, “It’s like Gandhi said, ‘Smile don’t cost nothing, sugar.”
Big Bang Theory’s Raj Koothrappali wonders about the validity of Gandhi’s non-violence, “When Gandhi advocated his philosophy of nonviolence, I bet he didn’t know how much fun it was killing stuff.” A reinterpretation of Gandhi’s philosophy comes in the action comedy The A-Team, with his non-violent message used to justify killing.
Sgt Bosco Baracus: [justifying his newly adopted non-violent attitude, he quotes Gandhi] “Victory attained by violence is tantamount to a defeat, for it is momentary.”— The A-Team.
Col John Smith: [answers with his own Gandhi quote] “It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”
When asked about who he would fight by Brad Pitt’s Tyler Durden in David Fincher’s Fight Club, Edward Norton’s character responds, “I’d fight ‘Ghandhi’”.