Gandhi's death anniversary

Nine Hours to Rama: The story behind the film image that many believe depicts Gandhi’s assassination

Mark Robson’s movie about the plot to kill Mahatma Gandhi is as far from the truth as revisionist accounts that attempt to rationalise Nathuram Godse’s crime.

With unfailing regularity, when social media users are discusing the circumstances of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination on January 30, 1948, this photograph is posted to seemingly depict the very moment at which Hindutva fanatic Nathuram Godse pulled the trigger.

As film scholar Ravinder Singh pointed out in a paper in the Economic and Political Weekly, this is where the image is actually from: Mark Robson’s 1963 Hollywood production Nine Hours to Rama, a heavily fictionalised account of the plot to assassinate Gandhi based on Stanley Wolpert’s 1962 novel of the same name.

Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

The English-language movie caused a storm in India, and was banned upon its release for playing fast and loose with facts. “A heady concoction of a little history and too much fiction, the film is a thriller full of romance rendered in a melodramatic mode,” Ravinder Singh wrote in his essay in 2016. “It narrates the last ‘nine hours’ in the life of Gandhi’s assassin – in which he also gets to recount the story of his life in flashbacks – before he succeeds in his nefarious designs.”

Singh, a doctoral candidate in Cinema Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University, is working on a book titled Gandhi and Cinema. The EPW essay, titled Of Gandhi, Godse and the Missing Files, is an abridged version of a section from the book.

Except for minor parts played by Indians, including David and Achala Sachdev, Nine Hours to Rama features brownfaced American and Europeans in the main roles. German actor Horst Buchholz plays Godse as an intense and chisel-faced young man, who is cruelly rejected from a job with the British Army. Thrown on the ground by his colonial masters, in the same fashion as the man he will eventually murder, Godse vows revenge.

The assassin is referred to both by his full name as well as Nathu in the movie.

Horst Buchholz as Nathuram Godse in Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
Horst Buchholz as Nathuram Godse in Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

Godse joins the Society of Nation’s Saviours (modelled on the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh) and is chosen as the man to kill Gandhi. Although wed to a child bride (who is raped and killed during a communal riot), he falls hard for a married woman and later gets entangled with a prostitute.

In one sequence, Godse tries to trick his lover, Rani Mehta (Valerie Gearon), into sharing a room with him (he describes the anticipated sexual encounter as “dessert” after a meal). They consummate their love in a subsequent scene.

Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

Meanwhile, Superintendent of Police Das (Jose Ferrer) is hot on Godse’s trail. Das warns Gandhi (JS Casshyap) that he will be killed, but the great man waves off the threat: “If they wish to destroy me, it is for my sins, not their work.”

Godse succeeds in pumping three bullets into Gandhi – about the only accurate bit in the movie – before slumping at his feet in remorse.

Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

The real Godse was a member of Hindu Mahasabha and RSS. He was not married. He took full responsibility for his actions during his trial, in fact arguing that he alone should be held responsible for Gandhi’s death. On November 15, 1949, he was hanged to death along with fellow plotter Narayan Apte.

Narayan Apte (Don Borisenko) and Nathuram Godse (Horst Buchholz) in Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
Narayan Apte (Don Borisenko) and Nathuram Godse (Horst Buchholz) in Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

The Hollywood production that first humanised Godse was made by a director with respectable titles to his credit, including Peyton Place (1957), Von Ryan’s Express (1965), Valley of the Dolls (1967) and Avalanche Express (1977). Mark Robson was secretly shooting his movie in Delhi just as trouble struck.

“After Gandhi’s assassination many biographical film projects on Gandhi were announced in the West but none materialised before Hollywood producer-director Mark Robson made sensational headlines in the Indian media for having actually begun the production of a film on Gandhi,” Ravinder Singh writes. “KA Abbas, veteran film-maker and journalist, was among the first to break the news regarding the ongoing shooting of this film.”

In a column on January 13, 1962, in the tabloid Blitz, under the title “Gandhiji to be Killed Again”, Abbas wrote that a movie titled A Day of Darkness was being made by Robson. There was a “suspicious hush-hush” around the production, Abbas wrote, and Robson ensured that no photographers got near the shooting.

The disclaimer for Nine Hours to Rama (1963).
The disclaimer for Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

Singh writes that the clandestine shoot caused controversy back in Mumbai – the Indian Motion Picture Producers’ Association convened a meeting to debate the permissions given to a foreign film unit and complained that Gandhi’s “glorious martyrdom” was being subjected to “commercial exploitation and that too, under the aegis of ill-informed foreigners”.

The Federation of Western India Cine Employees joined in, and debarred Indian actor David, who plays a minor policeman. from flying to London for the rest of the shoot. “It was only after the local representative of the Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation… and later its distributors (Robson was producing and directing the film for them under the banner of his company Red Lion Films, London) – agreed to enrol members of the foreign film unit with them, and assured the federation of future compliance that the ban was lifted and David allowed to leave,” Singh writes.

Even as attacks on Jawaharlal Nehru’s government over the sanction given to the production reached Parliament, there was further trouble for Robson. “The accusations regarding Godse’s characterisation (of him being a sympathetic hero), which were previously based purely on hearsay, found confirmation once the novel Nine Hours to Rama, on which the film was based, hit the bookstalls in India around early July 1962,” Singh writes. “Godse’s supporters were no less offended: they went on to burn copies of the novel in Pune, the home ground of ultranationalists. Already under fire, the government, in order to contain any further damage, slapped a ban on the novel on 1 September 1962, via a customs notification.”

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Nine Hours to Rama (1963).

Robson sent a print of the completed movie to India, which was screened before Nehru and his cabinet on January 2, 1963, at Rashtrapati Bhavan, Singh writes. The Indian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom said that the movie was “not to be approved for release in India” a day before its release in London on February 21, 1963.

A review in the American trade journal Variety reveals the ignorance in the West about the true circumstances surrounding the plot to kill Gandhi. “At its core, this dramatization of circumstances surrounding the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi is an achievement of insight and impact,” an unnamed Variety critic admiringly noted. “Horst Buchholz’s virile portrayal of the perpetrator” was praised, but the story failed in “development and clarification of certain key secondary characters”.

The production has largely faded out of view. “Attenborough’s co-production with the Indian government that came around 20 years later, with its unprecedented success, pushed the film further back into obscurity,” Singh writes in his essay. “It can be argued that it is with the production of Gandhi (1982), in which a large number of Indian film industry personnel participated, that the Indians’ desecration anxiety relating to the impersonation of Gandhi on celluloid began to be alleviated. It also signalled the beginnings of their working through the trauma of Gandhi’s assassination on celluloid.”

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Gandhi (1982).

Among all its fictions, one stands out in Nine Hours to Rama. We will be vile things in the next life if Gandhi is indeed a saint, the Narayan Apte character (played by Don Borisenko) tells Godse. Given the attempts to whitewash Godse by proposing a memorial in his name and celebrating January 30 as “Shaurya Divas”, this is one aspect of the response to Gandhi’s assassination that the movie got completely wrong.

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