Ways of seeing

Written by Shohini Ghosh | Published on: October 1, 2006
poor man is hallucinating.

Subsequently, Gandhi becomes Munna Bhai’s mentor and advisor. With Gandhi’s help, Munna manages to impress the geriatrics thereby consolidating his reputation as a great Gandhian. Thus begins Munna Bhai’s journey of discovering the value of Gandhigiri as he embarks on solving all problems through non-violent means. Therefore, when Lucky Singh (Boman Irani), an unscrupulous contractor, deviously takes over the home of Jhanvi and the elderly inmates, Munna Bhai refuses to react violently. Instead, he stages a peaceful satyagraha in front of Lucky’s house and sends him flowers every day. Through Jhanvi’s radio show, Munna Bhai and Gandhi sort out listeners’ problems by suggesting non-violent means of protest, which seem to work like magic. The final reckoning comes when Gandhi persuades Munna Bhai to reveal his real identity to Jhanvi. However, all ends well with Lucky Singh having a change of heart when Gandhigiri saves his reputation and his daughter from a bad marriage. The house is restored to the elderly and Jhanvi accepts Munna Bhai for what he is. In the very last sequence, Lucky Singh immerses himself in Gandhian thought in the same dusty library only to have the great man materialise out of thin air once again.

Both Lage Raho Munna Bhai and Rang De Basanti have been huge box office hits. Rang De Basanti earned 22.8 crore worldwide within the first four days of its release while Lage Raho Munna Bhai was made tax free by the Delhi government for promoting Gandhian ideals. Both the print and electronic media continue to run stories about how the two films have changed people’s lives and attitudes. Rang De Basanti reportedly inspired the public to protest against the Jessica Lal case verdict while Lage Raho Munna Bhai was credited with having inspired various groups (including students of Lucknow University) to resort to non-violence. The media has also reported on how the film has increased the sales of books and related memorabilia on Gandhi.

One does not have to be a media scholar to appreciate that these are wild exaggerations. The Jessica Lal protests had less to do with Rang De Basanti than a simmering rage about the travesty of justice in what was a murder in full public view. Similarly, peaceful demonstrations have always coexisted with violent ones. Hirani’s film may have temporarily affected the sale of Gandhi related books and memorabilia but is by no means the sole factor. (It would be interesting to see how long the 250-member website advocating Gandhigiri survives). Outlook magazine of September 11, 2006 reported that the number of publishers/authors applying for rights of Gandhi’s works doubled in the last 2-3 years and that 1,000-2,000 new books on Gandhi are published every year. In the opening scenes of Rang De Basanti, the commissioning editor turns down Sue’s proposal on Bhagat Singh while observing that "Gandhi sells". If anybody is responsible for selling Gandhi, it is the Mahatma himself. Gandhi is a compelling and controversial figure who will always elicit interest because of his iconoclasm and political genius.

Both Rang De Basanti and Lage Raho Munna Bhai address contemporary anxieties and suggest remedies that draw inspiration from the past. Rang De Basanti uses a layered and complex narrative that actively invites multiple readings while Lage Raho Munna Bhai has a simpler, more linear narrative structure. Since the film’s release, it is common to find at least one item in the media where someone lauds the fact that Munna Bhai has brought Gandhi back to life. Hirani’s playful engagement with Gandhi is most refreshing. But how exactly does this playful Gandhi relate to his historical counterpart? Even a rudimentary familiarity with Gandhi will reveal that his philosophy and strategies of political resistance were both complex and astute. As Ajit Duara correctly observes (The Hindu, October 1, 2006), Gandhi’s "greatest legacy to India and the world was a form of political agitation known as civil disobedience which frequently did lead to violence but which was so original a philosophy that it worked in certain circumstances and against certain regimes." He argues that an ahistorical application of civil disobedience strategies is unlikely to work and had Gandhi been alive today,