Amberish K Diwanji
Some movies become classic epics.
These are movies in which the subject shown or its production values become benchmarks of our times.
As Dev Anand once said, the 20th is century unique because it can capture on celluloid the great stories of our times.
The life of Babasaheb Ambedkar is one such great story.
It is the saga of one of India's greatest men, who perhaps is the most misunderstood of them all. Ambedkar was hailed as saviour and simultaneously reviled as a traitor. He was the messiah for millions and a charlatan for a million others.
Among his most staunch opponents in India's struggle for freedom were none other than the Mahatma himself: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
Ironically, the two have something in common: Both inspire complete reverence or a total lack of it among different sections of people. A few years ago, Arun Shourie wrote the book Worshipping False Gods wherein he claimed that Ambedkar spent his time colluding with the British rather than fighting them! Not surprisingly, Dalits in India, who worship Ambedkar, took umbrage and the debate degenerated into a mud-slinging match.
There is no doubting the fact that great effort has gone into the making of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar. Art director Nitin Desai deserves praise for sets that have been painstakingly constructed to recreate the era of the early 20th century, whether it is New York (where the film begins), London, Bombay, Baroda or Delhi.
Film director Dr Jabbar Patel is well known in Marathi stage circles for his outstanding direction in theatre and films. He is especially known for his direction of the play, Ghasiram Kotwal.
If this film is to be remembered for one and only one aspect, it will be for the sterling performance by Mammootty, who plays the lead role of Dr Ambedkar. A superstar in Kerala with over 300 films under his belt, Mammootty was chosen by Patel to play the role for his resemblance in looks and build to Ambedkar.
There is no doubt that Mammootty, who was initially hesitant to do the role, has breathed life into Ambedkar's character; bringing out the pain and angst of a scholar who was born an untouchable and denied even the most elementary rights, such as the right to drink water!
Incidentally, Mammootty bagged the best actor award for his work in Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar at the 31st International Film Festival's Indian Panorama section.
The second outstanding performance is the portrayal of Rama Ambedkar by Sonali Kulkarni. She is the long-suffering wife of Ambedkar who lived in the one-room chawl while Ambedkar went abroad for his studies. She lost four children before the fifth survived and bore the brunt of her husband's neglect when his destiny took him elsewhere.
In an era when physical contact, even between husband and wife, was limited, her eyes speak of the longing she feels for her saheb. Hers is an Oscar-worthy performance!
The movie covers the most important events in Ambedkar's life. His stint at New York's Columbia University, his tryst in London, his return to Bombay and Baroda, his plunge into reform activities, his epic battle with the Mahatma over separate electorates, and his appointment as chairman of the Constitution drafting committee are all chronicled. The obstacles in his path and the conviction for his cause are well etched.
However, the movie has its weaknesses. Perhaps the most glaring one is the obsessive attempt by Jabbar Patel to show Ambedkar as staunchly opposed to the British. Clearly, Patel is attempting to set the record straight with Ambedkar's critics by stressing on Ambedkar's anti-imperialistic stance. What this does, however, is take away precious time from a movie that is already very long.
Ambedkar's patriotism needs no defence, but his struggle against the world's most iniquitous society needs to be highlighted. And this struggle is not brought out in the proper context. For instance, not many viewers may have been aware of the problem at the Mahad water tank satyagraha, Ambedkar's first campaign which established him as the undisputed leader of the depressed classes.
The Mahad water tank was out of bounds for the 'untouchables,' a fact that is made clear through speeches rather than shots. A scene bringing out this cruel practice would have had a better impact in defining how critical the moment was when Ambedkar drank water from the tank.
While Ambedkar's battle with Gandhi over separate electorates is brought out well, his last battle with Hindu orthodoxy over the Hindu Code Bill leaves a viewer no wiser.
What the viewer understands is that certain orthodox Hindus were against the bill. What he does not comprehend is the radical and democratic changes that Ambedkar wanted to bring about and why these changes were resisted. Also missed is the point that it was the denial of this very social justice that catalysed Ambedkar into embracing Buddhism.
Perhaps the movie's long length left Patel with little time to bring out the context, but in the end it leaves the viewer somewhat uninformed about why Ambedkar was fighting so vigorously for his causes.
The movie contains a few songs (of famous saints such as Kabir and Tukaram), and though they add to the length of the film, they are most pleasing to the ear. The lyrics chant against casteism, against impotent Gods for not helping the Untouchables, and curse the horrendous ability of man to inflict untold misery on his fellow men.
All in all, Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar is a film that is definitely worth viewing. Anyone who believes in 'Equality and Justice for All' -- whether in India or any other land -- this film is a must see. Mammootty, Jabbar Patel, Sonali Kulkarni and others are to be hailed for this epic movie.