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June 27, 2000


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'Gandhi pushed Ambedkar to the edge'

Dr Jabbar Patel Film-maker Dr Jabbar Patel has rewritten an important and controversial chapter of our history. In his latest film, he has presented a completely new perspective of Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar in a cinematic biography that sets out to correct our understanding of the Dalit leader's contribution to India's freedom struggle.

In this interview with Pritish Nandy, he talks about the film and what went into its making.

How did the idea of making this cinematic biography of Dr Ambedkar occur to you?

I had made this short documentary on him which everyone seemed to like very much. I was showing the documentary to Sharad Pawar when I mentioned I would like to make a full length feature film on Dr Ambedkar, so as to capture the larger picture of the Independence struggle and give it a more accurate historical perspective. Many people, it was my contention, had no idea of his actual role during the struggle and, what is worse, many saw it in the wrong light. A full-length feature film, I felt, could put his role in a proper context. He agreed. That is how the film began in the early nineties, with a small contribution from the Maharashtra government. Later, we got the rest of the money from the Government of India.

How long did it take you to make the film?

Mammootty as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar The research took over three years. I consulted everyone I could. I travelled all over and met anybody and everybody who had known him or knew anything about him that could contribute to the film. Casting was also an arduous task. After that, the making of the film began and that took another three years. The government said they wanted a film on the scale of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi and that is exactly what I have attempted to do.

That is why it took us so long to complete the film. The cost was also high. We spent a lot of time, effort and money on creating authentic sets, shooting in authentic locations. The main set which we put up in Film City, Bombay, in the early half of the last century alone cost us over Rs 2 crore.

Is the English version the main version of the film?

The English and Hindi versions are the main versions. We shot them simultaneously. Apart from these two versions, there are five other language dubs -- Marathi, Gujarati, Bengali, etcetera. We are keen that this film should reach every corner of India and that is why we have made so many versions.

How did come to you choose the south Indian star, Mammootty, to play the role of Dr Ambedkar?

It happened by chance. I was actually looking for an actor from any part of the world to play the role of Dr Ambedkar. That was my brief to the casting director who showed me hundreds of actors including Robert de Niro, who was very keen on the role but backed off when he was told that he had to drop his American accent and speak the way Ambedkar did -- in his typically clipped Indo-British accent.

Mammootty as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar Finally, I chanced upon Mammootty's photographs in a magazine and it struck me that, minus his moustache and his dark glasses, he had an uncanny resemblance to Dr Ambedkar. I scanned the picture, put it on a computer, made the necessary changes and then contacted the actor. But he laughed me away.

To begin with, he was most reluctant to shave off his moustache. Then he was worried about the time schedule. In Kerala they work on a film for three months, finish it off and then go on to make the next film. On top of that, he was a very highly paid, very popular star. He had no time. Come back later, yaar, and we will make some other film together, he told me.

So how did you get him to change his mind?

I told him how important it was that he accepts this film. I told him it was an award-winning role that could bring him international acclaim. I appealed to his sense of nationalism. Finally, he asked for a month to make up his mind and, once he did, we had his full support. He promised me 10 days every month for as long as it took to make the film.

How did you make him look exactly like Dr Ambedkar, particularly in the later half?

Mammootty as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar I did not have to. As I have mentioned earlier, he has this uncanny resemblance to Dr Ambedkar and we had to use only minimum makeup. You are right. In the second half of the film he looked so much like Dr Ambedkar that, when I showed it to Dr Ambedkar's wife, she gasped in disbelief. Even the thousands of people who participated in the crowd scenes were so carried away when Mammootty came onstage that I instantly realised how close we were to the real thing. You should ask Ashok (Mehta) who wielded the camera. The empathy was total. For the crowds, he was Dr Ambedkar all over again.

Did the censors give you grief over your interpretation of Gandhi and the scenes that showed the conflict between Gandhi and Dr Ambedkar?

We had to present all our research before the censors. Asha Parekh, who heads the Censor Board, was of great help. She said: 'Nothing will be cut if you can back it up with facts.' And that is what we did. Pages and pages of facts helped me restore every single cut that was proposed. Finally, the film was cleared as it is. We proved to the censors that everything -- every point of confrontation, every dialogue -- shown was historically accurate. After all, you must remember that this was the early Gandhi. He became a saint later. He was much more intolerant, much more difficult during this phase and that is why he made things so difficult for Dr Ambedkar.

But the Gandhi in your film is a cunning, selfish politician, always anxious to outwit Dr Ambedkar and get his own way?

But that was exactly the way he behaved and that is why Dr Ambedkar felt so slighted. He tried his best to explain his point of view but Gandhi was not ready to listen. He did not want the Dalits to walk out of the Hindu fold.

But that is exactly what happened. They did walk out of the Hindu fold to embrace Buddhism.

Dr Jabbar Patel Dr Ambedkar did not want that. But he had no choice. Gandhi pushed him to the edge by refusing to listen to him. The Congress, too, was adamant. That comes out clearly if you look at the historical evidence.

Historians like Arun Shourie have questioned Dr Ambedkar's role in the freedom struggle. They saw him as unreliable, obstreperous, a hindrance to Swaraj.

But he was doing his duty by his people, the Dalits. I was careful to ensure that we were absolutely accurate in our representation of facts. Sooni Taraporevala, who wrote the script, was meticulous. We also had Arun Sadhu and Daya Pawar working side by side with her to ensure she got every single nuance right.

But this is a picture of the freedom struggle as seen through Dr Ambedkar's eyes.

Maybe. But we have not strayed from history to be sympathetic towards him. We are factually accurate. But, yes, I wanted to restore to Dr Ambedkar his rightful role in the freedom movement. The film hopefully does that. What did you think of it?

It changed my understanding of Dr Ambedkar.

Well, that was exactly what I wanted to do.

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