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February 23, 1998


Pritish Nandy

The prodigal son

I loathe sermonising. I loathe listening to sermons. But what I loathe most is sermons masquerading as art, theatre, music, movies. They bore me to tears.

That is why I went to see Mahatma vs Gandhi with cynicism. The title was too glib. The idea, at best, predictable. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi versus his wayward son, Harilal Mohandas Gandhi. One, a Mahatma: a distant if somewhat uncaring father, obstinate, abstemious, self-denying. The other: an angry, defiant young man desperately chasing the phantoms in his mind. Hating his father as fiercely as he loves him too. Greek tragedy at its most anguished. Where the tragic young protagonist hurls himself against the elements and wilfully destroys himself in full public view -- just to punish his famous parent.

I did not believe that such a black-and-white morality tale could make for good theatre. It was too pat. Too predictable. Too much in-the-face.

But Feroz Khan proved me wrong.

Mahatma vs Gandhi is, I would say, one of the finest plays I have seen in a long time. A sensitive portrayal of how complex a father-son relationship can be. There are no heroes, no villains. The right and the wrong are flip sides of the same coin. And you leave the theatre, not quite knowing on whose side you are. The father's or the son's. You do not even know on whose side you would like to be because you empathise with both. You realise that much as they resented each other, both were incomplete without the other.

Naseeruddin Shah was, as always, outstanding. His Mahatma is uptight, unyielding, yet charmingly human. A man so obsessed about taming his emotions that he ends up as a lonely, forlorn figure. Driven as much by his own, desperate need to discover what is true as by the circumstances he finds himself in. He is sad, circumspect, so completely alone that you cannot but feel compassion for him. You know that all his relationships are condemned to failure. Be it with Kasturba. Or his sons, Harilal, Manilal and Devdas.

The play is based on Dinkar Joshi's novel in Gujarati. It was written by Ajit Dalvi in Marathi and Mukta Rajadhyaksha has translated it into English. But never for a moment does it sound stilted. After the first few minutes you cease to notice that everyone is speaking English. Its crafting is outstanding. The sets are also striking. They reflect the mood of the play. Quiet, austere, introspective. So is the music by Piyush Kanojia and Toufique Quereshi, Zakir's younger brother.

But what holds it together is its direction. Powerful, sensitive, magically put together. With K K Menon, an actor who I have never heard of nor seen before, as Harilal to Naseeruddin's Mahatma. Menon is so amazingly versatile that in most scenes he leaves you spellbound. Particularly at the end, where he finds himself drawn into his own vortex of pain and anguish and responds in the only way he knows how to. By driving himself deeper and deeper into darkness. Darkness as evil, the evil he craves for.

Evil as defined by his father, the lodestar of his life, with whom he could not share his hopes, his ambitions, his griefs. Who drove him, in his despair and anger, to booze, whores, cheating, defiance. To punish whom he switched over to Islam; then, to the Arya Samaj. To punish whom he refuted swadeshi, changed his name, hit the bottle, and spent an entire lifetime immersed in hate and pain.

Six months after the Mahatma was assassinated, Harilal died as Hiralal. A syphilis-ridden corpse in Sion hospital. No one was beside his bed. No one knew or cared that the Mahatma's prodigal son had finally reached the end of his sordid life. Even the newspapers were embarrassed to report his death. Harilal alias Abdullah alias Hiralal was an aberration that an orphaned India was anxious to quickly forget, awash as it was in grief. For Harilal's father was, by then, the Father of the Nation.

The play not only grabs you by the intensity of the rishta Harilal shared with the Mahatma. It also explores, at another level, the relationship he shared with his mother and wife Gulab. They were the only two people, he felt, who loved him. Yet, at the same time, he resented the fact that they were also close to his father. He felt betrayed. Gulab died when Harilal's first cheating case became public. He had stolen Rs 30,000 from a businessman in Madras. Kasturba disowned him when he came to visit her on her deathbed, pissed out of his mind.

The degeneration of Harilal, from an affectionate, admiring son into a driven, drunken wreck is brilliantly portrayed by Menon, who captures every subtle nuance through a sustained performance and refuses to be awed by Naseeruddin's inspired portrayal of barrister Gandhi morphing into the Mahatma. He is alternately brusque, caring, insensitive, concerned, hurtful. Just as all fathers are. But what he captures best is the Mahatma's last years, obsessed with the affairs of the nation and out of reach for a son desperately yearning for love and understanding.

There is a sense of cosmic helplessness that emerges as the leitmotif. Ba's helplessness as she watches her husband and her son spinning out of her orbit. Gandhi's helplessness as he observes his defiant son gradually descending into Hell but cannot and will not do anything about it. Harilal's helplessness as he watches the father he once loved, for whom he went all the way to South Africa and became a satyagrahi slowly moving away from him and becoming, instead, father to a nation fighting for freedom.

Two of the most touching scenes are at the end. One, where Harilal in tatters comes to visit his bedridden mother with an apple in his hand. He refuses to offer it to his father. In fact, he ticks him off and tells his mother that the fruit is only for her. He could not afford to buy it but he had begged for it in her name. Then he puts his head on her lap and falls into a deep, drunken stupor. The other, where he reels into this public meeting where a group of angry Mussalmans are threatening to kill the Mahatma as a symbol of Hindu intransigence. He picks up a fight with them and is mercilessly beaten up, when the news arrives that Gandhi has been assassinated. It is only then that his tormenters realise that the man they were thrashing was the Mahatma's disowned son trying to defend his father.

There are two versions of the play currently being staged. I have only seen Feroz Khan's. Apart from being one of modern India's finest political plays, it explodes the myth that English theatre cannot ever hope to touch our lives. Simply because it is in English. As I watched this play at the Tata Theatre last weekend, not for a moment did it strike me as an English language production. It was Indian theatre at its most powerful and I only hope Feroz has the wherewithal to take it all over and show people how exciting modern Indian theatre can be.

Even in English.

Pritish Nandy


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