Wednesday, September 06, 2006

MOVIES, ORWELL, AND MAHATMAS

Lage Raho Munnabhai is proof of the fact that Bollywood directors can make movies with the typical Hindi storylines and far fetched visuals and themes, which are still intelligent and have important messages in them. Munnabhai may be the most successful such venture in many years.

I truly enjoyed the movie. The comedy is well-crafted, and never cheap. Performances are all respectable. Arshad Warsi and Sanjay Dutt have both done a good job. Dilip Prabhavalkar is very believable as Gandhi.
If movies like Munnabhai bring about a resurgence of interest in many positive Gandhian values, if not the values themselves, we will have a new phenomenon. This paradigm seems to be recently emerging in Bollywood, but I have seldom seen genuine moral values and good philosophy included in a typical Hindu movie, that will first make the audience laugh, but then also scratch their heads. Munnabhai seems to be a good augury for such future attempts. It strikes a remarkable balance between vacuous masala movies and movies that have genuine messages in them. But the great thing about the movie also is that it does not preach this philosophy, but lets it emerge as a part of the situation and the comedy.

Many of Gandhi's ideals and ideas were deep and profound. Whether they would work in each and every situation is a different question, but I have no doubt that they were largely responsible (along with other important factors) for getting us independence. I also always think that non-violence as a general framework is the best possible one for world peace and progress. For me, Gandhi's greatest achievement probably was in realising that armed aggression would not work in the India of those times. That also shows what an insightful politician the man was.

It was a coincidence that I happened to come across George Orwell's very readable essay on Gandhi. Orwell wrote it in 1949, and almost all of it still is valid. What is nice about the essay is that Orwell seems to realise and appreciate Gandhi's essential qualities even though he inherently did not like Gandhi too much. Orwell's honesty is to be appreciated, and the essay is a fine example of the word 'objective'. He does raise questions about Gandhi's philosophy, and does not fail to criticise it, rightly in my opinion. When Gandhi was asked what the Jews of Hitler's Third Reich should have done, Gandhi's reply was that they should have committed mass suicide to alert the world to their fate. The implicit assumption in making this statement is one gleaned from hindsight- that they all were murdered anyway. Any sane person listening to this opinion could be forgiven for thinking it to be the rant of a madman. But Orwell's contention is not that this was correct, but that it was honest. Gandhi's ideals as a universal framework may not be accepted by all, but there is no doubt about the fact that he really stuck with truth as much as anyone else.

I wholeheartedly agree with the fact that it takes great courage to speak the truth, to restrain oneself rather than express your anger, to exercise so much tolerance that your adversary's reserves of anger are exhausted. But the logical question is, are these actions an end in themselves, or should they achieve some end? The problem that Gandhi's critics have pointed out, is that there is no utility of these actions if they do not achieve the short term benefit that is expected, and he seemed to think of them as being ends in themselves. In case of India, these actions were aimed at an immense and long term objective, to persuade the British to let go of their crown jewel, and they succeeded spectacularly. But they may be mere ideals when a quick result is desired, with no forbearance for sacrifice and gradual change. But I think that is precisely the quality in these actions that makes them sane ones for an ultimate plan of peace for the world. World peace is probably the longest term ideal that we can aspire to. If non-violence is the ideal philosophy for this ideal aim, then Gandhi saw further and deeper into the future of humanity than anyone else.

I also find it remarkable that although Gandhi believed in god, his philosophy is refreshingly, at least to a large extent, free of religious underpinnings. That makes his philosophy more universal than any kind of religious parable could become. The other truly commendable thing is that even the British who were not his friends, never questioned his integrity and other positive values, which easily may have been brought under suspicion. As Orwell says, nobody accused him of being ambitious in a vulgar way, or being driven by fear or malice, or being corrupt. The fact that the British could not accuse him of such actions and qualities even when they could have done it with proper propaganda, definitely says something about his inner self.

About Gandhi's adherence to the ascetic ideas of non-attachment, Orwell has a memorable paragraph:
"Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. If one could follow it to its psychological roots, one would, I believe, find that the main motive for “non-attachment” is a desire to escape from the pain of living, and above all from love, which, sexual or non-sexual, is hard work. But it is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible. One must choose between God and Man, and all “radicals” and “progressives”, from the mildest Liberal to the most extreme Anarchist, have in effect chosen Man."

As for whether he was a great man or not, I agree with Orwell that the very fact that his role in India's independence movement is still fiercely debated, indicates his stature. His influence is undeniable. Social activist Martin Luther King and scientist Linus Pauling are two emblematic and diverse symbols of the purview of his ideas. Non-violence was not an option for the British whose country was being ravaged by The Blitz in World War 2. But non-violence may be the only long-term option for a world, whose character will be ravaged by untold miseries yet to descend upon it.

In any case, the fact that a movie named Lage Raho Munnabhai led me to this digression on non-violence and values, means that you should watch the movie whenever you get a chance.

3 Comments:

Blogger Kapilmuni said...

Sometimes, I think the role of the concept of Ahimsa in Gandhain thinking is overstressed. True, non-violence was the most noticable aspect of satyāgraha. I would however call it 'non-retaliation' rather than non-violence.

Gandhi had almost fanatical faith in some moral values - one being in a strangely Anne Frankish way a belief in the goodness of man. The strange thing about 'values' is that they are not means. Not Gandhian action, Gandhain values became an end in themselves. Charkha, swadeshi et al.

The role of Gandhian struggle in winning independence to India is debatable. I, like most cynics, ascribe it more to post-war British exhaustion than to anything Gandhi or Nehru did or didn't do. Fact remains that the one Indian struggle that came very close to kicking an unwilling and powerful British regime out of India was the very brutally violent Mutiny.

The greatness of Gandhi, I think lies in the fact that he walked the talk. And thereby, he comprehensively won the battle of the pedestal against the British. He snatched the moral high-ground from the British. Hitherto - the British were doing the world a favour by bringing civilisation to the unwashed barbarians of Asia and Africa by colonising them - the white man's burden. They were the good guys. Gandhi made them the villians of the piece. In the global cosmopolican opinion - colonialism became a bad word. Gandhi was a PR triumph on a scale unparalleled.

As to long term solution to the world's problems I believe the only solution is homonid extinction.

6:22 PM  
Blogger Vivek Gupta said...

Lage Raho Munnabhai is truly a masterpiece of Hindi cinema. It is highly original in its conception and execution and is a proof of the fact that great art can be created if great heart is put into it. Kudos to makers Hirani and Vidhu Vinod Chopra for making us believe in Bollywood again.

Gandhi's influence on our nation's psyche, for better or worse, is undeniable. India, as it is now, has a lot to do with Gandhi. I think if India did not have the good fortune of having this great saint as the towering leader of its independence movement then our great nation- in all likelihood- would not have been a united and largely peaceful democratic country. The greatest achievement of Gandhi was in making India a free, democratic and united amalgmation of disparate relgions and cultures; in giving the millions of its destitute denizens a voice and a sense of self-respect, for which the grateful nation has very rightly referred to him as the 'Father of the Nation'.

I also think that long term solutions to world's problems can only be found within the Gandhian framework of non-voilence, however the world as it is today is probably not ready for such ideals. Every being on earth is hard-wired to have a survival instinct and the Gandhian ideals can go against those basic instincts. It may take thousands of years of further human evolution for us to finally realise the truth in Gandhian philosophy. Till then, we should consider Gandhian way of thinking as a great philosophy, something to be strived for within the practical constraints we live in.

2:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

t seems that Gandhi's long term goal was much more futuristic than just the Indian independence. It was more of sustained independence. Consider two examples: If India had won its freedom by just the revolutionaries, then how would we justify our opposition to some of the extremist groups. Some people can very well argue that just as the revolutionaries were fighting the British using violent means, the extremist are fighting the Indian government using violent means. Do note that there is no denying the huge sacrifices and important role that revolutionaries played. However the fact that a non-violent movement supported the same cause as our revolutionaries, seperates them from the violent extremists.

Before the British rule, Indian society was not built as a democracy or a nation. If we had fought a civil war with the British to win our Independence...we would have been a non-democractic society with self governance, won by the brilliance of military leaders. However Gandhi's philosophy helped transform our society itself where participation of the people and freedom was important. This way when we had our Independence, our society was ready for it. For example, consider country where social norms approve of slavery. Even if they won Independence, they would continue to maintain slavery. The non-slave may vote and we would call it a democracy. But is it truly a democracy if the slaves do not have freedom ? On the other hand, if the owners were forced to free their slaves, would it still be a democracy, since the masters were not given the freedom to choose thier lifestyle ? What if the slaves were afraid of a life without their masters and chose to remain slaves due to ignorance ? I think the way our freedom struggle went (not just Gandhi but all the others), it helped prepare our society for freedom. Its a slower process, but it has a better chance of being sustained.

8:10 AM  

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