By many metrics, the Indian sub-continent in the 1940s was a terrible place to be in. Communal tensions were at an all-time high and violence was commonplace on a scale that’s hard to imagine. Life was difficult, to put it mildly.
Yet, acts of bravery took place at every turn, ordinary people stepped up and performed tasks worthy of heroes… so on, so forth. It was a time which offered hope amid despair, smiles amid tears – if you knew where to look for, that is.
If you ask me, the era is ripe for cinematic depiction. Not only are there various individuals who are worthy of biopics, but there are also quite a few incidents just begging to be brought to screens (be they multiplex or TV).
So, the question is: Why haven’t we seen them?
You could make a film just about Kashmir, and how it turned from a peaceful, independent state to a hotbed of Indo-Pak arguments, all within the space of months. You could make a film about how Dickie Mountbatten set about annexing almost 565 (yes, 565) princely states to either India or Pakistan inside a month. You could make a film about the carnage that took place around Partition (so gut-wrenching that WWII veterans were left dumbstruck). And I haven’t even scraped the surface.
I recently read Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer. The book itself is excellent, a thorough and unbiased look at a very controversial period. It’s witty, entertaining and an absolute delight for history nuts (like me). But, what Indian Summer is also famous for its film adaptation that didn’t come to fruition.
Joe Wright (Pride & Prejudice, Hanna) was slated to direct. Hugh Grant and Cate Blanchett had been signed on to play the Mountbattens, with Irrfan Khan in talks to play Jawaharlal Nehru. But, the project reached a roadblock because of the eyebrows the Indian Government raised over a subplot in the movie: The romance between Lady Mountbatten and Nehru. There is plenty of proof that the affair was real and it was inarguably a very significant event. The book itself admits its existence frankly, but never says it was sexual.
One can see the furore such a topic would raise. However, this does not excuse the Indian Government’s “sweeping things under the blanket” tendency. They weren’t justified in their outright opposition to the film. Authorities in Delhi were said to have forbidden any scene which shows the two kissing, holding hands or using the word “love” if the film was to be shot in India. Restricting art is not new to India, but things reach a different level when the Government itself is the one up in arms.
Another, much more recent, example of this is the anger over Joseph Lelyveld’s book, Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India. The book hints that Mahatma Gandhi was in a romantic relationship with a Hermann Kallenbach, a male German-Jewish architect & bodybuilder. Never mind that the book only operates from actual, physical evidence (letters between the two), available publicly for decades. Never mind that it doesn’t state that Gandhi was bisexual or homosexual. Never mind that it actually says Gandhi was celibate and just had a platonic relationship with Hermann. As of now, the book has been banned in Gujarat (by a unanimous vote, no less), politicians in Mumbai are also talking along similar lines and there’s talk of a nationwide ban. If you thought that was sad, wait till you read this statement from Sanjay Dutt, Maharashtra spokesperson of Congress (the ruling party) -
It has become a fashion to tarnish the image of great Indian leaders for self publicity and sale of books. The government should invoke a law to severely punish anyone who tarnishes the image of the father of the nation.
Such kind of blind idol-worship is nauseating, idiotic and plain wrong. Great man the Mahatma may be, but without flaws he was not (and being bisexual and/or homosexual is not a “flaw”). The reticence of people to even accept the idea that he wasn’t as perfect as they’ve made him out to be is juvenile.
A great man isn’t a great man if his greatness can be repudiated by the publication of a book or the release of a movie. A democracy isn’t a democracy if it stifles art and creative expression in the name of political correctness. When will people realise this?
PS - A big thanks to this guy for helping out with some research for this post.