It was quite significant that, in a year ridden with disease, hatred and uncertainty, two playwrights chose to stage M.K. Gandhi when the theatres re-opened.
Theatre maverick Makarand Deshpande turned to the Mahatma for inspiration and solace when he found a growing atmosphere of animosity all around, especially on social media. “I find hatred against one another has reached unforeseen heights, both, within India and globally,” he laments. “Today, it is so easy to create divisiveness even on WhatsApp groups. The violence on social media is almost palpable and communication networks are being so misused.”
Extremely depressed, Makarand found himself increasingly drawn to the teachings of the apostle of ahimsa. “I read up a lot on Gandhi, during the lockdown and he left a deep impact on me,” relates the writer-actor-director. The outcome was a play, simply titled Gandhi. Using two contrary characters in his play, a muscle man who revels in violence, and a thinking poet, Deshpande juxtaposed diverse beliefs to bring the former onto a path of non-violence. By making the 70-minute play a solo act, with Deshpande, himself, playing both characters, the director skilfully externalised the internal dichotomy of individuals, where brute force and sensitivity are at constant loggerheads.
Inner battles are what another play on Gandhi focused on. Staged at the tail-end of the turbulent year, Manoj Shah’s Mohan’s Masala recounts the struggle that ‘Mohanya’ Gandhi, himself, constantly found waging within him, much before he became the Mahatma. Staged initially in 2015, and innumerable times thereafter, in far-flung places like the Army base in Siachen and the deep jungles of Madhya Pradesh, this play, that re-visits a young Gandhi, clicked with the audience yet again in the year of the pandemic, when life went completely topsy-turvy.
Using a catchy title, Shah deliberately chose not to make his protagonist the khadi loincloth clad Gandhi, as he wanted youngsters to identify with a vulnerable, truth-seeking Mohanya, the Mohanya who was exposed to experiences that would contribute to him becoming the Mahatma of his later years. Further, he chose a youngster, Ishaan Doshi, to write the play; and a young, remarkable look-alike, Pratik Gandhi, to play the rebel from Rajkot who crossed the oceans, defying caste restrictions, to study Law in England.
Doshi was not yet 21 when he delved into the little-known aspects of the barrister’s life and he was completely overwhelmed with what he read. “The amazing thing I found when doing my research was how easily I could relate to a young Mohandas, which I could not imagine with the Mahatma,” says Doshi. “He became an idol because as a youngster he learnt, wholesomely, from all the situations, he found himself in.”
Some of his early life lessons, elaborates Doshi, were imbibed from his parents. “Ahimsa, for instance, became an important part of his psyche when he noticed how his father refrained from beating him even when he had confessed to consuming dhatura. From his mother he saw a progressive side of Hinduism,” shares the writer.
And when, perforce, he skipped meals in England due to non-availability of vegetarian food, he discovered his ability to fast, that later became a powerful tool in his non-violent protests against British rule in India. Guilt at having given in to physical desires when he was only 16 and fathering a child at an early age would lead to deep introspection on the subject.
His was a dramatic life indeed. So, whether young or old, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi will always be relevant, continuing to inspire writers, playwrights and artistes in many more years to come.
(The writer is a senior journalist and author of two biographies — Madhubala: Masti and Magic, and Dev Anand: Dashing Debonair)