By Dushyant Shekhawat Jan. 30, 2018
There’s too many Mahatmas in pop culture, and it’s time to rank the best of them. From Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi to Lage Raho Munna Bhai, no Bapu is safe from this exhaustive test! (Plus: Surprise entry!)
Martyrs’ Day and Gandhi Jayanti are the two days of the year where the entire nation stops to pay homage to its beloved Bapu, Mahatma Gandhi. There’s something eternal about the Father of the Nation, who, even though he was assassinated decades ago, still wends his way through our popular culture. There have been dozens of attempts to recreate the Gandhian magic on film and TV.
But just like every day is not Sunday, every depiction of Gandhi is not Mahatma. Some are cringeworthy, like the schoolchildren in the annual Independence Day stage show, while others are forgettable, like that guy in that movie. So we decided to rank the most prominent filmic Gandhis, using a stringent non-scientific scale.
First, only the most memorable Gandhis may make the cut. Second, they will be judged on three criteria:
Ahimsa Meter – How well their portrayal reflected the Mahatma’s real values.
Khaditastic Score – How authentic their costume and look was, compared to the real deal.
Swadesh Prem – How patriotic the depiction of Gandhi made the audience feel.
Without further ado, let’s rate those Gandhis!
The Legend of Bhagat Singh
The Gandhi in The Legend of Bhagat Singh was played by Surendra Rajan, an actor who has played Gandhi more times than anyone else. Did his familiarity with the role give him an advantage?
Ahimsa Meter – 5/10
TLoBS’s Gandhi gets only a five because despite inspiring a revolutionary spark in Ajay Devgn’s Bhagat Singh, by launching the Non-Cooperation Movement, he later calls it off after it starts to gain traction. He leaves all the heavy lifting of fighting the British in this film to Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, and Chandrashekhar Azad. Not cool, Surendra Rajanji.
Khaditastic Score – 7/10
He looks the part, there’s no denying it. Surendra Rajan is channelling peak Gandhi with his khadi shawl, white hair fringe, and circular glasses. For looking like a photo from a history textbook come to life, this Gandhi takes home a respectable seven.
Swadesh Prem – 2/10
Throughout the movie, it’s implied that Gandhi has the power to intercede with the British and obtain a stay on Bhagat Singh’s execution. Yet, the movie doesn’t have a happy ending as Gandhi looks the other way while Bhagat Singh, Rajguru, and Sukhdev face death by hanging. For letting some of the nation’s bravest sons walk to the noose, this Gandhi only manages a rating of two.
TOTAL SCORE: 14/30
Lage Raho Munna Bhai
Dilip Prabhavalkar plays Gandhiji in the Munna Bhai MBBS sequel. The film might be a superhit, but what about its Gandhi?
Ahimsa Meter – 8/10
With Munna Bhai’s help, Gandhism is updated to Gandhigiri and brought into the 21st century. The justification for this high score for is how his philosophy manages to overcome the baser instincts of the film’s protagonist, the lovable rogue Munna Bhai. His teachings also give annoying radio jockey Vidya “Good Moooooorning” Balan a gimmick for her show, so that’s a plus.
Khaditastic Score – 8/10
Prabhavalkar goes a step beyond Rajan’s depiction. Not only does he have the hair, the shawl, and the glasses, he adds the crucial missing element – the dandi.
Swadesh Prem – 4/10
Unlike his strong showing in the first two departments, Lage Raho’s Gandhiji only scrapes together a modest four for Swadesh Prem, because instead of fixing the problems of modern-day India, of which there are tonnes, he takes the easy route of helping Munna with his personal problems. Even the four points he got were only on the strength of the brilliant lyrics: “Bande mein tha dum / Vande Mataram”.
TOTAL SCORE: 20/30
Prabhavalkar and Rajan’s iterations of Gandhi are the Pepsi and Thums Up to Ben Kingsley’s Coke. Does his seminal portrayal help Kingsley’s Gandhi in the power rankings?
Ahimsa Meter – 10/10
Ben Kingsley grabs an unprecedented Perfect 10, thanks to Gandhi’s detailed chronicling of his life and work. Starting from his time in South Africa and ending with his assassination, his Gandhi displays every virtuous facet of the Mahatma’s teaching. Commenters who wish to say that the film leaves out unsavoury aspects can go argue with the folks who hand out the Oscars, who awarded it Best Picture and Best Screenplay.
Khaditastic Score – 10/10
Let’s face it, no Gandhi has ever looked this good. From his days as a young barrister to his final form as the wizened Father of the Nation, Kingsley brings every avatar of Gandhi to life. For putting the swag in Swaraj, we have to give Gandhi’s Gandhi ten out of ten.
Swadesh Prem – 7/10
Swadesh Prem is the only department where Kingsley’s Gandhi fails to get a perfect score. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the film was made by a British director, but Gandhi paints our colonial oppressors in a more neutral light. You still want India to achieve independence, but don’t irrationally hate every white person on screen. It might be a better narrative choice, but it has cost Kingsley’s Gandhi in the power rankings.
TOTAL SCORE: 27/30
SURPRISE ENTRANT – Demonetised ₹1,000 note
Here’s a Gandhi who was part and parcel of daily life, until suddenly he wasn’t. Let’s pay tribute to the departed Gandhi of the old ₹1,000 note.
Ahimsa Meter – 2/10
It isn’t looking great for the ₹1,000 note Gandhi. Things were fine while he was in circulation, but the moment he left, there were deaths due to his absence. He’s lucky he’s also been used to pay hospital bills and charitable donations, because otherwise all he would have got would have been zero.
Khaditastic Score – 5/10
How does a photo of the real Gandhiji rank lower than actors playing Gandhi? Because for dozens of years, the photo was printed wrongly and was facing the incorrect way on the note. Also, there’s not a dandi in sight.
Swadesh Prem – 0/10
As demonetisation became a de facto litmus test for how much someone loves our PM and our country, expressing any desire for the return of the ₹1,000 note became akin to declaring secession from the state. For being associated with treasonous elements and black money, the ₹1,000 note gets a zero for Swadesh Prem.
TOTAL SCORE: 7/30
WINNER: Ben Kingsley’s Gandhi in Gandhi
For playing Gandhi in a film called Gandhi and performing the perfect feat of Gandhiception, the runaway winner is the one and only Sir Ben Kingsley. We’d pop the champagne, but today’s a dry day.