Attenborough and my experiment with the truth
In the passing away of Richard Attenborough on August 24th, I was reminded of my uncle and mentor U. S. Mohan Rao, who was associated with him in the making of the film on Mahatma Gandhi.
Mr. Mohan Rao was the Director of the Publications Division in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting in the early fifties, and the chief conceiver of the project to publish the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi.
Mohan Rao, who headed Hind Kitabs in Bombay, had published books by eminent Indians like Dr. S. Radhakrishnan, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, D. G. Tendulkar and Humayun Kabir. Dr B. V. Keskar, who became the Information and Broadcasting Minister in 1952, asked him to come to Delhi and take charge of the Publications Division.
When Richard Attenborough first thought of producing a film on Mahatma Gandhi, and sought the help of Government of India, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru asked him to meet Mohan Rao, who by then had set up a sub-unit of the Publications Division called the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. It was initially headed by Bharatan Kumarappa as Chief Editor, soon followed by Professor K. Swaminathan.
One Sunday, Mohan Rao called me to his house in Feroz Shah Road to meet a special guest. It turned out to be Richard Attenborough. He was served a pure vegetarian meal of rice, dal, sambhar, dahi and payasam. I could see Attenborough watching Mohan Rao eat with his hands, while he used a spoon.
Mohan Rao was fond of talking about Gandhiji. So, Attenborough sat through long hours of conversation about Gandhi's philosophy, life and thoughts. Attenborough had probably researched all this himself, but he attentively listened to a man who had seen all this first hand and read documents and letters of Gandhiji's colleagues.
Soon after, Jawaharlal Nehru passed away and not much was heard about the Gandhi film and Richard Attenborough's project to be shot in India.
Several years later Mohan Rao, who by then had retired from the Publications Division, told me that Richard Attenborough was back in India and was keen on producing a film on Mahatma Gandhi. By then, several volumes of the Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi had been published, and Mohan Rao himself had written a book on Mahatma Gandhi.
Attenborough had given Mohan Rao the film script and asked him for inputs. He brought the script to our home in R.K Puram in Delhi and we all poured over the script, probably the first film script any of us had read. Mohan Rao stayed in our house for weeks reading and re-reading the script, marking several paragraphs with his fountain pen, shaking his head disapprovingly at something, exclaiming in admiration at others.
Over the next few weeks, we learned that Mohan Rao had several discussions with Attenborough over some scenes in the manuscript, especially one in which there was an intimate scene between Gandhi and Kasturba. He told Attenborough that Indians would not be comfortable seeing any public display of intimacy by somebody who had been given the title of a 'Mahatma' (a great soul). There was much debate, wherein Attenborough was persuaded to respect Indian sentiments, also warned that it was with great difficulty that permissions had been given for Gandhi's role to be played by a foreigner, why for that matter the film itself to be made by a non-Indian, so it was better to err on the side of caution with regard to some issues. Attenborough agreed.
Mohan Rao also said that he spoke with Ben Kingsley who played the role of Gandhi. His advice to the veteran actor was to emulate Gandhi's way of life to get into the essence of the character. He advised him to give up meat, sleep on a hard floor with just a thin mattress and lose muscle mass. Ben Kingsley must have received similar advise from many who were involved with the film because there were visible signs of change in his persona by the time filming began.
The iconic film was mesmerizing from the first to the last scene. It won eight Oscars. U.S. Mohan Rao was happy with the way the film turned out and deeply appreciative of Richard Attenborough's eye for detail and aesthetic sensibilities.
U. S. Mohan Rao presented me my first copy of 'My Experiments with Truth' by Mahatma Gandhi, when I first arrived in Delhi in the fifties. He told me to read it and realize how a boy, who was considered average, grew to become a Mahatma. His life is a lesson for all of us he used to tell me. Do not give up efforts to improve yourself was his advice.
Incidentally, when I was the Chief Editor of the Indian and Foreign Review, modeled on the New Statesman, brought out by the Publications Division then for circulation abroad, I used to get articles published on Gandhiji by scholars like Professor K. Swaminathan, B. R. Nanda, and others. One year, I asked a Gandhian scholar, T. K. Mahadevan, to write a review of the latest edition of the Collected Works of Gandhiji. He agreed on one condition that I would not edit it except for factual errors. I agreed
That volume contained Gandhiji's account how he had experimented on his ability to observe Brahmacharya travelling from Simla to Delhi with two young girls. He narrated that his thoughts were not pure during the journey.
T.K. Mahadevan remarked that Gandhiji carried out experiments to assess his moral strength, but never thought what impact his actions would have on young girls.
Those were post-emergency, Janata Government days. The Director of the Publications Division sent a note to the Information and Broadcasting Ministry that I should be punished for publishing an article 'critical' of Gandhiji. The note for action against me went up to the then Information and Broadcasting minister L.K. Advani, who sent it to the Prime Minister Morarji Desai. I was told by my colleagues to pack up and look for another assignment.
Prime Minister Morarji Desai sent back the file with the remark that the review was based on facts published in the Collected Works and the chief editor had done no wrong. I was not to be sacked
It was my Experiment with Truth, and I passed it.
Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer, Government of India. He can be reached on his e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
(Posted on 26-08-2014)