Swati Gauri Sharma

How Gandhi got his mojo back

By Swati Gauri Sharma
October 13, 2006

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IN INDIA and the West, the legacies and teachings of prominent historical figures are all too often lost among pop culture, new technology, and the media. But a new hit movie in India has somehow managed to make Indians shift their focus from Brad Pitt, who is adored there, to the most important figure in modern Indian history -- Gandhi.

Gandhi's sudden popularity among all ages and cultures in India brings to an end a long period in which his fame and influence had faded. While Hollywood holds a similar significance in people's lives as Mumbai-based Bollywood, the most popular branch of the Indian film industry, and has more money, resources, and global reach, it has not been able to create the same kind of response as Bollywood was able to generate for a historical figure.

Until August, when a comedy with Gandhi as a central figure was released all over India, most of the people who spoke about Gandhi and his values were alive when he was shot in 1948. Now, all generations have re-embraced the father, or ``Bapu," of the nation.

In the movie, titled ``Lage Raho Munna Bhai," gangster Munna Bhai meets Gandhi and instead of indulging in his usual ``dadagiri," meaning bullying, he endorses Gandhi's teachings of non-violence and battles with his enemy by giving him flowers, rather than punches.

``Gandhigiri," a term coined by the movie and a play on the word ``dadagiri," means to use moral force and kindness to make a point or fight injustice. College students in Lukhnow, who in the past held many violent protests, decided this year to practice ``Gandhigiri" and pass out flowers instead of screaming angry words. On a smaller level, Reuters India reported that a girl, Shweta Polanki, broke up with her boyfriend when he made whistling noises to get the attention of a waiter, a gesture that is belittling and disrespectful, according to ``Gandhigiri."

Elsewhere in India, thieves who stole goods from a poor man decided to return them after watching this movie. The governments in many states have declared the movie tax-free, so moviegoers will not be charged tax when buying a ticket, and the leader of the Congress party, the ruling party in India, has urged members to watch the film.

The influence of Gandhi on the lovable character of Munna Bhai has caused all generations in India to remember the teachings of Bapu. The actor who played Munna Bhai, Sanjay Dutt, said that Gandhi, ``looking down from heaven, must be happy to see a nation reawakened."

A reawakening was necessary because before this film, the man whose picture is on many major public buildings and on India's currency was in danger of being forgotten. In the face of India's unprecedented technological growth, nuclear arms, and the growing influence of Western culture, Gandhi's relevance had slowly dissipated. Adding to that was the effort of Congress's rival party, Bharatiya Janata, which ruled from 1998 to 2004, to lower the significance of Gandhi, who was a Congress stalwart. This movie made it possible for people to let go of their party loyalties and simply focus on Gandhi's teachings.

It is difficult but not impossible to imagine Hollywood bringing the views of a historical American figure like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King Jr. into such focus. Here, movies have been made portraying leaders such as John F. Kennedy, and the recent ``Good Night and Good Luck" demonstrated the power of Edward R. Morrow's words. But none of these movies appealed to the general public the way ``Lage Raho Munna Bhai" has.

One that did is ``March of the Penguins," which was both educational and a box-office hit. The Academy Award-winning documentary was about the yearly journeys of penguins in Antarctica, and was targeted for all age groups. Similarly, the strength of ``Munna Bhai" was that it appealed across the board, from people who have college degrees to illiterates. In India, most movies are made for families. The best praise a movie can get in India is, ``It's an all-out family movie."

Hollywood, and the media overall, hold inestimable influence in our world today. Many people care more about what Tom Cruise's daughter looks like than the war in Iraq. Hollywood could do so much for the general public by making entertaining yet informative films about historical figures that would touch every generation.

What America needs is a film that encourages people to take up Gandhigiri, Kinggiri, or Kennedygiri. If it worked for Bollywood, it could work for Hollywood.

Swati Gauri Sharma is a journalism and political science major at University of Massachusetts at Amherst.