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Theatre Review: Mahatma Bonam Gandhi

Arun Mukherjee of Chetana has translated the English version of this play to Bengali and this is the version that is being performed right now
Mahatma Bonam Gandhi
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Chetana’s Mahatma Bonam Gandhi presents on stage the ideological conflict between Mahatma Gandhi and his eldest son Harilal Gandhi. Chetana, a Kolkata based theatre group is one of the oldest in West Bengal. It was founded in 1972 by theatre scholar Arun Mukherjee and is now managed by his two talented sons, Suman Mukherjee, a National Award-winning filmmaker and his younger brother, Sujan Mukherjee who has directed Mahatma Bonam Gandhi and has also enacted the very difficult role of Harilal. It is being presented under the Third Bell banner.

Way back in 1995, I watched a Marathi language play, Gandhi Virudh Gandhi in a Mumbai theatre. It was directed by Chandrakant Kulkarni based on a dramatisation by Ajit Dalvi, a noted professor of Political Science, from Dinkar Joshi’s 400-page 1988 novel in Gujarati, Prakash No Padachhayo, based on the life of Harilal. The play was presented in five Indian languages— Marathi, Hindi, English, Gujarati, and Kannada. Kulkarni directed three of them. Atul Kulkarni, a familiar face in Bollywood is said to have made his stage debut as Gandhi in the play while Kishore Kadam played Harilal. Atul’s work pleased Chandrakant so much that he repeated Atul in the Hindi and Gujarati versions though Atul did not know Gujarati at all. Bhakti Inamdar played Kasturba in the Marathi version. The audience in the full house was stunned into silence, so overpowering was the play enhanced and enriched by the performances of the lead actors. It was raining thunderously outside but though we got completely soaked in the downpour later, we remained haunted for the rest of the night by the play.

Mahatma Bonam Gandhi poster
Mahatma Bonam Gandhi poster

Arun Mukherjee of Chetana has translated the English version of this play to Bengali and this is the version that is being performed right now across the city.  It is named Mahatma Bonam Gandhi and it opens in the dark with the sound of three gunshots piercing the silence followed by the utterance of Hey Ram. Silence. The darkness begins to thin out and the stage gets slowly lit throwing up a huge charkha in the backdrop of the proscenium. The entire play is built around the continuous exchanges between Mahatma Gandhi and the eldest of his four sons, Harilal Gandhi whose constant argument was based on his understanding that his father, while committed to his Nation was unfair to his family specially to his wife Kasturba Gandhi and the eldest son Harilal. 

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If Harilal is the hero, is Mahatma the villain? Not necessarily. But despite the Mahatma’s dedication to the world and to men and women who have placed their complete faith in him, one begins to question the arguments presented by Harilal, who feels neglected by his father. The entire story of Harilal’s growth into adulthood comes across constantly anchored by the father-son debate with Harilal accusing his father of always placing the nation before his family. Harilal dreams of going to London to become a barrister but Gandhi gives the vacant position to another young man as he has no faith in Harilal’s abilities to focus on his education. Harilal engages himself in his father’s movement to arouse the nation but though he does gain some popular backing there, he is ultimately forced out of this position too. 

Nibedita Mukherjee and Anirban Chakrabarti in Mahatma Bonam Gandhi
Nibedita Mukherjee and Anirban Chakrabarti in Mahatma Bonam Gandhi

Somewhere in the shadows of the great man lived his son, roaming the streets of India like a beggar. He converted to Islam and became Abdullah Gandhi as a rebellion, then reconverted to Hinduism as a penance, finally drinking himself to death. Mahatma Gandhi could transform the soul of a nation but could not save the soul of his own son,” says Feroz Abbas Khan who directed a very emotionally moving film on this same story entitled Gandhi, My Father (2008). The film was produced by Anil Kapoor. Sujan drew some of his inspiration and ideas for his play from this film. 

Harilal marries Gulab without informing his parents but Gulab becomes an ideal daughter-in-law though she remains constantly disturbed by the conflict between her husband and his father. Kasturba is trapped between husband and son but as the mother, she is extremely pained and often identifies with Harilal’s troubled mind. She tries to persuade Mahatma to understand Harilal’s desire despite being Harilal’s father. Gandhi is as stubborn as his son is. It is in their genes.

After Gulab Gandhi’s painful death, Harilal loses his mental balance and tries to find solace in women and alcohol. He has returned to India by then and first embraces Islam. Sujan Mukhopadhyay, who also directed the play, performs Harilal, the mentally battered, emotionally disturbed son of Mahatma Gandhi, an embarrassment to the entire Gandhi clan so much so that no one came to his bedside when he lay dying a few months after Gandhi’s assassination on 30 January 1948 in a Bombay hospital. 

Sujan has been able to bring across the emotional trauma he goes through as the son who loves his father deeply but cannot understand why he does not care for his own children and his wife. Harilal’s slow but steady metamorphosis from a young man full of dreams of studying law in London to a devoted follower of his father’s movements and belief more to gain his love than to fulfill his dreams, to a slowly emotionally battered person who craves to just lie down on the lap of his mother when his life is almost at an end. His change is also brought across through his shift in his dress habits, his body language and his gait – from an erect stature he slowly bends under the pressure of his own doubts and failures. A great performance indeed. 

Kasturba and Harilal in Mahatma Bonam Gandhi
Kasturba and Harilal

Anirban Chakrabarti, a noted theatre and film actor, may not have much physical resemblance to Gandhi except the bald wig towards the end. But he has internalised the character with as much perfection as he could and perhaps the long span of his character from the time he was a young man wearing a turban and traditional Gujarati attire to an old man giving himself to the service of the nation has made this possible. He has tried his best to create the complex character based on his research on Gandhi and a study of his earlier plays and films till it reaches a measure of near-perfection. 

Nibedita Mukherjee as Kasturba Gandhi is very good as is Mary Acharya as Gulab Gandhi. Kasturba covers greater footage in this presentation than she had in Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi which makes the performance much longer than it ought to have been. With a running time of nearly three hours, it begins to drag as there is absolutely no relief in this very sombre, serious and historical play rich in emotions more than in history or politics. The abundance of cameo characters somehow tends to dilute the  intensity and the depth of the father-son conflict though one admits that these were necessary to underline the complete irrationality in the father-son relationship. 

The lighting of the play and the production design with the huge spinning wheel with the three famous monkeys slowly making place as a metaphor for Gandhi’s transformation from Mohanlal Karamchand Gandhi to Mahatma Gandhi are incredibly beautiful and pertinent. There is a small surrealistic scene showing Harilal coming to meet his mother Kasturba, who everyone called “Ba” for a glimpse of her. But he is already dead by then. Prabudhha Banerjee’s musical score keeps changing not only with the moods of the play but also with the physical ambience of the situation. The closure shows father and son, both long dead, walking towards the river Jamuna to complete their discussion. 

The only negative point in the entire performance is its inordinate length.

Images courtesy: Shoma A. Chatterji, Chetana & Saswata Chatterjee

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has won the National Award twice, in 1991 and 2000. She has authored 26 published titles of which 14 are on different areas of Indian cinema. She holds two Masters Degrees and a Ph.D. in History (Indian Cinema). She has also won a few Lifetime Achievement Awards from different organizations over time.

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