Watching historical movies is a great exercise in testing how little you know about a given subject, even if it’s, hypothetically speaking, a renowned icon of the twentieth century. It’s also a great excuse to question why you know pathetically little about one of the most populous countries on the planet. Fun fact: up until yesterday, I believed that Indira Gandhi was Mohandas Gandhi’s daughter or granddaughter or something, because how could they not be kin and also how weird is it that both were assassinated? Color me ignorant.
Recently, I’ve seen new writing about Gandhi: he’s been a subject of some more intense scrutiny. For example, he supposedly tested his commitment to celibacy by having various little girl relatives sleep in his bed. Creepy. An article in National Geographic revisited his Salt March and his legacy today throughout the country, including the long-term impact on the acceptance of Dalits (the Untouchable caste) in modern society. It could be better – but then, so could our own interpersonal relations in America.
Very little of that criticism makes it into this biopic. Overall, it’s a pretty glowing jaunt through some of Gandhi’s most significant victories in his struggle for Indian independence, starting with his battle for Indian equality in South Africa (equality for blacks would have to come much later). Some of it’s vaguely familiar to me, like the aforementioned Salt March (though I somehow had the impression that it happened a decade or two earlier, and also that Gandhi himself died considerably before independence). There was also a fairly disturbing massacre of Indians who were peacefully demonstrating, killed under orders of some unapologetic British general. I looked up the name of it, but have forgotten, and it’s kind of sad how easily such things are swept into the annals of history.
Gandhi brings to mind Paul Farmer, he of Partners in Health, the medical organization that renders aid to Haiti and other poor countries in great need. How could someone be that good, that selfless? And, just as in reading Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, I feel slightly guilty about being bored to tears by a biographical epic about someone who did good things in the world. Maybe it’s partly because I recognize that I will never be so influential and am not even capable of being remotely as selfless.
But also because there’s nothing really to challenge me intellectually here. I can appreciate the personal sacrifices he made, perhaps even question within myself whether I could successfully protest injustice in such an effective way (sad truth confession: probably not). On the other hand, it’s hard to think critically about a historical figure who came out on the right side of history. When you already know what happened, it’s hard not to see the arc as inevitable, even if the reality was nothing so definite.
On the plus side, Gandhi leaves us with some reassuring words, in a time that threatens the freedom of the world: “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail. Think of it: always.”
First Time Watching? Yup
Final Verdict: The truth is the truth.