Based on Asghar Wajahat’s play, Rajkumar Santoshi’s Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh makes a tectonic revision to Indian history — what if Gandhi (Deepak Antani) survived Godse’s (Chinmay Mandlekar) three bullets, and then, meeting him after, reformed his worldview, while learning a thing or two about being less stuck up?
This is the kind of good-intentioned writing and filmmaking that can be described as naive at best, and delusional at worst. The film wants to be a balm. It wants to cure divisions. Make people better. The yawns write themselves into the script. Every interaction between Gandhi and Godse becomes a catechism, with this didactic quality where Gandhi tries to make Godse see reason, acknowledge that his ideology is actually a prejudice, that what he considers deep love is actually based on deep hate. As films must rumble into a neat climax, here, too, the neatness of reform can be seen in Godse’s arc. It is troublingly simple. Would Godse turn his back on Savarkar now, his mentor, after being moved by Gandhi’s words? Would he go back to the RSS, to the Hindu Mahasabha? Would he join the Congress?
Such questions cannot be demanded of this film, because it refuses to see Godse — or even Gandhi for that matter — as a person beyond their political beliefs. They become talking ideas, which is rather unfortunate, because ideas don’t have an interior life. People do. Godse did. And by stripping Godse to that one act, and spinning an entire film around it, the film cheats its own promise of a capacious heart.
How to, then, think of Godse more expansively? In Dhirendra K Jha’s book Gandhi’s Assassin: The Making Of Nathuram Godse And His Idea Of India, Godse is described, movingly, as “a low-spirited young man who gazed out upon an incomprehensible world with a mixture of bitterness and longing.” He didn’t get around with women. He wasn’t the most confident cutout from the RSS stables. Jha deepens his analysis, going further back. He points out that Godse was named Nathu — or the one with the pierced nose — because as an infant, his parents got his nose pierced since they wanted to trick fate by bringing him up as a girl. Godse’s mother had given birth to three sons prior to Godse, all of whom died in infancy, and she believed that piercing Godse’s nose, allowing him to dress in female clothing, would let him survive. This ghost loomed over Godse’s adulthood.
Jha, then, sees Godse being excited by the RSS as a masculine Hindu outfit as a way to burnish his idea of masculinity, to be accepted into this masculine world. Suddenly, his violence is given context, his blind ambitions some heft, his angst girded by his insecurities. These are not ideas that are brewed in a vacuum — which is what Gandhi Godse: Ek Yudh makes it feel like. Ideology and prejudice, both, are rooted in interior lives. They don’t spring up as discrete and detachable addendums to our personality.
Gandhi and Godse speak to each other as though they are aware of being not just totemic figures of a certain ideology, but also iconic, historic figures. At one point, Gandhi points to the sky and says, “Itihas faisla karega”, as though history is both god and judge.
What is more frustrating is Santoshi’s belief that Gandhi’s gram rajya, his idea of village republics, is more effective and just than Nehru’s democracy and the judicial system it has in place. Every instance of the village republic’s “justice” in this film comes from Gandhi being brought into a situation to mobilize crowds and, thus, demand justice. Justice in the gram rajya is an idea that is held by the wafer-thin foundation of Gandhi’s strong personality. But the film, grotesquely naive in these portions, refuses to imagine what a gram rajya would look like in the absence of Gandhi. It refuses to even acknowledge the one scalding lesson we have acquired from history — that Gandhi’s ideas survived only because of Gandhi. That ideology and ideologue fuse irretrievably.
The film is, then, for all intents and purposes anti-modernity. Gandhi, meanwhile, gallavants across the countryside through half the film, performing a sangharsh wherever he sees injustice. A relentless string of Gandhi seeking justice against the unjust — how many protests can we see before we tire out? Patience pales.
It doesn’t help that Santoshi’s direction is stuck in the 1990s, in expressionist cinema, where he is content with showing people on screen as angry or sad or happy — he isn’t interested in making us feel these emotions, because his direction is so blunt and affectless. Godse’s anger comes out as grunts and Gandhi’s kindness comes off as groveling. Santoshi’s filmography is, if you thumb down the long list, a masterclass in comedy, and this emerges in the small bursts of humour — like when Nehru’s elbow slips from his chair as a shocked response to one of Gandhi’s demands — and the smaller bursts of charm — like Gandhi’s mottled, sweet laughter.
Santoshi brings in a tepid, almost feckless, love story between a weepy Sushma (Tanisha Santoshi) who wants to serve Gandhi and a metallic Naren (Anuj Saini), her boyfriend whom she intends to marry. When Gandhi finds out about their love, he threatens to send Sushma away because there is no space for that kind of love in the ashram. The sole narrative aim of this couple is to bring out Gandhi’s weakness, one that Godse can treat, because this film wants both to teach and learn. That Gandhi must not shy away from non-platonic love as love. I say non-platonic, but the film hints at it with a ten-inch bargepole. That is, afterall, the cinematic essence of Gandhi’s discomfort and this is the discomfort of Santoshi’s cinematic essence. To imply a love that is non-platonic but not say it directly, to tip-toe around it. God forbid Gandhi uses "the" word. That it is Godse, a man who remained unmarried throughout his life and had a fraught relationship with the other gender, who delivers this message is either ironic or unstudied. The point is, while Gandhi teaches Godse to love, Godse teaches Gandhi to let others love. As you can imagine, it’s tiresome, this algebra of justice.