Hollywood's lavish recognition of "Gandhi" as the year's best movie has greatly alarmed some journals and journalists. They seem to fear that it will set off a stampede to pacifism.
Commentary Magazine, for instance, has a long diatribe against Gandhi, the man, who is portrayed as a sanctimonious humbug. This screed, I guess, is supposed to immunize us against the Gandhi virus.
Then Sir Richard Attenborough, the director, accepted his Oscar in the name of peace, of all things.
Well, the Gandhi story is undoubtedly catnip for Western political sentimentalists, though Gandhi himself was a shrewd and undeceived realist. In any case, I expect film directors to be a bit sappy about politics. And I am less disturbed by the remote danger that Western youth will be unmanned en masse by the Mahatma's example than that some conservative writers will make fools of themselves trying to prevent it.
Much is to be said for treating heroic subjects with respect; and "Gandhi" is the story of a hero, even though he is a hero who seems exotic to Westerners. Of necessity, the movie condenses the story, and simplifies Gandhi's strange and somewhat contradictory character. But the spirit of historical truth is there. (I speak as one recently force-fed on Gandhi biographies).
But why "Gandhi" just now? Hollywood calls it, breezily, a "bio-pic," but it is more than the story of one man. It reminds us that two powerful principles of political organization have largely shaped our age: imperialism and nationalism. Postwar history has been in many ways the product of their clash.
In the Marxist analysis--unlike life --both are mere forces, not the embodiment of human dreams. Imperialism is viewed as a last greedy grab for resources and markets to prop up a dying capitalism, while nationalism is an impertinent distraction from natural working-class solidarity.
No one who studies the story of Gandhi and the end of British India can for a moment credit such nonsense. The story is incomplete without human passions, and those passions are well portrayed in "Gandhi." The greatest of British viceroys was not Irwin, with whom Gandhi argued over the salt monopoly, or Mountbatten, who directed the handover of power, but Lord Curzon.
And Curzon, though unseen, is a part of the story; for he was the greatest apologist of imperialism. As he prepared to leave India in 1906 (Gandhi was then in South Africa, sharpening the techniques of nonviolent resistance), Curzon urged his successors "to remember"--he was speaking of British India--"that the Almighty has placed your hands on the greatest of his ploughs, in whose furrow the nations of the future are germinating."
His only aim, he said, had been "to feel that somewhere among these millions you have left a little justice or happiness or prosperity . . . a dawn of intellectual enlightenment or a stirring of duty where it did not exist before. . . . Let India be my judge."
In time India was his judge, and its judgment was that the sahib's rule, even in its lofty paternalistic vision, could not satisfy the thirst for independence. Yet who can read Curzon's words unmoved? Who can doubt that he meant them all? Not I.
In Mohandas Gandhi, long after Curzon's day had passed, Indian nationalism found a leader whose vision was as generous as his. It was far removed from the poisonous brands of nationalism that flourished elsewhere. Gandhi was, in short, the prophet of a benign nationalism that absorbed and built upon the imperial tradition it overthrew. That is one big reason why India, for all its shortcomings since independence, hasn't sunk into the tinpot authoritarianism so often typical of post-colonial societies.
Attenborough's version of the story may be a bit sterilized, but it is refreshingly free of that cynicism about historical cause and effect that leaves human influence and passion out. It may not tell the whole truth about Gandhi or his cause, but it tells enough of it to matter. There is tinsel, but this time, as has been said, it's real tinsel.