The Father and The Assassin, a play on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathuram Godse, was staged at London’s National Theatre till 18 June. It did succeed in winning some critical acclaim and was termed a political thriller, a poignant telling and also a “blackly hilarious drama”. It was also seen as a short and useful guide for the uninitiated into the pernicious ideology that succeeded in murdering Gandhi.
The play serves as a window to a generation (or more) of UK-based students who have never been taught about colonialism in ways they should have been. There is the Dandi Salt march brought alive, non-violence as an effective strategy against a ruthless and powerful Empire has been dwelt upon, and director Indhu Rubasingham does well to show Partition as she does. There is no bloodied action, but the set designed by Rajha Shakiry with white shrouds falling to the ground around actors playing citizens describing what they are witnessing stays with you long after.
Anupama Chandrasekhar's The Father and The Assassin is a useful guide for the uninitiated into the pernicious ideology that succeeded in murdering Gandhi. But it has many failings.
To show that division and hate propelled Savarkar and Godse is commendable. But to airbrush organisational links that have such contemporary resonance seems a cop-out.
Another jarring note in the play is of presenting Godse as a counter to Gandhian philosophy.
At a time when history is being distorted at all levels, watching Shubham Saraf as Godse draw laughs and applause from the audience is hard.
The state of present-day India makes it impossible to evaluate any artistic quotient of this selective and often distorted presentation of some very difficult history.
The presence of Nathuram’s childhood friend, Vimala, is a good touch, as is Godse’s frustration with Gandhian ideas, which he hopes would remain “like an irrelevant apostrophe”. Yet, they refuse to go away. But Godse-worship is a reality in India today and his ghost has staged a crude comeback. If a play on Gandhi’s assassin has been written and staged, it will be judged against a high bar today.
Two Important Failings
One failing is the absence of any name of a political organisation or militia throughout the script. Can a story about Godse or a bitter VD Savarkar be told minus the mention of the Hindu Mahasabha or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)? Dhirendra Jha’s Gandhi's Assassin: The Making of Nathuram Godse and His Idea of India, a fine biography of Godse, documents how he made a living, stitching RSS uniforms, and as someone very close to the RSS organisers. Jha establishes how there is no proof of his ever leaving the organisation.
You could, of course, say that even staging what writer Anupama Chandrasekhar has managed to do at the South Bank in London would be impossible in today’s India; police complaints, mob attacks and even jail sentences would take over.
No doubt, to show that division and hate propelled Savarkar and Godse is commendable. But to completely airbrush organisational links that have such contemporary resonance seems a cop-out.
The second jarring note is of presenting Godse as a counter to Gandhian philosophy. He may have wielded the gun, but to bring him out as the one waging an ideas battle with Mahatma Gandhi is being unfaithful to facts and unfair to Savarkar. If this was to be a battle of ‘binaries’, as public discourse has tended to stage in recent times, then portraying it as a battle between Hind Swaraj and Hindutva, if not Gandhi versus Savarkar, would have been apt. You would not think of positing Lee Harvey Oswald versus John F Kennedy or Chris Hani versus Janusz Walus. Then why do that here? Gandhi versus Godse does not add up. It does the worshippers of Godse in India today a favour by pulling up his stature, trying to drag him up to Gandhi’s level.
The Limits of Creative Licence
Creative licence usually means adding depth to how the past is viewed via an artistic lens. But no license can condone not mentioning Savarkar’s apology letters to the British to regain his freedom. The portrayal of the lead-up to Partition raises more questions than are answered and Gandhi is hollowed out into a bumbling caricature.
Gandhi’s last fast, weeks before he was gunned down, is cited as being one for ensuring that Pakistan gets a grant of Rs 55 crore, which Nehru and Patel were keen on withholding for some time due to Pakistani raiders attacking Kashmir. This is standard hate-fuelling propaganda, as history has borne out clearly and as has been most recently brought out by historian Ashok Kumar Pandey in his book Why They Killed Gandhi. At no point did Gandhi link his fast to payment for Pakistan. He fasted to try and restore peace in the capital city and managed to secure written undertakings from several leaders that they would strive to bring it about. The ‘Rs 55 crore’ tale is a later-day yarn spun by Gandhi-haters to try and justify the assassination. The play, by swallowing this lie as fact, does a deep disservice.
The sloganeering by Godse and his accomplice, Narayan Apte, at the gallows is inaccurate. Their hanging is meant to be an important moment in the play and the script would have done well to stay really close to the facts. Godse and Apte were inspired by the Sangh idea of an 'Akhand Bharat', but only Apte is said to have raised the slogan at the gallows, not Godse. He is not known to have met his maker with as much verve and guts as is projected in the play. The idea of ‘Akhand’ – or undivided – India had at the heart of it a desire for a Hindu India, keeping the axis of division firmly anti-Muslim and anti-Christian.
It wasn’t as if his assassins wanted a ‘united India’ in the way Gandhi did and hence opposed Partition. That important divergence is completely glossed over by the play choosing to enact the last moments of the two convicts as it does; vital truths are obscured.
Intriguingly, Gandhi’s famous last words – “He Ram” – do not make their way into the play.
When Godse Draws Laughs & Applause
There are many ways of diving into the battle of ideas between Gandhi and his detractors. But at a time when history is being distorted at all conceivable levels, when ruling party MPs like Pragya Thakur openly support Godse and TV debates cheerfully platform hate-mongers, watching Shubham Saraf as Godse draw laughs and applause from the audience with lines written to elicit exactly that response, is hard; it becomes difficult to empathise with the intent behind this production. India’s coarse public sphere is amped up by hate now going beyond debating podiums and coming closer to Godse’s final act.
The present makes it impossible to evaluate any artistic quotient of this selective and often distorted presentation of some very difficult history.
(Seema Chishti is a writer and journalist based in Delhi. Over her decades-long career, she’s been associated with organisations like BBC and The Indian Express. She tweets @seemay. This is an opinion article and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)