THE FILM ENDS with George Floyd’s searing words: “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe…” Unarmed. Unprovoked. Unravelled. It recalls images of satyagrahis in India, almost a century ago, being beaten by police officers of the British Empire, not even raising their hands to defend themselves—as Mahatma Gandhi had trained them.
Oppressors across time and across continents have launched themselves with ferocity on the bodies of those who protest their conditions. It could be followers of a dhoti-clad man marching towards a powerful symbol—a handful of salt taken from the salt pans of Dandi, without the Government’s tax. It could be a crowd of young Black men and women striding towards Birmingham, Alabama, where they would be met by violence of the worst kind. It could be South Africa’s remarkable Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by Nelson Mandela with Bishop Desmond Tutu, an effort to make the former autocrats and the former subjugated sit across from each other.
“No system can stand if people refuse to cooperate with it,” says professor Mary Elizabeth King in Ahimsa—Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless, a new documentary by Ramesh Sharma that has won the award for the best documentary feature at the recently concluded New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF). Throughout history, the shadow of one man has loomed large across the world whenever people have raised their voice against injustice, from Czech playwright Václav Havel to Polish miner Lech Walesa. That shadow belongs to Mahatma Gandhi, whom Ahimsa director Sharma calls one of India’s greatest exports.
First screened in 2019, to mark the Mahatma’s 150th birth anniversary, the film looks ahead at the future, at a world which needs his wisdom more than ever before.
Gandhian scholar Ramin Jahanbegloo, who features in the film, believes that Ahimsa will help to revitalise a new interest in Gandhi, the man and his philosophy. “I believe that Gandhi remains our contemporary and he pops up wherever there is a struggle against injustice and for truth. Gandhi is the thinker and practitioner of empowering the powerless. Strangely, Indians need him more than ever today, to be able to have a proper view of their difficulties and ways to get out of it.” As for humanity at large, says Jahanbegloo, all cultures need to translate and read Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj on the same level as Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince or Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract.
Indeed, when they showed the 1982 film Gandhi by Richard Attenborough in Prague cinemas in 1987, the country was electrified. “It was about us,” says Czech activist Jan Urban. “It was a most stupid mistake by the Communist regime. I watched it seven times. As we sat there in the darkness of the hall, we were all liberated. It was not Gandhi and his people. It was all of us,” he recalls in the film.
Of such subversive acts are revolutions made. Sharma has long been an admirer of the Mahatma. Coming off The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl (2006), Sharma thought the world was destroying itself physically, morally and spiritually. Who is that one iconic figure who can inspire us, he wondered, and he could only think of Gandhi. It was on another 9/11 in 1906 in Johannesburg, South Africa, that Gandhi first articulated the word ‘satyagraha’. “When I saw that coincidence I wanted to raise money to make the film,” says Sharma.
Every generation, he believes, needs to be told of its icons in a new way. He used the Spike Lee advertisement for Italia Telecom in 2004 as inspiration in which the Mahatma’s message is relayed across the world. His words in the ad, taken from the speech given to the Inter-Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi, April 1947, are more relevant than ever says Sharma. “If you want to give a message it must be a message of ‘love’, it must be a message of ‘truth’. I want to capture your hearts. Let your hearts clap in unison with what I’m saying. A friend asked yesterday, ‘Did I believe in one world?’ How can I possibly do otherwise, of course I believe in one world.”
There is the message of love, there is the power of communicating globally using simple symbols, and there is also the sustainability activist, always looking for a lasting solution rather than a quick fix.
Sharma points to his use of the Dandi March in 1930 to focus global attention on India’s independence struggle. There were men like Webb Miller, for instance, the UPI (United Press International) reporter who relayed news of the Dandi March and the breaking of the salt laws as they happened to Americans back home, influencing a new generation of African-American activists. It got him on the cover of Time magazine, with the headline ‘Saint Gandhi’, and the inside story saying, ‘Pinch of Salt’. Miller’s story of British brutality against unarmed satyagrahis cut the moral ground from beneath the feet of the British Empire.
Gandhi was always accessible to reporters and photographers from around the globe. JA Mills of Associated Press became a friend who travelled with him to London for the 1931 Roundtable Conference, William Shirer wrote stirring accounts of the Mahatma in The Chicago Tribune and if it wasn’t for Margaret Bourke White’s photographs, the true horrors of Direct Action Day in 1946 Calcutta would not have been visible to the world. Gandhi would write to people across the world, from Leo Tolstoy to Romain Rolland. “He was one of our most prolific writers and he was so humble, he would answer anyone. The power of his moral force was so high that every word reached the remotest corner of India. He was ambidextrous, that’s how he wrote Hind Swaraj,” says Sharma.
If you want to give a message it must be a message of ‘love’, it must be a message of ‘truth’. I want to capture your hearts, says Ramesh Sharma, director
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No culture has learnt the Gandhian lesson better than the African-American culture, perhaps his true inheritors. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “My inspiration is from Christ but my techniques are from Gandhi.” Sharma was lucky to get two of King’s greatest associates, Reverend James Lawson, and the late great Congressman John Lewis on record in the documentary. When Lewis says in the film that the Mahatma’s idea of non-violence would redeem the soul of the world, he meant it—Sharma says Lewis’ life itself exemplified Ahimsa. And when Reverend Lawson explains ahimsa or non-violence as love in action, it has the weight of years of strategising and designing the civil rights movement in it. Both Lewis and Reverend Lawson endured beatings, insults and arrests in their journey to where America is at.
ASEEM CHHABRA, THE festival director of the New York Indian Film Festival, saw Sharma’s documentary at a private screening in Delhi in 2019 and was moved by its message. So, he decided to programme it at the festival. “I am glad Ramesh and his team agreed to showcase the film to our audience even though we held a virtual film festival this year. Each year after the films are selected, our programming committee nominates five films in the following categories—best film, best director, best screenplay, best actor, best actress, best child actor, best documentary (feature length), best documentary (short) and best short (narrative). We then send the nominated films to our independent jury made up of filmmakers, cinematographers, film journalists, film professors and other festival programmers. The jury is divided into three groups. The jury watches the films assigned to their group and sends their votes to an auditor at [accounting organisation] KPMG. The festival team has no idea who the winners are. The final results are announced on the closing day,” he says.
They had five strong films nominated in the best documentary category, but he is thrilled that the jury picked Ahimsa—Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless as the winner. At a time when the world seems to be sliding into authoritarianism, and democracy, in some countries, has become a mockery, the Mahatma’s message is more powerful than ever. “Non-violence didn’t just end with freedom. You have to believe in it for life. There has to be a change of heart, attitude and mind,” says Sharma. It is what Jahanbegloo calls the spiritualisation and ethicisation of politics, which is quite different from the mixing of religion and politics. As Gandhi’s grandson and scholar, Rajmohan Gandhi says: “Gandhi is our braver and more compassionate self. And he is under attack, at times by us. No wonder we are unable to forget him.”
Indeed, there are no heroes left today, says Sharma, except maybe the Dalai Lama and even he is helpless. The Mahatma is one of the few whose stature in the moral, physical and spiritual world remains untouched. The country is ungovernable today because there is so much hatred. Sharma wants the film to travel now as much as the Mahatma did, across festivals, colleges and universities. Sharma, who directed the iconic movie about journalism up against political chicanery, New Delhi Times in 1986, is now planning a documentary on forgotten genocides in Bangladesh and Rwanda. “I want to explore that fatal flaw within society that makes people butcher others,” he says, as he draws up plans, to snag an interview with former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. With his track record of getting Civil Rights veterans such as Lewis and Reverend Lawson on camera, this is not something he will allow to stand in the way of telling yet another story, as it happened. Before the world forgets.