“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, And then they fight you and that’s when you win….” – Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
They gave me a white cotton shirt to wear over my t-shirt and told me not to tuck it into my jeans. That way the jeans wouldn’t be noticed. They said I could take the shirt home as a memento if I liked and I did. I’d have preferred to take Candice Bergen home with me instead. She had played the role of the beautiful blonde prize-winning photographer for Life Magazine, Margaret Bourke-White.
It was Pune, 1982 and I am referring to the filming of a scene from Sir Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ in which I had the privilege of working as an extra. The scene was the part of the story that depicted his time in South Africa.
The set was the N.M.Wadia amphitheater of the 100-year old Ferguson College in Pune – a massive wood paneled hall with tiered seats. I was 26 and my vivacious girlfriend, Meghna Kulkarni, was also an extra. A petite BA (performing arts) student, Meghna was a gifted actress herself and a member of Dr Mohan Agashe’s theater group. The producers had approached Dr Agashe for a bit part as well as help in organizing crowds of extras for the filming and he had in turn ‘sub-contracted’ the crowd gathering chore to Meghna and her friends.
So there was I. For two days, I was in the thick of it, watching the Mahatma (Ben Kingsley) deliver a rousing speech, exhorting Indians in South Africa to resist being treated as second class citizens. It was a master class in acting.
In the shot, Kingsley says, “Let us be clear about General Smuts’ new law : that all Indians must now be fingerprinted like criminals. That no marriage, other than a Christian marriage, is valid. That under this act, our wives and mothers are whores and every man here is a bastard. That policemen may enter our dwellings and demand our identity documents. Understand, they do not have to wait at the door. They may enter.”
At that point, an audience member in the front row, ‘Khan’ (Amrish Puri), springs to his feet in rage and swears he’ll kill the first cop who walks through his doorstep uninvited.
Puri’s timing was impeccable and so was Kingsley’s dialogue delivery. It was obvious that that Kingsley had practiced painstakingly. I got to know the extent of his prep for the role only later on, when filming broke for lunch.
Attenborough had this quaint way of wrapping up a shot. He never said, “Cut!!” He simply stood up, came around the camera and said in a quiet hoarse tone, “That’ll be enough of that.” Similarly, I never heard him say, “All ready..3..2..1..Action!!!” In that same hoarse tone, he would simply say,”Ready when you are…..”
Candice Bergen was not in the scene being shot but she was present on the set, watching the filming. Bergen wasn’t a very well-known actress, at least not in India, so no one took any notice of her, beyond the usual gawking at a pretty gora woman. In fact, most of the actors on the set were not well known, so there were no stampedes for autographs or hordes of awestruck fans. The only recognizable face was Amrish Puri’s and he sat through the whole thing with poise.
Every time Gandhi/Kingsley spoke, Meghna would be overcome with emotion and vigorously wipe her tearful face on my shirt. My repeatedly whispered ‘take it easy, this is just a movie, yaar’ did nothing to stop her. Other extras standing next to us began turning their heads to stare at Meghna and all this while the camera was rolling.
It got so bad that, at one point, while Kingsley was speaking the lines, “They can break my bones but they cannot break my will…..” Attenborough said, “A minute, Ben” and walked up the tiers of seats to where we were standing and confronted Meghna. Both of us thought this is it. We were going to be chucked out on our tushes.
Instead, the director’s face, ruddy from the heat and glistening with sweat, softened and he said words to the effect,” You know, I have been crying ever since I started reading up on the Mahatma. Cry all you want, just keep it down”. He gave Meghna a quick pat on the shoulder and his eyes twinkled mischievously as he added,” Or I’ll have to send you the bill for the delay”.
The unit had broken for lunch and everyone had dispersed. Meghna and I had nowhere to go so we hung around the set, tripping over wires and stuff, till we set ourselves down on the ground and leaned back against a large box filled with sound equipment. Silence had fallen over the set. Those days there were no hulking security guys with wires coming out of their ears to manhandle you, so no one asked us to leave.
As we sat by the box, I heard a shuffle and looked over my shoulder. Seated cross-legged alone, barely an arm’s length away, next to a bunch of dormant klieg lights, on the dirt floor was a barefoot Ben Kingsley. For the shot, he had been wearing a coat and pants but now he had on just a kurta. He sat there soaked in sweat. There was a thali (ordered from the nearby Roopali restaurant) perched on his lap and on the floor by him stood a glass of mango lassi.
As Meghna and I gawked, Kingsley noticed us staring. He smiled and cleared his throat. Almost instantaneously, a whispered hum rose from his lips, exquisite in its melody and so soft that we could just barely hear him….
“Raghupati raghava rajaram patita pavana seeta ram (Hail Rama, lord and master. Hail Seeta and Rama, who make even the fallen, pure)”
He paused and looked at us gaping at him dumbstruck. Meghna shivered and clung on to me. Kingsley’s diction and tone was pitch perfect. He dropped the chapati on the thali and raised his palms together in Hindu supplication, his eyes drawn shut and his head swaying from side to side. Very softly, as if setting free something very fragile, he let out the rest of the words…
“Ishwar e allah tero naam, Sab ko sanmati de Bhagwan” (You can be Ishwar or you can be Allah, but your benevolence is toward all)
What Kingsley hummed so beautifully was a Bhajan (Hindu devotional song) that used to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite. That bhajan appears multiple times in the movie.
Kinglsey paused and opened his eyes and gave us another terrific smile. The spell broke and he resumed devouring his chapatis and veg pulao. And he chewed and chatted. He told us that he had been walking around barefoot for the past year or so. At first he had blisters but now he didn’t feel anything. In his Blue Diamond Hotel suite, the A/C knob was left at zero and he had thrown the sliding widows open. Instead of ordering room service, he was subsisting on the fruit basket that room service had left on a side table.
Shortly after being told that he’d been picked to play the role of Gandhi, Kingsley turned a teetotaler and he intended staying that way for the rest of his life. At night in his hotel room, he read from a paperback concise translation of the Bhagwad Gita and after a while, he curled up on the floor and slept. “I’m trying to get them to remove the carpet…..one can make do with so little actually……,” he told us, breaking into that Gandhi smile every now and then.
There was no question about it – the actor had been touched by the greatness of the Mahatma.
Later that afternoon, they shot the pass-burning scene at the playground outside the amphitheater. It was getting late and Meghna had a mid-term exam the next morning, so we split. We stopped by the Vaishali snack restaurant where I had a dosa and she a plate of idlis and then I walked her home on Tilak Road, across the Mutha River.
As we walked hand-in-hand, not a word passed between us. I tried to make light of it by saying, hey, we forgot to take autographs, but I gave up and fell silent. Usually there was a fixed pattern by which our evenings together seemed always to end – with a long canoodle. That evening it was going to be a nocandoodle, looked like.
We had just witnessed something very special. For a brief moment, through a roundabout route, across a canyon of decades, our lives had been touched by the Mahatma.