Rajkumar Santoshi’s Gandhi Godse — Ek Yudh begins with a long disclaimer. Based on a speculative play Godse@Gandhi.com, it states that the makers have tried to present the ideologies of these two figures in an ‘unbiased’ fashion. But this strange parallelism isn’t the first striking feature of this drama. Because its neediness and desperation stand out much more.
The opening credits contain archival footage from the Partition: burning buildings, injured people, dead bodies. The background score booms, mimicking the intensity of crowds howling. This style persists throughout with additional features: a constant cinematographic excess (showing four reaction shots, for instance, when one would suffice), loud performances, newspaper clippings.
The movie unfolds in three broad parts: from Indian independence to Godse shooting Gandhi, the next few months of their respective lives, and their interactions in jail. The first part is intercut between two segments: Gandhi (Deepak Antani) upset over the communal fire in the country; Godse (Chinmay Mandlekar) upset over the plight of Hindus. Even though the film remains fair and empathetic to Gandhi, it makes some strange conflations – and takes remarkable dramatic license – while depicting Godse.
Positing him as an ‘angry Hindu’, the drama uses his rage to broad stroke most, if not all, Hindus. The Hindu refugee camp chants “Gandhi hai hai”. Another long sequence shows Godse witnessing the ‘forceful’ evacuation of Hindus (who had occupied the Muslims’ homes), prodding us to empathise with him. One dramatic scene after the other position Gandhi as ‘anti-Hindu’, almost justifying Godse. How does the movie portray the murderer? Angry and unhinged, unhinged and angry. Godse, the OG bhakt, yaps about the few same things throughout the movie: Hindu, Hindutva, Akhand Bharat, the Rs 55 crore loan to Pakistan.
This movie is so committed to Centrism 101 that it kept me confused for some time. Because in many scenes, Godse does come across as how you’d expect him to be: unreasonable and petty, insecure and dangerous. But I also kept thinking, ‘Is the film aware of it?’ That confusion exacerbates when the film subtly tries to depict Godse as virtuous, such as him not betraying Gandhi’s trust (when he insists on meeting his killer unarmed).
Its screenwriting misfires are as egregious. The middle segment – reimagining Gandhi and Godse’s lives after January 30, 1948 – is a masterclass in flabby filmmaking. We get one superfluous subplot after the other. In one of them, a young woman, Sushma (Tanisha Santoshi), joins Gandhi to do “desh sewa”. She’s dating a supportive man, but Gandhi would have none of it, for he considers love itself “vikaar [a disorder]”. Gandhi first disapproves of the alliance, then becomes downright hostile and dictatorial: it’s either your relationship, he tells her, or the country. Elsewhere, Gandhi wants to dissolve Congress; the party disagrees; Gandhi leaves.
The subplot centered on Gram Swarajya held some promise, but it too is undone by unimaginative execution. We get three overlong sequences – centred on an attempted rape, the tussle between the Indian government and the Adivasis, and the villagers forming their own police force – interpreted by the media and the leaders as Gandhi becoming the court, government and police. Gandhi is jailed for being a “desh drohi”, where he meets his nemesis. Godse, on the other hand, continues his repetitive rants against Gandhi. Till the first 70 minutes, you hardly find out anything new about either of them that’s not been covered in countless books, pieces and films.
If there’s anything new here, it’s in the final confrontation. Gandhi asks Godse his vision about the country. Godse points to the map of ‘Akhand Bharat’ on the jail’s wall. Gandhi says you can’t form a country without winning people’s trust. He then tells Godse you haven’t even visited most parts of this country, adding, “Tum bina dekhe, bina jaane pyaar karte ho [You love something without seeing or knowing it]?” These bits both surprised and moved me. But the best lines come right after: Gandhi tells Godse “you’re making Hindustan small”, followed by “you’re making Hinduism small”. When Gandhi questions Godse on why he didn’t even throw a stone at the Britishers, he walks away mortified.
This small stretch is easily the best part of the movie. Not just because of what it says but how: these dialogues have a Gandhian quality to them – disagreement not through admonition but introspection. But to endure a 110-minute movie for a five-minute exchange is a stretch in itself. Gandhi Godse — Ek Yudh could have been a compelling (maybe an impressive) 20-minute short, because this story is neither literally nor metaphorically deep. Besides, its strange assertion of a ‘reformed’ Godse at the end – who hasn’t changed his core beliefs – makes it even more muddled. You can make a movie about the warring perspectives but you still need to have your own point of view. I have no idea what this film believes in.
Which is why my most enjoyable moment didn’t come from the movie but outside it. Around 20 minutes into the film, two young men entered the theatre and sat beside me. A few minutes later, the one to my right asked, “Yeh Pathaan movie hai na?” Suppressing my smile, I told him the film’s name. A baffled expression coloured his face and he left the theatre. For the rest of the film, that expression often marked my face, too, but I wasn’t as lucky as him.