Bollywood film a hit - and so, is Gandhi

By First Posted: Dec 7, 2006 Thu 11:30 AM Updated: Dec 7, 2007 Fri 12:25 AM

With his round glasses, homespun white cloth and walking stick, the father of India has hardly been fashionable with the jet-setting, jeans-wearing urban Indian youth of today.

But a new Bollywood movie, a comedy about a thug, a disc jockey and Mahatma Gandhi, has turned into one of the biggest hits of the year and made Gandhi suddenly hip.

Inspired by the hit movie, Indians are increasingly embracing his philosophy, staging nonviolent protests, starting Web sites, handing out roses to enemies and putting on peaked white caps from the Gandhi era. His face beams from trendy T-shirts. Bumper stickers proclaim his pithy aphorisms, such as "Truth is God."

"We forgot that man all these years, and everything went haywire," said Varsha Das, director of the Gandhi National Museum, a dusty repository for everything from Gandhi-s dentures to his foot-cleaning stone. "I very strongly feel there is absolutely no other way to change society but through Gandhi. We have reached the peak of the mountain, as far as violence and corruption are concerned."

The movie, "Lage Raho Munna Bhai," or "Carry On Munna Bhai," is bringing a street-smart, simplified version of Gandhi into fashion, a guy comfortable shadowing a low-level mafia don and understanding Mumbai slang.

It-s a comedy about Munna Bhai, a gangster in the business hub of Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, who falls in love with the voice of a radio disc jockey and decides to win a Gandhi radio quiz show to meet her. Dance scenes, gags involving Gandhi professors, sentimental music, Gandhi-s spirit, weddings and nonviolent protests follow. The main song in the movie repeatedly proclaims "Gandhi had guts."

In a key part, Munna Bhai leads a protest against a cruel landlord by sending him flowers and holding up signs urging him to "get well soon." By the movie-s end, the hero wins the girl, and the actor playing Gandhi is busy teaching the landlord his philosophy.

Indians are seeing the movie over and over. Recently a boy took his 70-year-old grandmother, who saw Gandhi in person when she was a child. Parents took their children. People left the movie, just shy of three hours, talking about how cool Gandhi was and how they wanted to follow him.

"You are pumped up with many things," said Rohit Vij, 22, a graduate student in marketing who has seen the movie twice. "You-re motivated. You think more positively, and that-s important, as we are kind of living in a very negative world."

Tara Gandhi Bhattacharjee, Gandhi-s granddaughter, who has not yet seen the movie, said she had not heard one negative comment about it.

"My grandson who-s almost 15 said it-s a fantastic movie," said Bhattacharjee, adding that she wanted to congratulate the filmmaker. "He said, `I had not known Gandhi before, but this film brought him alive to me.-"

Gandhi helped lead India to independence in 1947 from British rule through his nonviolence movement. Streets have been named after him in most cities and his statue overlooks many traffic circles.

But his relevance and message of simplicity and self-sacrifice in gadget-driven modern India often are questioned.

Not one student signed up for a recent post-graduate class on Gandhi at Bangalore University. At a re-creation of his famous 1930 salt march last year, most of the core participants were foreigners. Museums dedicated to him have been like forgotten tombs, visited only rarely by Indian scholars and foreign tourists.

Officials regularly demand bribes for the most basic services, such as setting up a new telephone number. Police demand money from drivers to avoid tickets. This month, anti-corruption advocates Transparency International ranked India as the most corrupt country worldwide in its annual Bribe Payers Index.

Since the movie came out a month ago, some Indians have started imitating its vision of Gandhi-s teachings, dubbed "Gandhigiri," Hindi slang for spreading Gandhi-s philosophy. The health minister of India, criticized for not taking a dengue fever crisis seriously enough, recently visited a hospital in New Delhi to meet dengue patients. He was greeted by students and doctors carrying bouquets of red roses and holding "get well soon" posters.

Political candidates in the northern city of Gorakhpur have started wearing Gandhi caps and preaching about nonviolence and truth. A leading politician with the Congress Party, to which Gandhi belonged, has urged Congress leaders to see the film and return to their roots. In the northern city of Lucknow, people demonstrated against two liquor stores near a Hindu temple by handing out roses and letters of complaint. The police, however, had not yet caught the Gandhi spirit. They arrested the protesters.

A real gangster in Lucknow handed out bouquets of roses and talked about peace and love at a court hearing linking him to murders and kidnappings.

Gandhigiri clubs have been set up in some cities to curb reckless drivers and corrupt officials by handing them flowers and smiling.

A new Web site,, which claims 10,000 hits a day, has launched "Mission Gandhigiri," an attempt to use the Internet to start Gandhi-inspired campaigns in India.

The Web site asks people to report cases of corruption online and sign each report with this pledge: "I solemnly swear in the name of Gandhi that the above report is completely true and nothing but the truth."

A New Delhi museum, a former Gandhi residence where he was assassinated in 1948, opened a high-tech multimedia show last year that blends laser and music shows with Gandhi-s philosophy. Since the movie opened, both this museum and the Gandhi National Museum have reported more visitors.

"Why is the movie so popular?" said Namrata Bansal, the project manager for the high-tech show, called "Eternal Gandhi." "Because it-s in today-s language."

Despite how the movie has inspired India, some critics say it has oversimplified and cheapened Gandhi. Others say that no matter what, the hype over Gandhi is just another Bollywood fad, doomed to be over by the end of the year. Newspaper articles have questioned whether Gandhigiri will last and whether it-s relevant in today-s world.

"People have seen the movie, but they still don-t treat Gandhi with respect, my friends and everyone else," said Radhika Harjai, 14, as she visited the "Eternal Gandhi" exhibit with her 10th-grade class. "They don-t think about Gandhi as a great person. They laugh him off. They don-t try to live by his teachings."

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