The Making of the Mahatma (1996)



Director:     Shyam Benegal. 

Starring:     Rajit Kapoor (Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi), Pallavi Joshi (Kasturba Gandhi), Paul Slabolepszy (JC Smuts), Sean Michael (Warder), Charles Pillai, Keith Stevenson.

Gandhi's politically formative years in South Africa


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Rajkot, India.  November-December 1892. 

Seth Dada Abdullah of South Africa writes a letter to the brother of Mohandas Gandhi:  "Our partner in South Africa has a big court case.  We don't have any barristers who understand our language.  If you send your brother Mohandas he would be useful to us."  Gandhi wants to go.  The job pays well and it will be only for a few months.  His wife, however, does not want him to go.  And his children don't want him to go. 

Durban Harbor, May 1893.  Three men greet Gandhi on his arrival.  One of them is Seth Dada Abdullah and another is Rustomji Seth.  They explain that they have an advocate, a Mr. Baker who works in Pretoria.  The case concerns Seth Tayab Haji Khan Mohammed, a very big man in Transvaal.  He owes his cousin Dada 40,000 pounds.  In the courthouse he meets Mr. Eskam who will soon be the attorney general.  Eskam agrees to let Gandhi sit with him in court.  The judge tells Gandhi to remove his hat.  Gandhi explains that it is a turban and traditional dress in India in the courts.  The judge doesn't care.  He wants the hat off.  Gandhi decides to leave to avoid a conflict. 

Gandhi is going to go to Pretoria via the train.  He wants to see Tayab.  His cousin, however, doesn't want him to speak to Tayab.  He doesn't trust his cousin; he might influence Gandhi too much.   Gandhi is thrown out of his compartment.  He protests and is thrown out onto the platform.  He is told to go to the luggage van, which is where people of color like him belong.  Gandhi is very upset and angry at this prejudice and discrimination.  He gets on another train but this time in the section with other dark-skinned people.  He then takes a stage coach to Pretoria.  But he cannot sit inside the coach.  No natives or "coolies" (Asians) are allowed to ride inside the coach.  He has to sit on top with the driver.  At a stop the guy in charge tells Gandhi to get off so he can sit in his place.  Gandhi refuses saying that now that he has been forced to sit on the top, he will not give up his seat.  The white fellow climbs up to the driver's bench and starts punching Gandhi again and again.  Gandhi does not fight back.  He just hunches down to protect himself from the blows.  The white guy keeps hitting Gandhi until the passengers inside the coach become upset over the abuse and tell the fellow to stop. 

Pretoria.  May 1893.  Gandhi meets with Mr. Baker.  He tells him that no hotel will take him in.  Baker suggests a poor widow who will take him in.  He then apologizes to Gandhi that they won't be able to use him as a barrister.  Later Gandhi goes to church with the Baker family.  At least in church he gets to set with the whites.  Baker tells Gandhi that he should come to Christ.  Gandhi says:  "If I am called, I will."  A guard at President Kruger's house pushes Gandhi off the sidewalk.  He lands on the dirt road.  No coolies are allowed on the pavement in front of Kruger's house.  Baker objects saying that this man is a barrister.  The soldier apologizes at least and says he was only following orders. 

Gandhi speaks with Tayab.  The man tells Gandhi that his cousin Abdullah wants to ruin him.  He asks Gandhi how it has gone so far.  Gandhi tells him that he has been there for two days and it's been difficult.  Since Tayab is such an influential person in the local Indian community, Gandhi asks him to introduce him to the other Indians.  Gandhi complains about the filthiness of the streets in the Indian community.  Tayab says they pay their taxes, but the city only cleans the white areas.  Gandhi says then the Indians should clean their own streets. 

Sydenham, Durban.  The Indians gather for a farewell get-together for Gandhi.  Gandhi receives great praise.  He was able to get the fighting cousins to settle out of court and got the people to get together to talk and seek solutions to common problems.  At the dinner news arrives about the new Indian Franchise Bill before the Natal parliament.  The aim is to take away the Indian's right to vote.  Gandhi explains that this will be the first nail in the coffin.  He must consult with Harry Eskam.  But someone tells him that it was Harry Eskam who introduced the bill.  The Indians urge Gandhi to take the case.  Gandhi agrees but says he will not take any fees.  He says he will stay, but for only a month.  They must get signatures from all the Indians, including the Christians, on a petition against the new bill. 

Gandhi with a delegation speaks with Eskam about enrolling Gandhi as an attorney in South Africa.  He tells the others that Eskam seems reluctant to meet their demands.  Gandhi is then told:  "He'll do it.  . . .  He's in our debt."   The judge says that Mr. Gandhi can be enrolled as an attorney.  But he says that he cannot wear his turban in court.  Gandhi says:  "As your Honor pleases." 

The Indians gather 10,000 signatures.  Gandhi and the others agree they must form a Natal Indian Congress.  August 22, 1894.  Seth Dada Abdullah is the first president.  Gandhi is the honorary-secretary. 

A badly beaten Mr. Peters, an Indian, comes to the offices of the NIC.  He is an indentured servant and his boss beat him and broke two of his teeth.  So he came to the office for help.  Gandhi is soon swamped by cases in which he defends abused indentured servants.  One particularly sorrowful story was that of a female indentured servant.  Her baby was badly burned, but no medicine for her was allowed.  She is so upset that she drops the serving tray on the table in front of guests.  Her mistress tells her that she will go without rations and wages for a week.  By the time she gets to her baby again, the baby has died.  They put her in jail four times.  They had tricked her to come to South Africa.  Gandhi asks the judge to release her in his care and let her be repatriated.

The big problem for Gandhi is that these indentured cases take up all his time.  In despair he says:  "The entire system of indentured labor is evil!'

Off Durban Harbor, 1896.  The boat bringing Gandhi and his family to South Africa has been guaranteed and has to stay just outside the harbor.  Gandhi is being punished for his writing a pamphlet against the indentured labor system.  In protest the Indians begin a political rally.  Eskam supports the idea that Gandhi and his family be kept aboard ship until they leave of their own accord.  A white man brings an ultimatum to Gandhi from the anti-Indian Committee:  return to India and the colony will pay his expenses.  A little later Gandhi tells everyone on board that they will be landing.  The captain asks that everyone be calm and don't panic. 

Eskam speaks to the anti-Indian Committee.  He says the government bows to their wishes, but the law does not exist now.  The Indians will land.  He asks the men to go back to their homes.  In a letter to Gandhi Eskam asks Gandhi to disembark from the ship in the night with police escort.  He is concerned about his safety.   His family gets off the ship, but Gandhi stays on.  But a more liberal white fellow tells Gandhi that if he does not get off the boat now, the town will say that he is scared.  He asks Gandhi not to defer to Eskam.  After all, he's the man behind all the anti-Indian action.  Gandhi gets off the ship. 

When Gandhi appears in town a group of whites start beating him.  A white woman comes to his rescue.  She can't stop the beating so she yells for the police.  The police arrive and pull the men off Gandhi.  Later the woman and her husband, Superintendent Alexander and his wife, talks with Gandhi.  Later Eskam apologizes to Gandhi and adds that they will prosecute the ruffians.  But Gandhi will not let them be prosecuted.  These men were just following the wishes of their leaders.  He asks:  "Will you and the government of Natal prosecute yourselves."  Eskam responds by scolding Gandhi for writing the anti-indentured labor system pamphlet in the first place. 

The Gandhi family settles in South Africa.  His wife says that Gandhi had changed.  He wanted to live more simply.  He has one of numerous confrontations with his wife.  He asks her to take out the chamber pot of an untouchable.  She says she will not, so he takes the pot from her.  She tells him to give it back to her.   The arguing continues and she tells him that she is leaving.  Then Gandhi says:  "Then leave this minute."  He grabs her by the hand and pulls her into the garden to force her away from the house.  She finally has to shout at him to come to his senses.  She asks him:  "Have you no shame? . . . Behave yourself! . . . What will the neighbors think?" 

Mrs. Gandhi, Kastur, asks her husband to get the midwife.  She is in a great deal of pain.  The baby won't wait.  Gandhi himself has to deliver the baby.  It was a very easy birth that took only a small amount of time.  It is her third boy. 

Durban 1899.  The Boer War begins with the British fighting the Boers.  To many protests from his friends and associates Gandhi says that as British citizens they must support the British government. He says that it their chance to prove themselves to the British settlers. Soon many Indians serve as medics and stretcher bearers for the British.   A letter from the front comes for Mrs. Gandhi.  Gandhi tells of his experiences working as a medic and stretcher bearer.  He also tells her that they were in the midst of the fighting at the Battle of Spioenkop. 

The war comes to an end.  Gandhi says that their contributions were appreciated and he now feels that the Indian grievances will surely be addressed.  He says he thinks his work in South Africa is now over.  For his services the Indian community give Gandhi a lot of jewelry.  Mrs. Gandhi wants to keep it, but her husband wants to return the jewels to the community.  Mom protests, but ultimately has to give in. 

After five years in South Africa the family returns to India.  They now have four sons.  But then a cable arrives for Gandhi.  He soon leaves for South Africa by himself.  In South Africa he is told that things got worse after the British took over the Transvaal.  They put restrictions on Indians owning property.  They are also starting confiscating lands leased by Indians.  The new Asiatic Department works not for them, but against Asians.  Gandhi and a delegation of three go to see Mr. Farlow of the Asiatic Department.  He is extremely rude to them by ignoring them.  He finally says that Gandhi has no standing in the Transvaal, for when he lived in the Transvaal it was under the Boer regime, not the British colony.  Gandhi leaves followed by the other three men.  When one of the three say they would like to beat Farlow, Gandhi says that violence is not the answer.  They must mobilize Indian opinion.  They need their own newspaper.  And he has a friend named Madanjeet who has a printing press.  They begin publishing The Indian Opinion.    The British respond by harassing the Indians.  They start threatening them with deportation.  Conditions are made worse for the Indians and a plague breaks out among them.  Gandhi and many other volunteers go to nurse the sick and improve the sanitary conditions.  Two white men who want to volunteer, Henry Pollock and Albert West, come to speak with Gandhi.  Gandhi soon asks Pollock to write for The Indian Opinion and for Albert West to go to Durban to run the press for them.  The two men both agree. 

But even Albert West couldn't save the paper from going bankrupt.  And Gandhi was using up the family savings to try to keep the press going.  Then one day he got the answer.  He read John Ruskin's "Unto This Last" and found the direction he was seeking.  He tells the press men that he will get a farm and there they will establish gardens and small huts.  The press will be placed there. 

Johannesburg Station.  December 1904.  The wife and three of the four sons come to South Africa.  Gandhi asks why Hari did not come.  One of the sons says that he was going to marry Chancal.  This is strictly against Gandhi's order that he not marry before the age of 21.  Gandhi is not happy.  Later Gandhi decides to move to the farm settlement known as Phoenix Town.  He has another fight with his wife. 

The Zulus protest against the poll tax placed on them.  Chief Bombata begins a rebellion.  Gandhi creates another internal uproar by saying that as British subjects they have to support the government.  And once again the Indians serve as stretcher bearers and medics.  But this time Gandhi sees the British committing many crimes of inhumanity against their opponents.  The British General ordered a number of Zulus flogged.  Then the white nurses refused to attend to the wounds of the men.  Gandhi protests to the British doctor:   "This isn't war!  It's a manhunt!"  Gandhi is very upset and he starts nursing the flogged men himself.

Back home with his wife Gandhi says that he cannot get over the horror of the sights that he saw on the battlefield.  He asks how can he serve others if he cannot share their pain.  So he concludes from his ponderings that he has to empty himself of all desire.  He must detach himself from all ties:  wealth, family, wife.  This scares his wife and she asks if he is going to leave her.  He says he just wants to free himself from the desire for her.  He then has the nerve to ask her:  "Will you help me?" 

Empire Theatre, Johannesburg, September 1906.  The Indians discuss the new Indian Bill.  Now they must get an identity pass that they must show whenever the authorities ask for it.  The Indians, of course, oppose it.  Some say they will oppose it with violence.  Gandhi stands and says that Satyagraha (non-violent protest) is based on truth.  The sentiment of the group is for them not to register. 

Gandhi is in court defending his friend businessman Cachalia.  He did not register and the white merchants decided to drive him out of business.  That may be so, but the judge sentences him to three months hard labor or 300 pounds for refusing to register.  In the prison there is terrible abuse of the Indian prisoners.  A fellow who throws up over his latrine duty is beaten viciously by a guard. 

Gandhi finds himself in court: Rex versus Gandhi.  Gandhi refused to register so he was ordered to leave South Africa.  But he did not leave South Africa.  Gandhi demands that he be given the heaviest punishment possible.  The judge objects and gives him two months simple imprisonment.  Some Indians demonstrate and protest as Gandhi is taken away by the police. 

General Smuts offers a deal to Gandhi.  After consulting with General Bota, he has decided that if Gandhi will register, he will repeal the act.  He says he will send Gandhi a copy of the bill.  A Muslim named Mir Alam says he will beat anyone deciding to give his fingerprints and register.  Gandhi tries to be the first to register.  Mir Alam confronts him and gives Gandhi a bad beating.  The police have to force the man off Gandhi.  Mir Alam is arrested.  The white Rev. Doke takes Gandhi to his home.  There the doctor patches his wounds.  Prime Minister Chamberlain comes to the house and registers Gandhi, because no one will register until Gandhi does. 

News comes that they have been betrayed.  The British withdrew the Black Act only to introduce a new one:  compulsory registration of all Indians: men, women and children.  Gandhi's close advisers say he was much too trusting to deal with General Smuts.  What can they do now?  Resume Satyagraha!

Gandhi urges the Indians to burn their certificates.  Mir Alam comes to the front and says to Gandhi:  "I was wrong to attack you as I did.  Please forgive me."  He then is the first to burn his card followed by many others.  Then Gandhi and six others turn themselves into prison for their act.  His son Hari is one of the six.  In prison Hari says he wants to study in England.  But Gandhi says he needs him here.  Hari doesn't like it. 

Gandhi is moved to another prison because he attracts too much attention.  There Gandhi doesn't eat much because he won't eat animal flesh.  He tells a black guard that he is in prison because he refused to carry the Dom pass.  The black jailor says:  "You are a good man."  A white official tells Gandhi that his wife is critically ill.  He has orders for his release, but he must pay the fine first.  And that Gandhi will not do.  Another day the official comes back to say that he will be released. 

At home with his wife the doctor tells him that she is very anemic and has lost weight.  When she refuses to eat beef tea, he says they will have to get another doctor because he can not risk her dying under his care.  Gandhi changes her diet to cut out lentils and salt. His attitude toward his wife makes Hari upset.  He asks him bluntly:  "Why are you so selfish? . . . It's only you that matters."  Hari agrees that his father never gave his family a decent life.  That night Hari leaves a letter for his father, packs and leaves.  He goes back to India.  

Hari's mother cries when she is told the news.  Gandhi is upset but still talks mostly about his needs and concerns.  He says:  "At least he could have said good-bye." 

Gandhi meets Mr. Cullinburg.  He gives Gandhi and the Indian community 100 acres of land in Lorli free of rent.  Mr. Cullinburg is a big fan of the Russian writer Tolstoy and so Gandhi decides to name the second farm, the Tolstoy Farm.  

Gandhi talks with General Smuts, who says that he feels sorry for Gandhi.  ". . . your movement is running out of steam."  He adds that the act cannot be amended.  Gandhi says that the goal is to put an end to racial discrimination.  The Orange Free State will not have one more Indian, says Gen. Smuts.  Gandhi replies that "No Indian would care to be in the Orange Free State either."  He adds:  "If you give me a copy of the Free State Law I will tell you how you can amend it." 

News arrives to Gandhi that General Smuts has pulled the wool over their eyes again.  Asians will now be debarred from the entire country not just the Orange Free State.  Gandhi says simply:  "Satyagraha must be revived."  He decides to begin with the women.  He gets his wife to agree.  The Tolstoy Farm women then want to join with the women of Phoenix Farm.  Gandhi says if they do not arrest the Tolstoy women, then they must incite the miners to strike, so that they do get arrested.  The Tolstoy women do get the miners to strike.  To stop one of their marches, a white man shoots to death one of the Indian marchers. 

The mine owners demand that Gandhi call off the strike.  He says he cannot, of course.  Gandhi talks to the striking miners.  They will march all the way to Tolstoy Farm.  They will march 25 miles a day. 

The march will pass right through the town of Folkrist.  The whites in the town start to fear an invasion of Indians and start planning to stop them.  Mr. Cullinburg tells them that they will just be passing through, not stopping.  The other white men threaten him and nearly beat him.  An Indian grabs Cullinburg and forces him into his store for his protection.  Gandhi talks with General Smuts on the phone.  He tells him through an aide that they are at Folksrist now and are about to cross the border.  Gen. Smuts will not talk with him.  At the border the border guards try to stop them from crossing into the Transvaal.  But the marchers just run through the guards to the other side of the border. 

The news of the day is that 3,000 miners are camping at Charlestown.  1,600 striking Indian miners marched from Danhouse to Charlestown.  And 1,700 Indian miners have left Newcastle for Charlestown.  At night the police arrest Gandhi.  The charge is bringing unauthorized people into the Transvaal.  He is released on 50 pounds bail.  Gandhi rejoins the marchers.

A magistrate comes and tells Gandhi that he is now his prisoner.  Gandhi goes with the magistrate.  When he returns to the march, the people cheer him as he passes by in a car.  Another larger column comes in from the left side of the column. 

Now Gandhi is arrested by the top immigration officer. 

A number of policemen gather at a stop point and tell the marchers that they will be taken to jail in Natal.  The marchers are to follow them.

Workers in other industries start joining the strike. 

The marchers are stopped again.  This time the white policemen have a black fellow kill a march leader with a spear. 

Gandhi rejoins the march again.  A woman runs to him.  She is a widow now whose husband was recently shot by the police.  Gandhi tries to console her by saying that her husband is a martyr.  Later, in honor of those who died in the Satyagraha, he cuts his hair very short. 

Gandhi meets with Gen. Smuts again.  Smuts agrees to abolish the three pound tax and to recognize Indian marriages even if they aren't registered.  But this time Gandhi tells the General that he wants the agreement to be put in writing.  He then tells the General that he plans to leave for India. 

Gandhi lived for 21 years in South Africa.  It was a great wrench for him to leave the country. 

He may be leaving but he is still committed to justice:  ". . . humanity is one, intended to live in peace and in equality."


Good movie.  You get a lot of insight into the formation of Gandhi's political idea involving non-violent ways to oppose injustice and inequality.   Rajit Kapoor was great as Gandhi. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 



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