The Gendered National Subject in ‘Gandhi,’ ‘the Making of the Mahatma’, and ‘Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar’: A Subaltern Reading

Abstract: Subaltern theories of nation, gender and historiography have shown that gender was mobilized to guard the ‘Indian’ against the ‘western’, as part of Indian renaissance. This was, indeed, a play to hide the inadequacies in Indian history. Historical cinema, being a patriarchal-nationalistic discourse, is a rich site for ideological analysis. However, the question of gender in historical cinema, has not received the attention it deserves. The article draws attention to the politics of representation in films like `Gandhi,’ The Making of the Mahatma’ and ‘Dr.Babaasheb Ambedkar’ with reference to gender and caste. The paper argues that the appropriation of gender into the political category of a national citizen-subject has been a highly selective process. Only upper caste women were moulded into this political category, otherizing lower caste women. It concludes that the representation of gender in these films is meditated through the figure of the director, since it is epistemologically impossible to recover the past.

Keywords: lower/middle/upper class women, historical cinema, Indian freedom struggle, dalit women, class/caste, Indian history, Indian nationalism, subaltern perspective, patriarchal-nationalistic discourse, gender, caste

This paper evolved out of an intellectual curiosity for the ubiquitous presence of Gandhi in historical films and the resurgence of history -oriented movies in Bollywood such as `Lage Raho Munnabhai ,”Gandhi My Father’ and ‘Rang De Basanti.’ The seemingly innocuous glorification of women in these films was striking. A deeper analysis based on the subaltern theories on nation, gender and historiography revealed that in the course of nineteenth century nationalism, an equation was forged between the image of the Indian woman and the Indian nation through nationalistic literature (Tharu (1989) 254-65).

What was troubling about this equation, from the subaltern point of view, was that this aura of glorification was cast only around the figure of upper caste Indian woman. The absence of the subaltern woman led to issues on the conceptualization of nation and gender in Indian historical cinema. The reasons for working on historical cinema in general and on films like ‘Gandhi,’ The Making of the Mahatma’ and ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ in particular were the following. Though there has been significant interest in history-oriented movies in Bollywood recently, the genre of historical cinema has not received the critical attention it deserves in India. A few studies such as G. Kaul’s Cinema and the Indian Freedom Struggle, though exhaustive, have been largely from the perspective of the nation-state. Therefore, an analysis of the Indian freedom struggle as represented in Indian historical cinema from a subaltern point of view seems to be imperative. Moreover, critical studies on Bollywood cinema have drawn attention to the three-tiered relationship between the representation of woman, family and nation (see, for eg: Virdi ,2003,60- 86). Bollywood cinema deifies woman as a symbolic representative of familial and national tradition, in the process of giving a single family, a pan-Indian outlook. The few critical studies on Indian historical cinema have failed to observe this relationship. The reasons for choosing ‘Gandhi’, The Making of the Mahatma,’ and `Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ are the following. These films come broadly under the category of historical cinema and are technically known as biopics, a syncopated form of biography and epics. The ideological function of such films is obvious: they are metanarratives of the nation-state, displaying and ‘teaching the country’s national history according to the ‘great moments’ and ‘great men or women’ in our collective past’ (Hayward (1996) 185).

However, the most significant absence in these films is the representation of gender. These films have an epic sweep, and play out historical detail, however, at the expense of the private lives of their chief protagonists. The private (family) lives of national heroes such as Gandhi in ‘Gandhi,’ and ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar in ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ are marginalized. The denigration of the private is suggestive of the patriarchal interferences these films are subjected to. The women characters of these films, Kastur in ‘Gandhi,’ and ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and Rama Ambedkar in ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ are indicative of the glorification and rnarginalization of elite and dalit women in Indian history respectively.

This paper draws attention to the politics of representation in films such as the above mentioned ones on the basis of gender and caste. For my analysis, I have basically drawn upon insights from subaltern theory on historiography, nation and gender to identify the equation between the representation of women in Indian historical cinema with reference to caste. I will also be applying the post-structuralist/ deconstructive strategy of what Terry Eagleton calls ‘reading against the grain’ (qtd. in Barry 71) in order to uncover, the subtle nuances of Indian nationalism. I will also be doing a close reading of the film texts under analysis. The first part of the article explains briefly subaltern theory on historiography, nation and gender. The second part calls attention to narrative construction of India as an upper caste, presumably Brahmin woman in nineteenth century national literature. The third part analyses in detail the representation of women characters in the films ‘Gandhi,’ ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and ‘Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar.’ Each of these films will be discussed in detail under three subsections, 1. Plot Analysis, 2. Camera Angles and 3. Depiction of History. The fourth section is a comparative study of the two women characters, Kasturba and Rama in these three films.

Subaltern Theory on Historiography, Nation and Gender It was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who spoke of ‘subaltern classes’ to designate the politically unorganized common people. The term has been taken up in the eighties by the subaltern studies collective of Indian researchers, headed by Ranajit Guha. The group seeks to assemble a counter-history of popular forms of action and culture to contest both colonial and nationalist accounts. I have basically drawn upon the works of scholars such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Partha Chatterjee, Susie Tharu and Gayathri Spivak. Scholars like Dipesh Chakrabarty and Partha Chatterjee drew on the contentions of Benedict Anderson’ to explore the subtler nuances of Indian nationalism. Dipesh Chakrabarty in one of his controversial essays argued that ‘insofar as the academic discourse of history-that is ‘history’ as a discourse produced at the institutional site of the university is concerned, ‘Europe’ remains the sovereign, theoretical subject of all histories including the ones we call ‘Indian’, ‘Chinese’, ‘Kenyan’ and so on’ (Chakrabarty (2000) 263). This westernization occurs because the university defines the very discipline of history as a transitional discourse from the pre-modem to the modern, and Europe is established as the birth of the modern.

Hence, Chakrabarty argues that the ontological model of Indian history is a metanarrative called European history. Indian history seeks to reach an autotelic whole called European history. Thus, Indian history translates itself as a ‘lack’, an eternal consumer of modernity. In nationalist agenda, it was the Subaltern classes, women, peasants and dalits who were seen as inadequate. Subsequently, a series of reforms were directed towards these subaltern classes in the guise of modernity (Chakrabarty 263-93). Partha Chatterjee delineates how the issue of inadequacy was addressed and resolved in Indian nationalism. For Chatterjee nationalism is not merely a political struggle for power, but a socio-cultural movement as well. He argued that ‘anti-colonial nationalism creates its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battle with the imperial power’ (Chatterjee (1993) 6). This sovereign domain is created by dividing social institutions and practices into two-the home (private/spiritual) and the world (public/material). The world is a masculine domain where the indigenous man came into contact with the western institutions of science, technology, statecraft and economy.

On the contrary, the ‘home’ represented the spiritual essence of Indian tradition and culture. It was seen as the responsibility of the woman to nurture and protect this inner sanctum. It was agreed that the two domains must be kept separated, and man would bear upon himself the necessary task of learning the western techniques of organizing material life and incorporate them within the native culture (Chatterjee (1993) 6). The realm of the family and the status of the woman changed considerably in the world of the nationalist middle class. The upper caste Indian woman was recast in the model of the Victorian Angel of the House2. Susie Tharu surmises that the emergent woman figure in the nationalist imagination was: … in keeping with the now naturalized Victorian ideals of domestic virtue, patient and long suffering and autonomous, conscious of her power and strength she could find in tradition: a gentle but stern custodian of the nation’s moral life. And his was the figure that was to dominate the literary imagination for several decades to come (Tharu (1991) 172). The dalit woman figured in the reformist discourse as the reverse of the sophisticated ‘new’ woman. The dalit woman was seen to be coarse, vulgar, quarrelsome, and devoid of superior moral sense.

According to Partha Chatterjee, the degenerate condition of lower-caste women, who makes their appearance in the social milieu of the new middle class as maidservants, washerwomen, prostitutes and so on, is repeatedly emphasized in the literature of the nineteenth century. (Chatterjee (1989) 244-45) The discourse of nationalism constructed new roles for the bhadralok (the upper caste men and women). Consequently negative images of lower caste men and women were circulated in literacy discourses, otherizing them in the process. Gayathri Spivak takes a radical stance on the work of subaltern historians. She brings a combined deconstructive, Marxist and feminist perspective to reflections on the way the west and western intellectuals perceive the subaltern as the other and to the position of women, both Western and Asian, in these relationships: ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ she asks. In so far as this invokes a unified, true and unmediated voice, her answer is ‘no’. The colonized subaltern subject is, she says, ‘irretrievably heterogenous’ (Spivak (1988) 284) and, in a world of western and Indian textual and other political representations, can neither ‘know or speak itself’ ((Spivak (1988) 285). In Spivak’s argument, if the subaltern male is effaced, the woman is ‘doubly effaced’ in colonialist and subaltern history (Spivak (1988)287). The alignment between the representation of upper caste woman as a highly idealized representative of national culture and the reformist doctrine of nationalist historiography is clearly seen here.

The dalit woman, as we have seen, is not simply otherized, as the bearer of negative qualities, but also denied a position to speak. Gendering India in Nineteenth Century National Literature What remains obscure in the discussion so far is the reason why upper caste women were the chosen representatives of national culture. This happened because the image of the nation itself was formed in the image of an upper caste, presumably Brahmin woman, under nationalism. By the end of the nineteenth century India was one of the poorest countries in the world. Economic exploitation in the name of Industrial Revolution, famine and plague had pushed India to abject poverty. The country was a vast geographical area divided into various local administrative units, with no unity among them. It became the task of middle-class intelligentsia to create a homogenized nation from a heterogeneous mass. ‘The newly homogenized Indian “tradition”, indeed the new Hinduism, took on an unprecedented upper-caste colour. And women set up in the discussion as emblematic of it, were drawn willy-nilly into its schemes’(Tharu (1991) 161).

To counter the colonial narrative of Indians as slothful, deceitful and immoral, nationalist discourse appropriated the mythology of Shakthi (power) as a powerful feminine force. The image of the geographical land called Bharat was refashioned and redesigned, leading to the conceptualisation of Bharatmata (Mother India). This benign image of Bharatmata was super imposed on the upper caste Brahmin woman in the national literature of the era. Speaking in Andersonian terms, such literature served the function of print — capitalism3 and evoked patriotic sentiments. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee’s Vande Mataram and the patriotic songs of Subrahmaniya Bharati ,Vallathol Narayana Menon and other writers consolidated these gendered images of the land. Jawaharlal Nehru’s The Discovery of India was a crucial text in this regard (For a detailed discussion see Srivasta, 2004, 117-194). There are striking associations between Nehru’s wife, Kamala and the India of this text:

… My past life unrolled itself before me and there was always Kamala standing by. She became a symbol of Indian women, or of woman herself. Sometimes she grew curiously mixed up with my idea of India, that land of ones so dear to us, with all her faults and weaknesses, so elusive and full of mystery …..Did I know her? (Nehru (1981) p.44)

Kamala Nehru, a Kashmiri Brahmin and Nehru’s wife is associated with the image of India. It is in one way reminiscent of Richard Attenborough’s portrayal of Kastur in ‘Gandhi.’ In fact, these two upper caste women are reincarnated as images of the motherland.

Representation of the New Indian Woman in Gandhi, The Making of the Mahatma and Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar


Richard Altenborough’s `Gandhi’ is a tribute to Gandhi, voted as the most popular leader of the twentieth century. It had won the most covetous Academy Awards in the year it was released. The film has variously been read as Attenborough’s reworking of the Gandhian myth in Christian phraseology (Patwardhan. (1983) 635-7) or as packaging oriental exotica for western gaze(S. Chakravarty (1996) 192). Few critical studies have focused attention on the aspect of gender in the film.

Even though he film was directed by a British director and a screenplay writer and has many Anglo-American actors, it is undeniably the most popular film on Indian freedom struggle and on Gandhi.

Plot Analysis

`Gandhi’ deals with the evolution of an individual called M.K. Gandhi from a barrister to the half-naked fakir before whom the mighty British Empire accepted defeat. The film takes us through historical events such as Jalian Wala bagh massacre, Civil Disobedience movement, the Chauri- Chaura and its aftermath, Salt Satyagraha, the Second World War, Partition and India’s Independence. While the political events are played out in full detail, the personal life of Gandhi is given only a few strokes.

Gandhi’s narrative is strictly linear and chronological and sidelines many issues such as his family life and the participation of women in the freedom struggle. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is its depiction of Gandhi’s relationship with his wife Kastur. The ideal relationship between Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) and Kastur (Rohini Hattangadi) is a larger than life ‘caricature’. The film depicts Kastur as the epitome of Indian womanhood — an ideal companion in her husband’s struggle against imperialism. The film shows explicitly her spiritual relationship with Gandhi. In an interview with a British lady photographer, who is making a documentary on Gandhi, Kastur reveals how she had consented to Gandhi’s practice of Brahmacharya (celibacy). Kastur admits that she had tried to dissuade Gandhi but failed. The two women are shown as having an intimate conversation with each other. Kastur and the British lady smile at each other and Kastur continues to weave. The sexual tension between the husband and wife is reduced through this seemingly unproblematic representation. The figure of Gandhi is significantly absent in this scene. The paradigmatic shift in husband-wife relationship from a carnal sense to an intense spiritual relationship is symptomatic of the role of Indian woman as a spiritually elevating figure and a guardian of national culture. The very term ba (Gujarati for mother) attached to Kastur speaks volumes of her role as a mythical Mother India’.

The other women in the film shown in close proximity to Gandhi are his two unnamed disciples and Madeline Slade, an English woman renamed as Meeraben, who dedicated herself to the cause of Indian freedom struggle. What the film projects is the sevabhav (servility) of these women towards Gandhi. On the contrary, Gandhi’s attitude towards Kastur, and by extension, towards all women, in the film is ambivalent. The most important activity Gandhi recommended to women was spinning and weaving, both of which he viewed as religious acts and in conformity with the nature of women. He never attached any importance to a woman’s personal, political and economic identity. The film idealizes Gandhi and Kastur to such an extent that all other characters seem insignificant. Strictly speaking, Gandhi and Kastur were baniyas (merchants). Yet the film treats them as the manifestation of Brahminical tradition. It is in this context that Gandhi’s adoption of celibacy acquires significance. From the subaltern perspective on gender, Kastur is appropriated into this scheme of idealized nationalism through an effacement of her sexuality. Kastur does not seem to be a free agent in this scheme. She is glorified because she is Gandhi’s wife, upper caste, symbolically a Brahmin and is asexualized. Home, as subaltern historians would say, is redefined and drawn to the public, but only after its sanctification. Home is redefined in religious, almost mythical terms. Kastur is granted the status of a national citizen-subject, only when she transcends her gender and caste and symbolically adopts Brahminism through celibacy. The most significant aspect of gender representation in this film is that all women who are shown in Gandhi’s close circles are upper caste and demonstrate only servility in their attitude towards Gandhi. What happens to the dalit woman?

This leads us to the discussion on camera angles in the film. Camera Angles Films generate their meanings through the ways in which camera is positioned. Sumita.S.Chakravarty draws attention to the use of camera angles in Gandhi: He is often framed alone, in close-ups, in midshots, or in profile, marking his proximity to, yet difference from the people (S.Chakravrty (1996) 194). Kastur, on the other hand, is shown only after Gandhi in the few scenes they appear together. Here, I would like to elaborate upon the scene in which Gandhi, on reaching India undertakes an all-India tour. It is a significant episode in the evolution of Gandhi. He travels by train. In a particular scene, Gandhi is sitting in a train. The train is stopped in a railway track above a river. Some poor women are washing clothes in the river. The camera focuses on Gandhi a low-angle shot (a shot in which the camera shoots up at the subject from below) looking at the women. The camera zooms in on a poorly clad woman who desperately tries to cover herself. The woman is most probably a dalit. Gandhi gets out of the train and gives his shawl to the woman.

The low-angle shot renders a larger-than-life appearance to Gandhi. It is Gandhi who looks at the woman, sympathizes with her plight and saves her, from poverty and nakedness, through a symbolic gesture. The dalit woman represents the poverty of India, for Gandhi. This message is rendered to the audience through an ingenious use of camera.

Interestingly, the paternalism of the sevabhav mentioned earlier is absent here. The relationship between Gandhi and the dalit woman is one of domination and subjugation, omnipotence and helplessness. If Kastur is sublimated to a mother figure only after the effacement of her sexuality, it is her raw sexuality which makes this dalit woman a negative image. Depiction of History From the subaltern perspective on historiography and gender the film has two drawbacks. Firstly, it supports the fundamental premise of Indian national historiography through presenting the movement as a meta-narrative of Gandhian values. Secondly, it fails to acknowledge the participation of women and dalit women in the movement. If Kastur is represented at all, she is only a pawn in the game of patriarchy and nationalism.

‘Gandhi’ marginalizes many aspects of the Indian freedom struggle. The film reduces the whole history of Indian nationalism to a meta-narrative of Gandhian ideology of non-violence and peace. The only woman the film chooses to portray in some detail is Kastur Gandhi and her portrayal is, to say to the least, hagiographic .Women like Sarojini Naidu had a more important role to play in the freedom movement. However, the film shows Sarojini Naidu in an ambivalent manner. The film gives only a bird’s eyeview of her involvement in the Salt Satyagraha. She becomes only a prop to support Gandhi. The way she is portrayed in the film is neither positive nor realistic. She is allowed only a long shot (a shot of the complete human figure, with some of the background visible) from the back. The camera does not highlight her face even once. The Making of the Mahatma ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ deals with the early life of M.K. Gandhi in South Africa, where he was closely associated with the Asian migrant community and their civic demands. According to Shyam Benegal, its director, the film deals with how Gandhi- the man became Gandhi- the Mahatma. According to John.W.Hood, ‘Attenborough’s almost hagiographical interpretation of Gandhi is countered in Benegal’s film with refreshingly frank depiction of a man who had his share of personal faults, particularly in his family life’ (227). Plot Analysis The narrative of the film is not strictly linear. The public scenes are cleverly interspersed with details of Gandhi’s private life. However, the film’s narrative unity is conveniently defined by the period of Gandhi’s career in South Africa from 1893 to 1914.

The film bears the influence of Shyam Benegal’s leftist vision. Women, especially dalit women, are seen to occupy major roles in his films such as ‘Ankur’, ‘Manthan’, ‘Bhumika’, ‘Mandi’ and `Mammo’ (Dutta 2003).The portrayal of Kastur Gandhi in ‘The Making of Mahatma’ is in accordance with Benegal’s sympathetic portrayal of women in his films. The character of Kastur is a minor one, but the master director lends it a few powerful strokes. The film has been interpreted as a bildungsroman narrative of Gandhi, but Kastur also undergoes significant changes in the course of the film. The young Gandhi (Rajat Kapur) is presented as a short-tempered, westernized individual who matures into a compassionate leader, ready to suffer in the cause of truth. However, his compassion was not, it would seem, greatly complemented by warmth for the members of his own family. While he obviously loves them, he is also shown by Benegal to regard himself as the centre of their lives. He is rigorously demanding, and tends to alleviate family disputes by a mildly arrogant imperiousness that would have his own word respected as the only world. He instructs his wife (Pallavi Joshi) and gently, but he does not negotiate with her even in the matter of his assumption of celibacy and he maintains a notable remoteness from his sons, especially as they grow older and seek to make decisions about their own lives. equal importance to the public and the private to create a balance perspective, deviating from the usual trend of biopics. It is precisely this feature which makes the conceptualization of the private and gender problem-zones in the perspective of the nation-state. Gandhi and Kastur do not fit initially into the scheme of idealized nationalism. They are incorporated into the scheme in the course of the film, through the adoption of celibacy, the ideals of non-violence and truth and finally Satyagraha. The transformation of Gandhi is complete in the climactic scene when he shaves his head and wears cotton clothes. The transformation of Kasha is more complicated. The portrayal of Kastur in the film is realistic. Even though she is only a minor character in the plot, her characterization is powerful. Benegal underscores the domineering aspects in Gandhi’s personality, particularly towards his wife, children and other lower caste women. The conflict between Kastur and Gandhi in many issues, including sexuality is well brought-out. However, Kastur, as an upper-caste woman and Gandhi’s wife, definitely gains over other lower caste women. The discussion on camera angles and depiction of history will highlight the transformation of Kastur.

Camera Angles If Richard Attenborough uses his camera to create hallowed figures of Gandhi and Kastur, Shyam Senegal shows the all-too human side of Gandhi and Kastur in ‘The Making of the Mahatma.’ While Benegal uses long shots to cover the public scenes in the movie such as the revival of Satyagraha against racial discrimination, he uses medium shots (a shot neither close nor long to show the subject’s head to waist or waist to knees) and reverse shots (alternating shots of characters in a conversation so that first one character, then the other is seen) in domestic scenes, especially between Gandhi and Kastur. In a scene, Gandhi enters into direct conflict with his wife over his principle of self-help. He threatens to drive her out of the house following an argument over cleaning a guest’s chamber pot. The guest belongs to a lower caste. This is a serious caste issue for Kastur, who refuses to clean the pot. Gandhi turns the pregnant Kastur out of his house and she accuses him of being unreasonable. Ashamed of his behaviour, Gandhi calls Kastur back.

From the perspective of the nation-state, Gandhi and Kastur are problem figures. While the public scenes in the movie are manipulated to idolize the couple, the private scenes in the family between Gandhi and Kastur allow deeper insights into the characters. Shyam Benegal gives the confrontation between Gandhi and Kastur is shown in reverse shots, giving equal weightage to both. When Gandhi drives Kastur out of the gate, Kastur is shown as standing at the gate, shouting at Gandhi. The scene shows Kastur in a close-shot ( a shot which shows the head and shoulders of the subject) with the fence in between. The scene effectively highlights the emotional and ideological distance between the couple. Kastur is shown as a powerful woman who knows her rights and demands her husband to accept her as an individual. This scene depicts Kastur in the initial phase of her evolution. She not only disapproves of her husband’s ideals but also calls him irrational. She does not fit into the scheme of nationalism at this stage. Depiction of History The most crucial moment in the evolution of Kastur happens when Gandhi launches the Satyagraha movement in South Africa, to protest against a new Bill that demanded compulsory registration of all Indians and their marriages under Christian law (this law implied that marriages conducted under Hindu rites would be considered illegal).This time Kastur helps to mobilize people, especially women to join the protest movement, and they involve the famous bhajan (devotional song) associated with Gandhi, Raghupathi Raghava Raja Ram. Through this gesture, Kastur symbolically accepts the wifely ideal, represented by Sita, Rama’s consort. She is fully appropriated into the scheme of nationalism when she decides to support her husband unconditionally. As the title suggests the film deals with the transition to Gandhi, the Mahatma. Hence the film focuses only on these incidents which have a direct bearing on Gandhian legend. The film skirts over the participation of women in the agitations. From the perspective of gender the only woman who is allowed a fairly adequate representation is Kastur, an upper caste woman and Gandhi’s wife. The film does not even mention the name of Veerammal, the first woman who volunteered to join Satyagraha in South Africa, against a new Bill that demanded compulsory registration of all Indians (B.Mody (2000) 310).

Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar

`Dr.Babasaheb Ambedkar’ is a response to the overwhelming presence of Gandhi in Indian historical cinema. According to Dr.Jabbar Patel, its director, the film is the result of his dream to restore to D Ambedkar, his rightful role in the freedom struggle’ (Nandy, 2000). T film, financed by the governments of Maharashtra and India, Dr.Jabba Patel was expected to give the life of Dr. Ambedkar, the legendary aura Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi.’ Plot Analysis The film is a portrait of one of the greatest social reformers of our times, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar. It spans the period from 1901 to 1956, though not necessarily in a chronological order. The film focuses more on the public life of its protagonist. As a natural consequence of this kind of representation, the director does not elaborate on aspects of gender. Gender and politics seem to be the prominent subjects of many of Jabbar Patel’s films such as ‘Umbartha’ (The Threshold), ‘Jail Re Jait,’ `Simhasan’ and iSubah. ‘Umbarthata’ was a ground breaking feature film on women’s activism in India. However, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar seems to fall short in this account. While the film allows a subaltern male to speak, it seems to be less sympathetic to the cause of subaltern women. One of the most powerful, though underexplored aspects of the film is the depiction of Ambedkar’s relationship with his wife. She lived in a one-room chawl (flat) and lived through the deaths of their four children, while Ambedkar was pursuing his higher studies at Columbia University.

The film portrays with much intensity, the longing she feels for her husband, as he increasingly moves away from her life, to submit himself to the larger cause of the community. Gender and private are problem areas in the film. Even though, Dr. Patel treats the character with sensitivity, Rama, for all practical purposes, remain hidden. If Indian history and history based films are replete with the accounts of Gandhi and Kasturba, as an ideal couple, they seem to have forgotten Rama. Neverthless, ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ consciously avoids hagiography, and presents its protagonist as a man who does not let his family stand in the path of his social commitment. Camera Angles the person who remains in focus most of the time is Ambedkar. On the contrary, Rama is out of focus except for a few scenes. Though the character of Rama Ambedkar is minor, Jabbar Patel touches it with his characteristic sympathy. Unlike Attenborough’s or Senegal’s Gandhi, Ambedkar is shown as a sensitive husband who loves his family but dedicates himself to a larger cause. Rama understands her husband’s commitment. In one of the few tender moments in the film, Ambedkar takes leave of his wife, after deciding to organize the dalit movement in Maharashtra. Rama looks at him from behind; she seems to guess that she is losing him gradually but surely. The camera focuses on Rama in a medium shot, freezing (a form of stopped motion) the image. At that moment, the audience realizes Dr. Patel’s sympathy for Rama. instead of focusing on Ambedkar who is at a crucial moment in his life, Dr. Patel switches his camera to Rama.

Depiction of History A major drawback of the film is that it ignores the contribution of dalit women to the freedom struggle as well as to the dalit movement. If the existing records on Ambedkar’s role in the Indian National movement are so scanty, in comparison with Gandhi’s contributions (and Kasturba’s ideal) it was difficult to unearth even the name of Rama, Dr. Ambedkar’s dalit wife. Ambedkar married Rama, a nine year old girl, after he had passed his matriculation examination and entered the University of Bombay. The disparity between the ages was not so striking then, as it would have been today. Yet the ideological disparity between them is striking. She devoted herself entirely to the private, while he demanded the entry of dalits to the public. From the subaltern perspective on gender, Rama is not appropriated at all into the scheme of nationalism. However Dr.Patel treats her portrayal with his characteristic sympathy. Character Analogy This section offers a comparison between the representations of Kastur in ‘Gandhi’ and ‘The Making of Mahatma’ and Rama in ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.’ The difference in the representation of upper and lower caste women is obvious in the case of Kastur and Rama. Kastur in ‘Gandhi’ is presented as an ideal Indian woman who regards her husband as ‘a supreme friend, a worthy teacher and the supreme God’. She willingly sacrifices material and physical pleasures for the cause of freedom. What strikes a discernible viewer in this much vaunted relationship between Gandhi and Kastur is its didacticism, rather than warmth.

The hagiographic representation of Kasha in Gandhi could be interpreted as the westerner’s fascination for Indian spirituality. However, the film is immensely popular among Indian audience. From the perspective of nationalism, this film is flawless since it is literally a paean of praise to Gandhian values. The figure of Kastur is appropriated into this scheme of idealization. If it had not been so, Gandhi would not have been the most telecasted film on days of national importance. The representation of Kastur in ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ is a far cry from “Gandhi.’ The leftist vision of Shyam Benegal influences the representation. Kastur in the film is a down-to-earth yet strong woman. She does not hide her desires and frustrations and is not ashamed of her sexuality. She does not approve of Gandhi’s assumption of celibacy. If Kastur in ‘Gandhi’ is an ideal, in Shyam Benegal, she is a real woman. This unassumingly realistic representation of Gandhi and Kasturba could be why ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ is less popular than ‘Gandhi.’ The representation of Rama Ambedkar in ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ is in total contrast to the representations of Kastur in ‘Gandhi’ and ‘The Making of the Mahatma.’ Though the film is a good attempt at subaltern history, it does not pay much attention to gender.

However, Dr. Patel’s leftist vision influences the representation of Rama. She is represented as a strong woman who understands her husband’s commitment. Nevertheless, she knows that she has no role in the larger scheme of national movement, she accepts it stoically. Her representation is realistic to the core. But this realism is different from the realistic representation of Kastur in ‘The Making of the Mahatma.’ Kastur boldly expresses her desires and frustrations. Rama conveys her desires and frustrations through silence. Her voice is muted. Rama, Ambedkar’s dalit wife is a forgotten character in the history of Indian freedom struggle. Her sacrifices, though no less precious than anyone else’s, is not given its due homage. The value quotient of ‘Dr. Bahasaheb Ambedkar’ is much less when compared to films on Gandhi. The film raised much controversy and was denied exhibition in theaters nationwide.


Films are not histories. A post structuralist academic would be well aware of the epistemological impossibility to recover the past. However, films have the potential to serve as alternate histories. From the above discussions it is clear that this potential of films is only explored to some extent by recent film makers such as Shyam Benegal and Dr. Jabbar Patel. Nevertheless, recent history-oriented films in Bollywood such as ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ and `Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ act as counter-narratives to the Gandhian saga. It is hoped that the above analysis would have showed that there are significant absences in the representation of history in these films with reference to gender and caste. ‘Gandhi’ and ‘The Making of the Mahatma’ marginalize the participation of women in national movement while ‘Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar’ neglects the participation of dalit women. From the subaltern perspective on nation and gender, Rama is a problem figure. She is not appropriated at all into the scheme of nationalism. However, Dr. Jabbar touches her portrayal with his characteristic sympathy. It could also be concluded that since it is impossible to retrieve the past, only textual representation of women like Kastur and Rama are available. The representation of gender in these films is mediated through the figure of the director. This study has pointed out the fact that the appropriation of women into the political category of national citizen-subject was a highly selective process. Only upper caste women were seen as fit to be included as citizens, otherizing lower caste women. Hence Kastur is sublimated as mother India and Rama whose contributions are equally valuable, is marginalized.

End notes

1. Benedict Anderson in ‘Imagined Communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of Nationalism’ argued that nations were not determinate products of given sociological conditions such as language, race, or religion, they had been in Europe and every where else in the world imagined into existence. He also described some of the major institutional forms through which the imagined community came to acquire concrete shape especially the institutions of what he so ingeniously called print-Capitalism. He then argued that the historical experience of nationalism in Western Europe, in the Americas and in Russia had supplied for all subsequent nationalisms a set of modular forms from which the nationalist elites in Asia and Africa had chosen the ones they liked.

2. Angel of the House’ in the name of a poem written by Coventry Patmore, a Victorian poet. The term refers to the patriarchal ideal of womanhood, an ever loving companion, a sacrificing mother, and a caring wife. She is the image of docility and humility.

3. Benedict Anderson in “Imagined Communities Reflections on the origin and Spread of Nationalism” suggests that it was the coalition of Protestantism and print-Capitalism that have rise to the imagined community in European nation-states. The varied dialects of the pre-print languages, which created unified fields of exchange and communications.

4. ‘Mother India’ also the title of an immensely popular Hindi classic, directed by Mehboob Khan. The film raises a peasant woman to a mythical Mother India. The film has been criticized for its defence of traditional values.


Barry, Peter. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory. Manchester and New York: Manchester UP, 2002.

Chakrabarty, Dipesh. ‘Poscoloniality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for “Indian” Pasts? A Subaltern Studies Reader 1986- 1995.Ed. Ranapt Guha. New Delhi : OxfordUP,2000,263-93.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post colonial Histories. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1993.

Hayward, Susan. Key Concepts in Cinema Studies. London and New York: Routledge, 1996.

Hood, John.VV. The Essential Mystery: Major Film Makers of Indian Art Cinema. New Delhi: Orient Longman, 2000 Nehru, Jawaharlal. The Discovery of lndia. New Delhi: Oxford UP, 1981.


RENJINI R. Is pursuing her Ph.D at the University of Kerala.

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Is pursuing her Ph.D at the University of Kerala.

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