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India of the Gandhis

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This documentary seems to have originally been made for French television and shot in 2004, shortly after the victory of the Congress-led coalition in India’s general elections of that year.

Its central theme is not easy to extract, but appears to be that India is a Hindu land immersed in deep spiritual values such as renunciation. Its great twentieth century leaders all achieved distinction by acts of renunciation. Mahatma Gandhi renounced a career as a barrister and lived an austere life; Jawaharlal Nehru renounced a comfortable upper-middle class life to lead the independence movement. What his daughter Indira Gandhi renounced is unclear. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi gave up a luxurious private life to become Prime Minister. His widow Sonia Gandhi followed him on the national stage—her renunciation of the post of Prime Minister in favor of Manmohan Singh in 2004 shows her capacity for renunciation. Thus, these characters are knitted together by the theme of renunciation and by association with the sacred site at Prayag near Allahabad where “his majesty the Ganges” (sic!!) meets the Yamuna. They have therefore been “inheritors of a dynasty.”

Beyond this, the film is populated with a number of stock Orientalist tropes. The camera lingers for long shots of long-haired holy men, of the Ganges River and interviews a handful of people congregated on the riverbank at Prayag who speak animatedly about the sacred river. We get a shot of the Sikhs’ Golden Temple at Amritsar, but India’s 150 million Muslims—whose votes were long central to the Congress’ hold on its North Indian heartland—are included only once as part of a multi-faith prayer meeting. Beyond religiosity, there is of course filth and poverty. A slum settlement near Shadipur is visited. The well-fed headman’s claim that he supports a family of seven children on one Euro ($1.25) a month is solemnly reported as fact. The obviously staged theatrics of the Youth Congress are presented as simple expressions of mass feeling. Perhaps the documentary’s best moment is when the camera is allowed into the highly guarded precincts of the annual Rajiv Gandhi commemoration, which ends with a young man and woman running around the cenotaph bearing the Indian flag to the strains of Wagner’s Zarathustra. It would be tedious to recount all the factual errors in this short film.

This documentary manages to be at once shallow and complex. It is of no value to students of any age and exasperating for any moderately well-informed person to watch.

The AAS Secretariat is closed on Monday, May 29 in observance of the Memorial Day holiday