Gandhigiri on London Underground

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Almost ready to leave for India. One of things I am going to be researching is the way in which Gandhi’s image and philosophy circulates and is reinterpreted in different contexts. What does Gandhi mean in contemporary India and how are his ideas around Swadeshi and khadi present and relevant today? I have no doubt the answers will be surprising and diverse.

When I was in Mumbai in April I was told to get a dvd of Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Carry on Munna Bhai). It would I was told, show me how interest in Gandhi’s teachings had been revived. This 2006 film comedy starring Sanjay Dutt tells the story of Munna, a Mafia Don (Bhai) living in Mumbai and his sidekick Circuit (short for “short-circuit’) played by Arshad Warsi. Much of the films humor comes from the classic goon double act between Dutt and Warsi. It was the third highest grossing Bollywood film for that year.

Every morning Munna listens to the programme of a popular radio talk show host Jhanvi (Vidya Balan) and is in love with her even though they have never met. When she announces a phone-in quiz on Gandhi’s life, the prize being to appear on her talk show, Munna and his gang kidnap several history professors and use them to win the phone-in competition.  When he and Jhanvi meet, Munna pretends he is a professor of history and she invites him to give a talk to a group of elderly people at a retirement home called Second Innings. In frantic preparation Munna spends three unbroken days and nights studying Gandhi’s teachings and philosophy. On the third night Gandhi appears as though in the room and begins to converse with him; from now on he is frequently at Munna’s side, applying Satyagraha (non-violent resistance) to Munna’s many moral dilemmas as a notorious gangster.  The talk at the retirement home goes well and Munna and the charming and beautiful Jhanvi begin to fall in love…but Munna’s chickens come home to roost in the form of a corrupt developer who has set his sights on the Second Innings retirement home and with whom Munna has close underworld connections. Themes of redemption through love, a transformed masculinity and of civic duty in the context of institutionalized corruption then play out as Munna battles to save the retirement home. This is contextualized within the broader moral codes of Gandhi’s teachings.

The film was an enormous success in India and inspired a widespread phenomenon known “Gandhigiri” (a play on the Bambaiya word dada-giri which means bullying, or to assert oneself through violent, coercive force…n.b.: the entire film is shot through with mercurial-sounding Bambaiya, the street slang Hindi spoken in Mumbai).

Gandhigiri (Gandhi-ing) can best be interpreted as a modern, populist version of Gandhism but one which speaks to the core tenants of forceful non-violent resistance and dialog, its power is in the deft logic of reasoned argument and strategically targeted symbolic pacifism. Just as in the film Munna tells the talk show radio listeners to send flowers to the corrupt developer, who is subsequently bombarded with thousands of bouquets bearing the message to get well soon from his corruption and dishonesty, so thousands of people as well as social movements across India were inspired to send flowers to adversaries.

In the film’s finale Gandhi (Dilip Prabhalvalkar) has a moving monologue in which he laments his legacy being reduced to his picture on Indian bank notes, statues in parks or speeches from politicians on public holidays; in effect to an image that is everywhere yet a philosophy of truth that is no-where. Gandhigiri is seen by many as a way of bringing something of Gandhi’s teachings alive in simple, every day acts. Some commentators feel the film trivializes Gandhian philosophy and reduces it to acts which are apolitical and gestural, although others feel that Munna Bhai has reawakened interest in Gandhi and his teachings unprecedented in recent decades. Many of the younger generation now use social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook to share what Gandhi’s teachings mean for them. Undoubtedly though, the relevance of and ways to effectively reinterpret Gandhi’s philosophy in the context of a booming neoliberal economy yet massive structural social inequality remains a challenge for citizens of contemporary India.

Perhaps Munna Bhai was the source of inspiration for London Underground who began to include bon mots of Gandhian wisdom announced by train drivers on the Piccadilly line in June. A poster also appears on the underground, this one is currently at Finchley East Tube station. I like the way the text of the poster “there is more to life than increasing its speed” contrasts to the symbol of the speeding motorcyclist on the poster next to it… all the while spreading a little Gandhigiri love to London commuters.

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