Late in the 80s during my time at Cambridge University, when I began to plan a film on Jinnah, I thought it was important to first find out how Gandhi was made and who had supported the producers. I was most curious, for example, about the spectacular funeral procession in the film. It was said that some 400,000 extras participated in that brief scene, and because of the numbers alone, it entered the Guinness Book of Records.
As it happened, that is when I met Rani Dube, the co-producer of Gandhi, in London. I invited her to Cambridge and to my joy she was most forthcoming and sympathetic to my idea for a film on Jinnah.
She recounted her own story and told me how Richard Attenborough found it difficult to raise money for Gandhi. That is when Rani was asked to fly to Delhi and meet Indira Gandhi, the then prime minister. Indira Gandhi was immediately convinced of the importance of making such a film, since for her such a film would be the “most powerful asset in projecting an idea of India on the global stage”. Indira summoned several of her leading bureaucrats and instructed them to work closely with Rani: the head of the central bank, the airlines and the army were asked to work closely with the cabinet secretary – who would in turn liaise with Rani.
I was constantly asked by the people at the top, “What’s in it for us?”
Most crucially, Indira Gandhi sanctioned $10 million for the film to be made. Attenborough was able to raise the rest of the budget on the back of that sum, which was by no means paltry.
Having talked to Rani, I understood how crucial it was to get the full support of the government in order to accomplish such an endeavour. I learnt from her, for example, that the funeral scene had been such a success because the sea of humanity – a very powerful image for any audience – consisted mainly of Indian Army soldiers.
The film Gandhi inevitably came to define the Mahatma globally. No biography – and there are some really good ones – has had the same impact. And in ways that cannot be calculated, the film projected an image of India as a land of non-violence, wisdom and peace. In short, Gandhi became the greatest ambassador that the country ever had. Today, the film is shown frequently across the world and Gandhi is acknowledged as one of the leading iconic figures of the modern era. Every new generation, therefore, sees Gandhi and leaves the theatre in awe of the man. However simplistic the message and storyline might be, it is a powerful and spectacular film.
Gandhi was a masterstroke for India – it made the man a ‘super saint’, while permanently relegating Jinnah to the role of a scowling ‘super villain’. Some Pakistanis do not quite understand that. Many have replied, “Well yes, but how can you even compare the two? In the movie it was clear that one was the good guy and the other was not.”
For anyone who doubts the power of a film to consolidate the image of a man, look no further than David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. More than the biographies and newsreels, Peter O’Toole’s portrayal has become the defining image of T E Lawrence. Both Ben Kingsley and Peter O’Toole won Oscars for their portrayals.
In contrast to the making of Gandhi and the consistent and massive support it received from the Government of India, I was struggling in the 90s with my Jinnah quartet, with the most erratic political setup possible in the background, as governments fell like ninepins. Prime ministers came and went with alarming frequency. As most things do in Pakistan, all roads let to a martial law being declared in the country. Every change in government affected my projects. New leaders inevitably scrapped earlier agreements and looked at projects supported by the previous administration with disdain. In many ways, I had to keep hitting the ‘reset’ button. At one point, one of the governments committed one million pounds in formal agreements. Elated, I flew back to London to prepare the cast and crew to fly to Pakistan for the shoot. In the meantime, another government had taken over, and as one would guess, promptly reneged on the agreement.
Indira Gandhi saw the Gandhi film as a powerful asset in projecting the idea of India globally
I was constantly asked by the people at the top, “What’s in it for us?”
I have yet to touch upon the non-stop slander and incitement to violence in the media, which understandably rattled the cast and crew. I need to express my profound gratitude here to the cast and crew for their hard work and commitment to finish the film despite the numerous challenges. Even my meagre pay as the Iqbal Chair at the Cambridge University was held up more than once in an effort to discourage me from following through on my plan.
There was only one exception to the erratic and changing attitudes of the various governments, the Pakistan Army.
From the very first meetings that I had at the GHQ in the early 90s, the army stood by the Jinnah project. The military instinctively understood what Rani Dube and Indira Gandhi had grasped a decade earlier: modern nation-states project their image through the media and films. Modern wars are fought through ideas and images, not just missiles and tanks.
The then army chief, Jehangir Karamat, was an old-school gentleman-soldier. He was very positive about my idea. His chief of staff was an old school-fellow from Burn Hall and several officers knew me as the elder brother of Brigadier Sikander. In an unprecedented move, a full regiment was put at my disposal for the shoot. They provided men for crucial crowd scenes. For instance, when we depicted refugees pouring across the borders in 1947, or the railway station scenes with trains carrying dead passengers massacred on the way by fanatics, the men in these scenes were provided by the army. News of the army’s support for project also had a positive effect on people in general, which was critically important given the negative image and rumours being spread by the media.
My friend Abbas Khattak, who I first met decades ago when he was a dashing young pilot, was now the distinguished head of the air force, holding the title of air chief marshal. Not only did he greet me very warmly, but when I requested that we be allowed to use the actual plane that Jinnah had flown in when Pakistan was created, he agreed without a moment’s hesitation. The only problem was that it had been neglected for decades, and one of its wings was in serious disrepair. Determined and unwilling to be deterred, we had the crew fix the plane up. Although the plane was actually stationary during filming, its interior was convincingly used for the scene in which Jinnah flies to Pakistan.
In Karachi, a retired major, influenced by the media, sued us – claiming that the Jinnah film was a conspiracy to destroy Pakistan. If he had succeeded, the film would have been scrapped. Once again, Christopher Lee and others asked me why it was that Pakistanis could not understand that we were here to pay tribute to the Quaid. What the opponents of the film were trying to accomplish was a classic own-goal. During the court proceedings, SS Pirzada and Liaqat Merchant represented the film and brilliantly had the case dismissed (the story is covered in the documentary Dare to Dream). For the record, these two outstanding lawyers worked gratis, as they believed in the project and had been supporting and advising me long before the shooting. Besides, by then our budget was exhausted and no money was forthcoming from the government, despite numerous promises.
For the climactic scene at the Badshahi mosque, we needed the largest crowd scene possible. I rang and requested General Karamat, the army chief, for another two regiments. He explained that as we were now in Lahore, the protection of the provincial capital was involved. If he suddenly moved two regiments from the frontier facing India just a few miles away, the information would be picked up by the Indian army and he did not want to take the slightest risk of a sneak attack.
I will always support democracy as an idea and in practice. Good or bad, politicians must be allowed to play out their tenures till Pakistanis select better people. But it is reassuring that there is an alert institution like the Pakistan Army, with a command-and-control structure still in place, keeping a watchful eye on the fate of the nation. As for the Jinnah film, those who would object to the army’s assistance need to remember the lessons from Indira Gandhi and the Gandhi film. They ought to heed the saying, “Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
Professor Akbar Ahmed is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University, Washington DC.