Since its release on September 1, 2006, Lage Raho Munna Bhai has been watched by millions broken box-office records, won unprecedented praise from the masses and critics alike, and most importantly forced a nation of one billion people and the world largest democracy to revisit their much misunderstood icon, Mahatma Gandhi.
Following the release of the film there has been a four hundred percent increase in the sale of literature about Gandhi. School and universities have introduces courses on Gandhigiri a phrase from the film that has become a part of India collective consciousness. Websites fan clubs, discussion forums, and citizen groups have sprung across the nation to discuss the films unique ideas. The Washington post called the film, “A phenomenon that made Gandhi a pop icon.”
Amazingly the movie that has inspired such an astonishing response is an unassuming comedy. A gangster has hallucination that he can see Gandhi! With this simple premise the movie explores the relevance of Gandhian ideals in the contemporary world beleaguered by violence and hate while never forgetting to be as The Guardian points out, “A magnificent entertainment.”
What connection can these disparate stories have with the film Lage Raho Munna Bhai? Well without these stories the film could not have been written. Rajkumar Hirani had carried the germ of a film in his head for years: A freedom fighter rendered unconscious by the baton blow from a British soldier during the movement wakes up fifty years later in a Mumbai hospital and asks, “How is Bapu? Has he ended his fast? The film was to be a withering satire of the present day society through the earnest and idealistic eyes of a genuine Gandhian. After many failed attempts at a structure for this film, Raju was about to give it up when…
On a morning stroll he suddenly got this idea: What if this man from the past meets Munna and Circuit, the much loved duo that he created for the film Munna Bhai MBBS? A little later he took the next audacious step: What if Munna and circuit don’t meet a Gandhian but the ultimate Gandhian? Gandhiji himself.
This is Low Lage Raho Munna Bhai Began.
From its inception to completion the Script took two years of almost round the clock writing. It was written. It was written in two continents by three writers, through thousands of e-mails, phone call and extensive travel for collaborative meetings which were usually scheduled for a week but generally lasted a month. On one occasion two straight months.
During this journey thousands of pages of Mahatma Gandhi writing were devoured and digested. Since my mother tongue is Gujarati the Mahatma language I had access to the sound the slant and the spirit of his words. At one point I ended up reading 23 volume of his secretary Mahadebhai Desai’s diary a masterpiece spreading over ten thousand pages. The greatest challenge was to convey the essence of all this learning without diluting the comic flavour and the essential irreverence of the Munna Bhai Series. How to do it? How does one put the icon whose portrait hangs in every government office, into the fold of a light hearted romantic comedy? And somehow not let it crumble beneath the weight? It was like trying to carry a ton of Osmium the densest and the heaviest known metal on the planet in the fragile fabric of the clown cap.
For the answer, we turned to the only man who could help us. Mahatma Gandhi himself.
Quick story: An admirer once asked Mahatma Gandhi for his autograph. Bapu browsed through the autograph book and paused at a page. It contained 11 autograph of the player from the English cricket side then touring India. Bapu smiled and then signed at the bottom of the page: 12the Man, M K Gandhi.
This charming story provide the most profound answer to our dilemma: Bapu had a sense of humour. With one witty gesture he was conveying many complex ideas. It was his style of saying. I am fiercely opposed to the British rule, but I am no enemy of the British people. I am willing to play cricket with them any time. However at this juncture my status is strictly subordinate the 12th man the outsider who can cross the boundary and approach the players only when he carries their drinks.
The wit the sarcasm and the gentle protest of the story provides us with the tone and the texture for the film. The Bapu of our films would not preach provoke or push Munna. He would gently prod him into action with grace and wit.
Curiously while we had discovered the spirit of the screen Mahatma Gandhi we were yet to find his shape and form. In what form does Mahatma Gandhi meet Munna? Raju’s earliest instruct was that Munna would meet the Mahatma’s ghost an apparition. There was one major problem with this: it suggested that we needed a superhero of Mahatma Gandhi stature to come back and guide us. It reinforced our national sport of putting our heroes on lofty pedestals while absolving ourselves of any responsibility. V S Naipaul has found a powerful analogy for India tendency to deify Mahatma Gandhi while refusing to act upon his ideas. It as if there are statues of Florence Nightingale in every corner of England while the hospitals are allowed to be in much the same condition as she had described them. It was while trying to counter this defilation, this idol worship of the Mahatma that the chemical locha of the films was born: Mahatma Gandhi in the film was only Munna head. A hallucination through chemical imbalance. Not an apparition but an inspiration.
This transition from Mahatma Gandhi thought and not Mahatma Gandhi ghost guiding Munna had its genesis in a thrilling anecdote I had heard in a distant English literature class in Ahmadabad years ago. A senior English professor himself a fine Gujarati poet had recounted the story of his friend from France. During the occupation of Paris the Nazis has shot this gentleman brother for being a communist. As he was being led through the streets of the Latin Quarter to be executed he was being led through the streets of the Latin quarter to be executed he was shouting a slogan defiantly. Bullets cannot kill ideas. Thus hush that descended on the class at the visceral power and beauty of this line never left me. Years later it went on to constitute the backbone of the screen Mahatma Gandhi. Mere vichaar teen goliyon se nahi marne wale. Zamane badalte rahenge par maere vichaar kisi na kisi bheje mein chemical locha karte rahenge.”
The most gratifying fact about the process of writing the film was that not once were complex concepts scorned as pedantic, not once was there any pressure to dumb down ides at the altar of commerce. Vidhu vinod chopra had once memorably said to us writer a film for Bertrand Russell if you wish. But for god sake don born him. That was his only condition as a producer and fellow writer. However complex the film it must be entertaining. However worthy it must not be dull.
The task was mammoth. To achieve it Raju created a rule that was followed ruthlessly for two years: every single scene that we wrote had to be either funny or deeply poignant. It any scene failed to do that it had to go. No matter how important a thematic point it made no matter how crucial it was to advance the plot, if it was lacking in either humour or emotion it would not survive. We would set out to find new strategies to convey the same thematic point or plot point through laughter and tears. Sometimes, like fanatics we set out leaving our homes determined that we would not return till we had cracked the scene. This involved waling for hour discussing various options. Sometimes we walk in long friendly silences waiting for an idea. Walked in the pouring Mumbai rain unable to break our vow of not returning till the scene was finished. Once after hours of waking we went into a restaurant at midnight hungry and exhausted for some bread and olive oil, joking that we couldn’t leave till we had cracked the scene. The management obliged, and let us spend an hour nibbling at our bread. This was the hour when the famous pension office scene got written in which an old man seeking his pensions sheds his clothes to shame the corrupt clerk.
Raju’s dedication to the written word was fuelled in part by a cynical question he was asked when the film show. But what will happen to the second show, my friends? The questioner assumed that Raju’s second film was being made only to exploit the success of his first with no regard to quality. Raju courteously smiled at the offender ignoring the jibe. But he did not ignore the challenge: his new film must not let down those who loved Munna Bhai MBBS. Simple folk all walks of life. People who stopped him on the pavement to say how their kid dressed up as Munna Bhai for the school fancy dress contest. Sometimes most touchingly they approached him diffidently and said nothing, except a very heartfelt thank you for creating Munna and Circuit. The pressure created by their simple and warm expectations was intense even tarrying. The pressure multiplied as our writing stretched on and the dates of shooting began to hover closer and closer over Raju, the director. My most abiding memory of the film is that of Raju handling the endless vicissitudes of production on the phone of some location suddenly getting cancelled or some actor having a date conflict and then stoically picking up the thread of the story again. He would somehow shut out the problems and summon up all empathy and innocence to dream up the next delicate link of the story yet believing all the time we would live or die by our pen. Thought he is and agnostic I suspect Raju believes in one by holy utterance in the beginning was the word….
When Raju visited me in the US to write some more scenes for the film particularly the climax instead of walks we took to sitting on the spacious chair exhibited outside a charming Amish furniture shop near my university. We would carry voice recorders in our hand and just sit gazing at the lovely downtown street watching people go by and waiting for ideas to come. Two years later when the film was screened at my university the department of English gave me a very special and unexpected gift. I called Raju in India to share the news with him challenging him to deduce what the gift could be granting him only one guess. Is it the Amish chair? Raju promptly asked. He had guessed correctly.
Once ideas for scenes were collected in this manner, we would hold several long meetings with Vinod. Since I learnt spine. He would have similar meetings with Swanand Kirire who wrote the lyrics for the film. The powerful and propulsive line Bande mein the dum, Vande Matram was born from one of many such meeting. almost all my craft from Vinod and Raju quite a lot of his, vinod objective eye was vital for both of us to determine if the material we had found had any worth. Vinod would bring a classical rigour in the examination of the material. He would tamper the excesses of farce or sentimentality, sift out the notes that were jarring stylistically and above everything else to paraphrase Hemingway kill our darlings. In other words no matter how much we loved a scene if it seemed to hinder the flow of the story or mar the arch of the character Vinod would kill it as ruthlessly as nature kills its weaker species. This was crucial to make the film taut and give it its The most remarkable things about these meeting was that not once did Vinod show up for them in his producer hat. He remained a writer to the core interested only in the dramatic and never the marketing value of the scenes. When Raju and I committed rationalists attacked the superstitions of Vaastu and Astrology through the story Vinod was well aware that it could be a highly unpopular stand to adopt. But he never flinched and even came up with the idea of the gun and the countdown through which Munna and circuit subdue the crooked astrologer in the climax.
The gun and countdown is one example of how the stories continue to evolve throughout the process of shooting. Sometime seemingly well written scenes fall apart at the time of a shot division with the cinematographer or at the time of a shot division with the cinematographer or at the rehearsal with the artistes. It is a writer nightmare to try and resuscitate such scenes back to life. Sometimes however the solution to a scene that does not work at the time of the shooting can open up a world of new possibilities. Quick story: Munna conflict with Lucky started on a simple note in the early drafts of the script. Lucky opens his window in the morning sees Munna standing on the street in protest and find a note saying he would continue the protest till Lucky returned the house he had illegally guzzled. This simple scene began to brother us at the beginning of that shooting schedule. It seemed too flat. We decided to spice it up by making Munna note to Lucky funny and full of stinging insults. I even scavenged the second hand bookshops near Church gate for book of quotable insults. But the scene still did not work. Finally in sheer desperation we tried the exact opposite of what we had in mind; What if Munna’s note is not insulting but a humble and Civil one? In fact what if it is accompanied by flowers and a Get well soon card wishing that Lucky would soon be cured from the disease of dishonesty? This is how inconspicuously the flowers and the get well soon card motif entered the Script. We had o idea at that time we had achieved a breakthrough. In the months after the film opened there were thousands of episode reported from across India of people sending flowers ad cards to corrupt officials.
We got a hint of how people would embrace Lage Raho Munna Bhai on the very night the film opened worldwide. Past midnight that Friday my doorbell rang. A friend and his wife were at the door. They were house hunting at the time and their trusted astrologer had rejected a house they had loved that very evening on the ground of Vaastu. From there they had gone to catch the last show of Lage Raho Munna Bhai. And now… they had landed up at my place… utterly moved…. To convey that they were rejecting the astrologer and Vaastu they were buying the house.
I called Raju immediately and work him up. And I conveyed the story to him. There was a long pause at the other end. Raju was choked with emotion. For two full years we had believed in the concept behind the film but worried about our artistic capability when it came to foraging a full-fledged story that would do it justice. For two years we had worried if the baby that we were shaping would ever walk. And now we suddenly saw that it did not merely walk, it soared our modest ambition was that people would enjoy the film, and leave the theatre a tad thoughtful. That it would ever make a difference to anyone life even for a little while was beyond our wildest imaginings. All the accolades that followed the awards and rewards, the glowing reviews and the standing ovations could not match this simple joy. The delight that people cared about out work. That stirred by the film a little guy sent flowers to the RTO for not releasing his licence without a bribe; that an old woman sent a get well soon card to the municipality because her tap was running dry; that an elderly gentleman went to the cinema after 17 years because his grandson from the US called and insisted that he had to see this film. And above all that a young student from Gujarat haltingly confessed that after the 2002 riots she had felt deeply ashamed. But after the film she proudly remembered that Gujarat was ultimately Mahatma Gandhi not of any fear monger who were pretenders to that standing.
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