IS it a reassessment of history or a recasting of a villain? Even as the Centre asks the Maharashtra government to ban Mee Nathuram Godse Boltoy (I am Nathuram Godse Speaking), controversy dogs the Marathi play which has been invited by the India Foundation to perform at Ohio, ironically, on October 2.
Pramod Navalkar, the state culture minister, had to flee the Shivaji Mandir theatre as the battle hotted up between disappointed ticket-holders and Shiv Sena activists screaming "open the gates" and Congress demonstrators screeching "close the show". The latter also burnt an effigy of Godse and marched through Kolhapur streets.
The immediate provocation is Godse's rationalisation of Gandhi's assassination as Gandhi 'wadh' (being translated as the "killing of a demon"). Also, the scene where a bereaved Hindu father suggests Gandhi break his fast not with mosambi juice, "but my son's blood". More provocative, say critics, is Godse's suggestion that Gandhi didn't die uttering the word Ram. "How can a man who had Rahim on his lips die uttering the word Ram?" queries Godse. Gandhian ahimsa also comes under attack when Godse asks how a passive reaction to Hindu massacre is non-violence.
Countering each of these charges, scriptwriter Pradip Dalvi argues: "The most recent interpretation of the word 'wadh' is killing a demon. But the Marathi encyclopaedia defines it as the killing of another, not for a selfish motive, but for the good of society." On the Ram-Rahim row, he says the play is draws from documentary evidence: "Nana Apte was just four feet behind Godse. But to protect Apte, he hadmaintained he was nowhere near him. Hence, it's not in the records. Apte later said Gandhi never said Ram." Pune-based Gopal Godse, Nathuram's brother charged as co-conspirator, confirms this, saying both Gandhi's personal assistant and a foreign correspondent had noted that Gandhi didn't say "Ram". As for the attack on ahimsa, Dalvi points to the instance where Godse acknowledges Gandhi's greatness with the sentence: "I can finish Gandhi, but I can't finish Gandhism." In the act of assassination too, Godse finds meaning to his existence: "That single moment I lived." Regarding the bereaved father scene, director Vinay Apte, who ironically played a small role in Sir Attenborough's Gandhi, retorts: "What was that scene, after the riots, where a character angrily flings the roti, saying much the same thing? Nobody questioned it when Attenborough did it."
The fuss, says Apte, is surprising considering the Gujarati play (a literal translation of the Marathi script) Gandhi Ke Godse, produced by Jaisukh Ravrane and Vipul Shah, not only got the script approved by the same board, but has successfully run 60 shows. The Marathi script, on the other hand, had to be taken to the high court before the Shantaram Nandgaonkar-headed scrutiny board accepted Dalvi's arguments and Lalita Bapat passed the script. Uday Dhurat, the Marathi producer, has taken a caveat for 180 shows, anticipating trouble from the Gandhians, led by Usha Mehta, who'd written to the PM urging him to "take steps to prevent a law and order problem". But Dalvi denies the assertion that he has been quoted saying he'd be satisfied only if the viewers are roused enough to break Gandhi statues.
The protestors also see it as a saffron mollycoddling of right-wingers (Apte was recently made chief of Sena's Mai Marathi channel) who wangled a 'U' censor-certificate (without cuts) for the play from the scrutiny board, asking how the "incendiary" parts had been okayed. But the play, says Dalvi, is based on documents accessed through Gopal Godse's book Gandhi Hatya Ani Mee and Nathuram's court arguments, Please Your Honour, and advocate Madhavrao Pallat's court records. "I met Gopal Godse while probing the Abhyankar murder case for one of my plays. I saw the silver urn in which Nathuram's ashes are kept. It seemed to me a powerful ideology," recalls Dalvi.
Opinion is divided on whether the play should be banned. The Mahatma's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi believes it makes martyrs of the murderers, who after "murdering him are now trying to murder his memory". Feroze Khan, who humanised the icon in his play Mahatma Vs Gandhi, feels "bans are counter-productive. Gandhi is too big to be affected by such interpretations". For Gopal, the critics "are denigrating Gandhi's memory by creating a new caste of untouchables like me and all those who made the play". Even as political passions soar over the play, this is one debate on which the curtain refuses to fall.