"To other countries, I may go as a tourist, but to India I come as a pilgrim," Martin Luther King Jr said during his 1959 visit to the country. This, in short, is the central theme of Ramesh Sharma's film on the Mahatma, Ahimsa - Gandhi: The Power of the Powerless. The film won the Best Feature Documentary Award at the 21st New York Indian Film Festival last week.
Now it is on showcase at the London Indian Film Festival in the Extra-Ordinary Lives section. "It has been a long and a very involved journey. I have lived with this project for as long as I can remember. For example, did you know that Gandhi first used the word 'satyagraha' in 9/11/1906? Today, unfortunately, the date 9/11 stands for something completely opposite to what the Mahatma espoused - the Twin Towers tragedy," says Sharma, winner of six National Awards for his previous works.
The nearly two-hour documentary earlier bagged the Global Peace Award at the United Nations in 2019, during a private screening. Talking about the film, the filmmaker says how difficult it is to make a documentary feature in India.
"People want masala. It's always the lowest common denominator that is up for grabs. While I am not against any kind of cinema, I do wish we had a healthy balance and could give the audience more choice," he says.
Sharma remembers approaching "everyone and anyone" in the industry to back his dream project. "It was in 2006 that I thought of making this film. But I had no producers backing me."
When the New Delhi Times director finally got around to working on the film, it stretched into a two-year period, of which roughly six months went into research. The film chronicles the impact of Gandhi’s foremost teaching - non-violence - on political movements of the 20th century the world over.
From civil rights icon and former member of the US House of Representatives, the late John Lewis of Georgia, who defined the Civil Rights Movement in America, Nobel Peace Prize winner and former President of Poland, Lech Walesa, who began as a labour activist sparking the Solidarity Strike that became a social revolution within the Soviet Union, to Nelson Mandela and the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and human rights activist Vaclav Havel's rebellion that saw him elected as President of Czechoslovakia… Sharma's film argues how each of these world leaders was greatly influenced by the Mahatma.
"After all the exhaustive research, it was time to arrange the interview with the many luminaries in the film - world-renowned scholars, historians, the Mahatma's grandchildren, His Holiness The Dalai Lama, Lech Walesa, and of course, John Lewis. In fact, I believe Lewis gave the last interview before his death to me. This film is dedicated to him," the filmmaker says.
The film also weaves in rare archival footage and merges them with inspirational songs across languages and cultures - Bangla, Gospel, Polish, songs by Joan Baez and more. AR Rahman and Bono also collaborated on the title track.
"Getting the music rights of all the songs we used was also an extremely tedious task," says Sharma, who was earlier nominated for an Emmy for his documentary The Journalist and the Jihadi: The Murder of Daniel Pearl.
Working on a shoestring budget (his wife and daughter finally chipped in and became co-producers to make sure that his dream project could see the light of day), the other obstacle Sharma faced was travelling across continents to lend the authentic touch to the documentary. A lot of documentaries are getting the much-needed attention on OTT platforms, why not showcase Ahimsa there?
"You think I haven’t tried them? Two OTT platforms rejected me outright. No one today wants content that may have a risk factor involved. It's either propaganda or formulaic that wins the day," he rues, adding that the further yearlong wait post completion of the film due to the pandemic did not help matters. A true follower of Gandhi, he did not lose heart. "This film has taught me that there should be an absolute commitment to truth. Ends are important, but means also matter," he says.