The Dark Side of the Horst.
I see a red door and I want it painted black.
–The Rolling Stones, “Paint It Black”
No, it’s not a movie about Arthur C. Clarke’s enigmatic alien space station, Rendezvous With Rama, but about the assassination of Mohandas K. Gandhi (aka Mahatma Gandhi) on January 30, 1948, and his alleged last utterance upon being shot, “Hey, Raam!” (Oh, God!).
NINE HOURS TO RAMA is not about Gandhi per se, but about the white men in blackface who killed him.
And that’s the most distracting thing in this well-made suspense movie about the nine hours leading to Gandhi’s shocking public murder: though it is shot in India, with a cast of Indian thousands, all the principals are WHITE PEOPLE IN BLACKFACE! How can that be anything but insulting, racist and capitalist? Insulting and racist due to its ultimate capitalist agenda: slated for international release, so investing in A-list and B-list “stars” to drive its income potential. What are you saying, 20th Century Fox? That darkies can’t be trusted to bring in the box office?
Directed creatively by Mark Robson, NINE HOURS TO RAMA labels itself as “historical fiction” which is a nice way of saying Utter Bullshit. The Indian government concurred, banning the movie in India. (Stanley Wolpert‘s 1962 book of the same name was also banned.) We can see why immediately, as this tale surprisingly humanizes Gandhi’s killer, Nathuram “Nathu” Godse (played with energetic fanaticism by Horst Bucholtz, hot off his role in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, 1960); film is sympathetic to the point of apologist. Movie unabashedly makes a hero out of the killer of India’s greatest spiritual and political leader; rationalizing to the point of heroism the assassin’s motivations. Nathu is depicted as an intense young man, with strong political beliefs that clash with Gandhi’s for very pragmatic reasons; he is shown as patriotic, burning to enlist in the British occupying army, but rejected due to his caste; his love life is confusing and frustrating, first with an unwanted arranged marriage to a child-bride, then pining after a married woman who should be pictured next to the definition of “cocktease.” Though Gandhi’s assassination was planned for months by the conspirators he worked with, Nathu’s ultimate act of pulling the trigger would be portrayed as a wrenching confusion of emotions for him.
And I think that “blackface” thing was the straw that broke the Brahman bull’s back…
Bucholtz is German-born – in blackface. Though I must commend him for his attention to detail in Indian mannerisms: he waggles his head in all the right places, as Indians do, to accentuate his dialogue.
Here comes renowned Puerto Rican actor Jose Ferrer, as Chief of Police, known for his velvet British delivery – in blackface. He would discover the plot to kill Gandhi and try to convince the stubborn Gandhi not to make himself such an easy target. There’s British Robert Morley, playing a politician seeking favor with Gandhi – in blackface. And no matter how many “isn’t it”s he drops, he’s not fooling anyone. And whiter-than-white Valerie Gearon, as Nathu’s married love-interest Rani – in blackface. Born and raised in Hollywood, Diane Baker (she would be the senator whose daughter goes missing in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991) is prostitute Sheila – in blackface. In a hilariously, unintentionally ironic scene, Nathu flies into a temper over Sheila’s hooker adornments and heavy makeup, and rips off her bracelets and tries to wipe the “paint from her face”!
Now I’m just waiting for each actor’s rendition of a paka accent (English in the lilt of Indian delivery). All fail. The Whiteys’ accents are ludicrous in their attempts to find a middle ground between actual paka and understandable King’s English. It sounds like the Aussie actors in the original soundtrack of MAD MAX (even before it was dubbed with even worse American accents) trying to speak in a bastardized version of Strine that “Them Yanks” would comprehend.
That being said, all the actors put in exemplary performances that aren’t parody. The collective sincerity of the filmmakers and stars is what saves this movie from descending into a sniggering poke at Indians. (Although that’s obviously not what the Indian government thinks…)
And Gandhi himself – magnificent! J.S. Casshyap plays the fragile, emaciated, diminutive Indian holy man, espousing wisdom with every sentence. And his accent? Paka!
Nathu’s co-conspirator asks him, “What would happen to us in the next life if Gandhi calls out to Rama, and we have killed him? We will be vile things in the next life.” Nathu: “He will not call out to Rama, I swear! He will not.” With a look of doubt on his face.
One hour before the assassination, it is portrayed that there is a crossroads for Nathu – he beseeches Rani to come away with him, that he would leave the activist sect that had forbidden him to marry, that he would forsake the act he was hell bound to commit, that they would change their names and live in happiness far from politics. But Rani – after numerous cockteasing talk-dates – finds she prefers the riches of her husband to the promises of a revolutionary. In another of its justifications, the movie could very well be saying that she killed Gandhi. Chicks!
Gandhi asks the Chief whether he still carries a gun, to which the Chief replies that there is a man with a gun out there seeking to kill Gandhi. Gandhi’s philosophical reply, an indictment of the human species and its incorrigible belligerence, “It is because *I* have failed that you both carry a gun…”
Bucholtz brings tears to our eyes with his final moments. The chanting throng push in on all sides as he edges closer to the approaching Gandhi; he joins the chanting, his face a vacillating mask of determination, anger, vengeance, sadness, indecisiveness, fear, regret… known as the German James Dean, he shot to stardom with MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, but this guy deserved to be a bigger star with chops like this. As we witness his emotional dynamism, even if you liked Gandhi, you’re kinda rooting for this guy to get a good shot in.
In the movie, the words Gandhi utters to Nathu after being shot are, “I forgive you, my brother. Bless you. Hey, Raam.” Whether historical fact or not, these words are also simply to enhance Nathu’s character, as he breaks down in repentance, crying out, “He blessed me! I shot him and he blessed me!”
NINE HOURS TO RAMA is like any movie about the Titanic or Jesus. We know what’s coming – so it’s completely on the shoulders of the filmmakers to surprise us with something new from something old. This time they went one step further with something black from something white…