• Sep 15,2023
  • In Review
  • By Abundant Art

Review: The Father and the Assassin- a cautionary tale on the dangers of extreme nationalism, National Theatre until 14 October

The father and the assassin is the story of a troubled young man whose aspiration for greatness by serving his motherland leads to bitter disillusionment. It’s also the story of the failure of Gandhi’s “secularism” and the emergence of India and Pakistan. Most  importantly, the narrative does not try to judge, rather tries to objectively portray the other side – one of the non-Gandhian voices  in India’s independence struggle. There is a contemporary message especially in the second half with an allusion to the current rise of populist nationalism across the world. 


The storytelling is riveting with powerful actors, innovative stage design and a script which manages to condense five decades of India’s pre-independence history into a tightly packed 2 hours of intense drama and emotion.  Paul Bazely grows into his role  as Gandhi as the story progresses and Hiran Abeysekara’s slightly unhinged tragi-comic portrayal of the murderer Godse makes for captivating drama.  Tony Jayawardena’s sullen and proud Savarkar adds to the tension and is the perfect counterpoint to Gandhi. 

The script by Anupama Chandrasekhar is racy while it spans several decades in the timeline and provides the foundation for an exhilarating production.

Shown in two halves the 2 hour play traces the life story of Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse. As a child his parents would dress him up as a girl to ward off the evil eye. He claimed to hear the Goddess’s voice inside his head and made divinations. As he steps into adulthood he is drawn into India’s freedom struggle and into Gandhi’s charisma. He considers himself a follower of Gandhi initially but slowly the spell breaks and leads to terrible disappointment. Nathuram’s destiny leads his family to Ratnagiri where another doyen of India’s independence movement Savarkar has been placed under house arrest by the British colonial rulers after serving 11 years in solitary confinement in the dreaded Cellular jail. Savarkar- once one of the senior most architects of India’s armed revolutionary movement is full of resentment and anger. He is envious of Gandhi and suspicious of his methods. Godse changes his mentor to Savarkar with his cultural revivalist ideology of Hindutwa and starts ridiculing  Gandhi’s non violent methods as cowardice. The final disenchantment comes with partition  and when Gandhi gets on a hunger strike to release government funds to Pakistan, Godse decides to murder him. 


While the play tries hard to objectively portray the ideological difference between Gandhian school  and the Hindutwa nationalist school that Godse represents,  there are some factual inaccuracies that gets in the way. One of them is in the way Gandhi’s views on full independence is portrayed. The fact is that he was initially in favour of  a dominion settlement for India and preserving the British empire but was swayed by the tide of popular opinion towards full independence. 


The writer chooses to  caricature  Savarkar’s Hindutwa as “one way of life for all Indians” while drawing parallels to Nazism. There are other views which sees the ideology as more nuanced only expecting allegiance to the motherland from the people while acknowledging differences in  custom, cultural or religious practice. Secondly the play carefully avoids any mention of  the Islamist movements in India – the demand for communal electorate with disproportionate representation, the Khilafat movement and the numerous communal and ethnic cleansing events instigated by them in Bengal, Kerala, Vidarbha and North west frontier province between 1905-1946. The Hindu nationalism was partly a reaction to these events and partly on Gandhi’s perceived silence and accommodation of Islamist radicals. Without this context it would be futile to understand the origins of Hindutwa and of Godse’s transformation. 


While the narrative steers clear of another Gandhi hagiography a bit more context on both Savarkar’s transformation as well as the Islamist Casus belli would have been more appropriate for a fuller understanding of what divided the father from the assassin and India from Pakistan . That should not detract from what is a brilliant immersive experience of a play which tells the story of the tragic final act in the struggle for self determination of an ancient civilisation and the competing ideologies that lay claim to its soul.


Image: Paul Bazely-Mohandas Gandhi-Hiran Abeysekera-Nathuram-Godse and The-Father and the Assassin company at the National Theatre 2023.-Credits-Marc Brenner

Review by Koushik Chatterjee

Tickets and information: The Father and the Assassin | National Theatre

Read the review of ‘The Effect’ also running at the National Theatre The Effect – Are our feelings determined by our hearts or are they simply a matter of chemicals in the brain? (abundantart.net)

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