Neil Dowden on the South Bank
20 September 2023
The name Nathuram Godse may not be familiar to most people living outside India, but he is infamous the world over for one particular act. On 30 January 1948, Godse assassinated Mohandas Gandhi with three point-blank gunshots. Indian playwright Anupama Chandrasekhar’s The Father and the Assassin – returning to the National Theatre’s Olivier auditorium after a successful run last year – gives Godse’s flawed perspective. The play is a beguiling mixture of fact and fiction, avoiding becoming a heavy history lesson, or a didactic sermon, in a fast-moving drama that contains a surprising amount of comedy.
Paul Bazely as Mohandas Gandhi.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The events of the play take place over 30 years in the first half of the 20th century alongside the inexorable movement towards Indian independence from Britain in 1947, which coincided with the turmoil of the Partition of Hindu-majority India and Muslim Pakistan with 15 million people displaced and two million dead. The epic sweep of history takes in Gandhi endorsing swadeshi (Indian self-sufficiency and boycott of British goods) and pioneering satyagraha (non-violent resistance), the Non-Cooperation Movement, and the Salt March.
But – as he himself is desperate to make clear – The Father and the Assassin is Godse’s story. He is the attention-seeking (unreliable) narrator seizing his moment in the limelight to revel in his notoriety as the murderer of one of the most revered figures in modern history – Mahatma Gandhi, Father of the Nation of India. He seizes hold of the audience directly in an enthralling opening monologue: “What are you staring at? Have you never seen a murderer up close before? Take a good look – you’ve paid good money to be here.” He demands his due recognition: “It’s about time you know who I am. For I too am etched in India’s history.”
Hiran Abeysekera as Nathuram Godse.
Photo credit: Marc Brenner.
The play moves around in time, between Godse’s childhood and the assassination – and indeed beyond as Godse is speaking to us after he was executed. There are even references to more recent events, including an amusing swipe at the Oscar-winning 1982 film Gandhi (which Godse dismisses as “that fawning Richard Attenborough movie with Sir Ben Kingsley”) and the “partition” of Brexit.
Sometimes Godse’s narrative of self-justification (where he claims to be a Indian Hindu patriot standing up to Gandhi’s overly passive behaviour towards the British and over-tolerance of the large Muslim minority) is “hijacked” by his fictional childhood friend Vimala – a Gandhi follower who provides an alternative take and points out the absurdity of Godse’s self-aggrandizement. Godse complains that she “keeps appearing like an unwanted apostrophe”. And, despite Godse’s narcissistic efforts to take centre stage in India’s modern history, the truth is that he is only remembered – if at all – because of his spurious connection to Gandhi, not on account of his own contribution.
The Father and the Assassin posits that two crucial, connected experiences in Godse’s early life precipitated his move towards extreme Hindu nationalism and ultimately killing Gandhi. First, he was brought up as a girl because his Brahmin parents’ first three sons had all died in infancy (whereas their daughter had survived) so they believed their male line was cursed. Second, as a young child Godse was regarded as a human channel for the Goddess Durga in making prophesies (“Kindly switch off your British scepticism,” Godse tells us), which Chandrasekhar shows the family benefitting from financially.
The play fictionalizes that it was Gandhi himself who confirms what Godse already knows –that he is a boy – and despite pressure from his parents from then on he identifies as male (which coincides with losing his status as an oracle – he is no longer “special”). Although Godse begins as a follower of Gandhi’s peaceful protest movement, he later becomes involved in a radical Hindu organization that advocates violence. The idea – persuasively enacted – is that his confusion over his own identity – or early “emasculation” – and desperation to assert himself leads to him becoming an assassin.
We see Godse growing up as a rebellious “tomboy” in western India (where he wins a spitting contest with his friends). Later, when he goes away to school he is influenced by a teacher who is arrested for anti-colonial slogans. And then as an apprentice tailor he fatefully meets far-right-wing Hindu nationalist Vinayak Savarkar (living under house arrest) who advocates the use of force not just against British but also Muslims.
Godse projects himself into political meetings where Gandhi’s inclusive, secularist attempts to forge a united independent India fail as the religious divide widens – with both the Indian Congress Party’s president Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru (who became India’s first prime minister) and the Muslim League’s Mohammad Ali Jinnah (Pakistan’s first governor general) backing separate Hindu and Muslim nations. Godse sides with the Nazi-sympathizing extremist Savarkar. Surely one of the motives behind the play, Chandrasekhar brings out contemporary resonances with the resurgence of Hindu nationalism under India’s controversial populist prime minister Narendra Modi, which has seen attempts to resurrect Godse as a martyred hero.
Director Indhu Rubasingham makes sure the play gets a dynamic staging to bring these momentous events to life, marshalling a 20-strong cast and putting the Olivier revolve to great use especially during demonstrations, marches, and riots. The stage is mainly left fairly bare to facilitate quick-changing scenes and fluid movement. The multi-level set design of Rajha Shakiry features a an impressive woven textile structure (a nod to the hand-spun cloth championed by Gandhi with his famous spinning wheel) that suggests a work in progress, as well as briefly a shrine, schoolhouse, tailor’s shop, and prison cell.
In a brilliant, lithe performance as Godse, Hiran Abeysekera (who won an Olivier Award for Life of Pi, and who takes over this role from Shubham Saraf) is spellbinding as the charismatic psychopath veering from childlike to menacing in the blink of an eye. Full of restless energy, Abeysekera charms the audience almost into complicity with Godse’s irreverent humour, while conveying the disturbing undertow of a hopelessly lost man hell-bent on proving his own significance.
Paul Bazely (reprising his role) also makes a strong impact as Gandhi, suggesting at once a selfless benevolent spirituality and shrewd leadership skills. Marc Elliott also returns as the more politically pragmatic Nehru, with Nicolas Khan as the statesmanlike Jinnah and Tony Jayawardena as the forbidding fanatic Savarkar. And Aysha Kala’s sceptical Vimala persistently punctures Godse’s inflated ego and subverts his false narrative.