(National Theatre, 12 May–18 June, 2022)
Review by Mirza Waheed
Playing with History
The Father and the Assassin begins with one-line jokes, some mildly funny, some glib – the character Nathuram Godse trying to lure in the audience with his negative charm, a stock device in anti-hero narratives, to arrive at the primary narrative thrust: to humanise the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi. Godse is keen to tell his story the way he wants to, as he insists throughout the play, but in doing so history and fact suffer.
The jokey quips, mostly reserved for Godse, are spread through the text and a few do draw chuckles from the audience. Often, Godse addresses the audience directly (I’m so involving you in my psychodrama) and talks about his childhood, his identity traumas, how his parents forced him to live a false life, about British rule of India and his disappointment with Gandhi.
Towards the middle, he cracks a good contemporary joke, too, that in hurrying through the partition of India Mountbatten went for a hard Brexit (laughter from the seats). All this is probably fine, the grist of stage business, but soon we are left with a troubling realisation. Are we being asked to zoom in on Godse’s humanity a little too persistently, while the politics that underpins the assassination is pushed off stage? At the same time, we are also shown other political figures of India’s independence movement, Nehru, Patel and Jinnah as somewhat cantankerous, flat characters – Jinnah’s representation approaching caricature with a pronouncedly rotund appearance and anodyne, all-I-want-is-Pakistan dialogue with others. (What’s the play doing?) The portraiture then turns even more problematic when we see Gandhi himself portrayed as a petulant, sometimes snivelling man who must always get what he wants.
Some of the commentary aimed back at Godse is pointed, ‘So you are going to kill me because I’m a bad father…?’, ‘You are talking about being effeminate.’ (In this fictional version, Godse is brought up as a girl so his parents can dress him as a goddess and live off the devotees’ offerings.)
In its theatricality, the staging is fine, the revolving stage reminiscent of Gandhi’s spinning wheel, the backdrop of woven gauze a nice touch, too. The set design by Rajha Shakiry is striking, the lighting on spot, but what’s portrayed on the stage is a disquieting spectacle. Is Gandhi wilfully given less stage time? ‘Go away, it’s my story,’ Godse thunders, and on cue the Mahatma leaves. These departures are strange and puzzling. As Godse rants and declaims, Gandhi leaves the stage sniggering, shaking his head, not with the gravitas of a man who’s aware of the weight of history on his shoulders. In places, the effect is of Gandhi being caricatured for his insistence on following the high path.
Of all the figures, it is Godse’s childhood playmate, Vimla, dismissed by Godse as an ‘unnecessary apostrophe’, who acts as the foil to his narcissistic madness. She very briefly confronts Godse and his mentor Savarkar’s divisive politics and their stance against Gandhi.
At a time like this, when the politics Godse swore by is seeing a violent revival in India, indeed is now the de-facto official ideology, it was discomfiting to see Godse invested with a more powerful, heroic presence than his victim. Yes, we get the anti-hero charm thing (haven’t we seen a lot of that in the Hollywood serial-killer procedural?), but the insistence on making him likable, while turning others – including Nehru, who was not a footnote to Gandhi, however flawed he may have been, and Gandhi himself – into comparatively lightweight characters, gives a sinister edge to the play.
Shubham Saraf as Godse does a fine job in that he delivers what’s given to him with relish, Ayesha Dharker as Godse’s mother Aai is reliably good as always, and the text is generally well served by its cast. The play may serve as a rudimentary primer on the history of the Partition and India under British rule for the uninitiated. But even here serious omissions stand out; the play does not even mention that Godse belonged to the paramilitary Hindu nationalist group, RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). He’s shown to be deeply unhappy with Gandhi for not keeping India together, but what’s left out is that ‘undivided India’ in the Godse and RRS view means a Hindu supremacist India.
These are profoundly serious choices to make when we use historical fact in a dramatic retelling; creative licence cannot entail suggesting an equivalence between one of the most significant political figures in history and a murderous fanatic with daddy issues. As the fictional Godse goes to the gallows triumphantly, I thought of the televised demolitions of Muslim homes in contemporary India.