Gandhi through the eyes of his wife

The cast of Singapore theatre group HuM’s Being Mrs Gandhi, (from left) Gauraangi Chopra, Krish Natarajan, Daisy Irani and Yogesh Tadwalkar.
The cast of Singapore theatre group HuM’s Being Mrs Gandhi, (from left) Gauraangi Chopra, Krish Natarajan, Daisy Irani and Yogesh Tadwalkar. PHOTO: HUM THEATRE

When British film-maker Richard Attenborough began research for his film, Gandhi (1982), he asked India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru how he should depict the revered freedom fighter.

Nehru cautioned against turning him into a saint, saying that he was "a great man, but he had his weaknesses, his moods and his failings".

Singapore theatre group HuM seems to have taken this advice to heart in Being Mrs Gandhi, which sheds light on Gandhi's human foibles through the lens of his wife Kasturba (Daisy Irani) and their sons (Yogesh Tadwalkar and Krish Natarajan).

The English play is directed and written by Subin Subaiah.

A work of hagiography it is not. While it acknowledges Gandhi's belief in non-violence and his readiness for self-sacrifice - Gandhi, after all, embraced poverty and took a vow of celibacy - it also underscores his harshness towards his wife and children.

Being Mrs Gandhi is told from the perspective of Kasturba, who was engaged to Gandhi at the age of seven, married him at 14 and spent much time helping out in ashrams and taking part in civil protests, which often landed her in jail.

It all feels a bit like a dramatised history lesson, with a broad chronological sweep that includes Gandhi's time as a law student in England, a civil rights activist in South Africa and his role in the Indian independence movement.

  • REVIEW / THEATRE

  • BEING MRS GANDHI

    HuM Theatre

    KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT/Last Friday

Even though Gandhi never appears on stage, his presence can be felt everywhere and he is the main focus of the story.

Audiences expecting a bold, radical take on Kasturba herself will be disappointed.

Irani, the star of the show, is nonetheless a delight to watch. She does a good job of channelling her character's grace and strength, and makes numerous attempts to leaven the play with humour (although some jokes go down better than others).

  • BOOK IT / BEING MRS

  • GANDHI

    WHERE: KC Arts Centre - Home of SRT, 20 Merbau Road

    WHEN: Wednesday to Saturday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: $55 to $85

    INFO: str.sg/JoH7

But this is not enough to distract theatregoers from the flaws of the script and direction.

The older Kasturba often appears on stage with her younger self (played by an effervescent Gauraangi Chopra), and the result is an interaction between young and old Kasturba which can often feel confusing - not least during those moments when the older woman ventriloquises Gandhi himself.

Parts of the play sag a little, such as Kasturba's encounter with her alcoholic son Harilal at Katni Junction, and there are some allusions to present-day Singapore - references to kopi-o, kaya toast and social media - which feel strange and gratuitous.

HuM's production, staged to mark the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi, labours under the weight of history and its own ambition.

While it makes an admirable attempt to spotlight the vital role Kasturba played as a political activist and fellow freedom fighter, the fragments do not quite add up to a coherent whole.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2019, with the headline 'Gandhi through the eyes of his wife'. Print Edition | Subscribe