57 years after India halted the book Nine Hours to Rama, a fictional account on Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse, as well as the film based on it, the story of its censorship continues relevant.
The government and its ordinary citizens’ changing attitudes towards Nine Hours to Rama reflect our complicated relationship with censorship—which subsists to this day.
‘A rather poor book’
The book and the film are identified for being banned in Nehruvian India. They were banned individually and not simultaneously. The novel, written by a historian Stanley Wolpert, practiced Mahatma Gandhi’s murder as the central plot.
Barring Gandhi, his killer Nathuram Godse and Godse’s accomplice Apte, all different character names were fictitious. It tried to imagine circumstances of Godse’s life from the beginning that believably pushed him towards such a violent act. It also showed probable neglect by the Indian government in saving the Mahatma.
The Indian government halted the book months after it was published in London. Moreover, clarification on the next day said the book ban also implied ‘possession, purchase, and sales of copies of the book already imported under a ban.’
As per the report, ‘official sources were helpless to throw light on why the book had been banned’ but it was declared that it portrayed Godse ‘in the wrong perspective and that some parts were subject to be hurt the feelings of various sections.’
A column in the same edition of the journal termed the ban ‘a meaningless action’, noting that most reviews ‘dismissed it as a rather poor book.’ But the customs ban generated some curiosity. ‘It is difficult to describe how national honor was ever lost by the publication of the book or has been retained by its banning,’ remarked the column and termed the action the reflection of ‘an exaggerated national ego and a degree of political immaturity.’
Stanley Wolpert expressed ‘shock and grief’, ‘sorrow and astonishment’. Arguing for freedom of speech and press, he hinted that founding fathers and leaders of both America and India ‘shared that same strong faith in freedom and aversion of tyranny.’ He wanted the government to let people read the book and decide. ‘If it is a poor job of fictional writing, it will banish itself.’ He also reminded India its motto Satyamev Jayate and moaned that those words sounded hollow in light of the ban.
A reader from Bombay answered that the book was banned ‘exactly for the reason the motto expounds—because it distorts the truth.’
Years after the ban, Wolpert told in an interview to journalist Ashok Malik, that his first book Nine Hours To Rama was closest to his soul and he couldn’t understand the reasons for its prohibition. ‘Maybe I came too close to the truth in describing prevalent sentiments.’
Nine Hours to Rama: ‘A mistakenly made film’
Hollywood director Mark Robson acquired the rights of the book when even the manuscript was not ready and the last chapter was yet to be finalized. It was previously named ‘Day of Darkness’ but was replaced later to become Nine Hours to Rama. By the time book was banned in India, Robson had already obtained permissions from the Indian government on the basis of 50 pages of script and completed shooting on Indian locations.
Outdoor scenes for the film were shot in Delhi, Bombay, Pune, and Nashik. It included well known Indian actors David and Achla Sachdev. The lyricist of Achhut Kanya (1936), Jamuna Swaroop Kashyap was chosen for Gandhi’s role because of physical similarity.
The film Nine Hours to Rama simulated the fictional account of Godse’s activities in the last nine hours of Gandhi’s life, with liberal use of flashbacks. It could well be called the ‘fictional biopic’ of Godse—he was even shown boozing and advancing to a sex worker few hours before the murder to hide safely. Since the film’s producers submitted it to the Censor Board, the I&B minister invited then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru and other ministers ‘to see the film and advise him whether the Government should allow its exhibition.’
Prime Minister Nehru, replying to a question in Rajya Sabha, cleared the decision to the prohibition the film. He said he was sure ‘the makers were not aiming to slander Gandhiji or anything in India. But Gandhiji comes very little in the film itself and the person who is deemed to represent Gandhiji lacks all dignity.’
The I&B Minister B. Gopala Reddy clarified that the script of the film had been seen by the government but there were various deviations from it when the film was shot.
A reader from Bombay, however, did not buy the minister’s claim. The difference or no deviation, she argued, a film based on ‘a sex-ridden, fictionalized account’ in which ‘Gandhiji appears exactly in the last three pages of the 270-page book’ can’t do justice to the dignity of Gandhiji.