The celebrated assassin: the play about Gandhi’s killer, still dividing India

Having written about sex tapes and the Delhi bus gang-rape, Anupama Chandrasekhar is tackling Nathuram Godse, the gunman who was raised as a girl – and is now a hero to Hindu nationalists

‘Sometimes the truth is messy and illogical,” says Anupama Chandrasekhar. “But theatre can display the truth in ways journalism or other nonfiction cannot. It’s not just the facts that people can struggle to understand – it is the enormity of things.”

The playwright, who is based in Chennai, India, has spent the last 15 years examining just such uncomfortable truths, from 2007’s Free Outgoing, exploring the viral consequences of a sex tape, to 2019’s When the Crows Visit, which was partly inspired by the Delhi bus gang-rape of 2012.

Her latest offering, The Father and the Assassin, tackles one of the formative moments in India’s history: the murder of Mahatma Gandhi. In true Chandrasekhar fashion, rather than focusing on the revered persona of Gandhi, she concentrates on his assassin, Hindu nationalist Nathuram Godse, seeking to get to the heart of his journey from avid follower of Gandhi’s doctrine of non-violence to killer.

‘We’ve had enough of Gandhi’s story, but there’s so little known about Godse’ … Anupama Chandrasekhar.
‘There’s so little known about Godse’ … Anupama Chandrasekhar. Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Although the assassination took place in 1948, Chandrasekhar decided to write about the era because its themes still felt startlingly relevant. “My job is to chronicle the changes that are happening in society,” she says, during a break from rehearsals at London’s National Theatre. “Over the last few years, Godse has entered political conversations in India.”

In fact, Hindu nationalism has surged in the country, with statues and memorials erected to the assassin. “The divisiveness is so stark – there is no middle ground. I wanted to understand where this animosity against pluralism was coming from. Sometimes to understand the present, you have to go to the past.”

Chandrasekhar paints a complex picture of Godse in the play, from his childhood raised as a girl in Pune by superstitious parents who feared another infant death, to his adulthood witnessing the brutal consequences of British rule as a journalist. Godse, played by Shubham Saraf, is on stage throughout the play – we witness this world through his eyes.

Indhu Rubasingham, artistic director at London’s Kiln theatre, will direct the play, the fourth time the pair have worked together since first collaborating on Free Outgoing. “Anu talks about the unthinkable,” Rubasingham says, sitting beside the playwright. “She gets at the tension between personal individualism and the pressures of society – to the things we don’t want to speak about.”

It feels pointed that this confrontation between the personal and political is taking place at the National – addressing the consequences of Partition in front of an audience likely made up of many of the British empire’s immigrant subjects. “It’s a fantastic opportunity, but also an opportunity to fuck up,” Rubasingham laughs.

‘I didn’t want any of the characters to be idols’ … the funeral of Gandhi.
‘I didn’t want any of the characters to be idols’ … the funeral of Gandhi. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

For Chandrasekhar, putting this play on in Britain also exposes the often-hidden aspects of the country’s history. “I didn’t realise there was a gap in the British education system about the empire until I came here,” she says. “I hope this work will speak to those audience members who have south Asian history, as well as enlighten others about the legacies of colonialism.”

Just as Godse has been revived as a figurehead of Hindu nationalism, so recent years have seen a revisionism of Gandhi’s saintly status as the “father” of India. Questions have been raised around his practices of celibacy in later life, as well as his views on Black South Africans while living in the apartheid state. “I’m trying to sift through the mythology surrounding these figures to understand what goes into the brutal, dirty world of pre-independence India,” Chandrasekhar says. “I didn’t want any of the characters to be idols, since enough hagiographies have already been written. It’s 75 years since Indian independence and we should begin to treat these political figures like the human beings with flaws that they were.”

Chandrasekhar mentions Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning 1982 film Gandhi as one touchstone to avoid. “My impetus was to move away from Attenborough and his style,” she says. “We’ve had enough of Gandhi’s story, but there’s so little known about Godse. I took what facts we have and fluffed them up with my own fictions to create this character. I let him go where he wanted to take me, since it was the journey leading to the assassination I needed to follow.”

Rubasingham adds: “Anu creates this world on the cusp of change. The subject matter is so huge, you could write hundreds of plays on its themes. No one play can answer everything – this is Anu’s version of a particular moment.”

Since Chandrasekhar has previously faced calls to moderate her controversial work, does she feel there is a risk in taking a nuanced view of a moment so symbolic to Indian national consciousness? “What I take from Gandhi is that bravery is something that can be practised,” she says. “I’m not the most courageous writer but I’m learning to be brave.”

Ultimately, she sees the purpose of her work as fostering the empathic connections that were lacking in pre-independence India – and still are today. “I want the audience to learn to listen to each other,” she says. “To understand there is perhaps a kernel of truth in what the other person is saying. Without listening, we can descend into violence.”


Ammar Kalia

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Father and the Assassin review – gripping tale of the man who killed Gandhi
Anupama Chandrasekhar artfully unpicks the forces of history with a tale of violence and colonialism that echoes into today

Claire Armitstead

20, May, 2022 @9:36 AM

Article image
Sex tapes and acid attacks: Anupama Chandrasekhar, the playwright shocking India
Her dramas confront the growing horrors facing women in India today. Now she’s reworked Ibsen’s Ghosts, taking out the syphilis and putting in the Delhi bus gang rape of 2012

Arifa Akbar

28, Oct, 2019 @4:38 PM

Article image
‘There’s something Shakespearean about Gareth Southgate’: the epic play about England’s hero
He came back from a disastrous penalty to reignite the English men’s football team – and inspire a country in the grip of gloom. Writer James Graham reveals how he turned the ‘quiet guy doing The Impossible Job’ into gripping drama

David Hytner

30, May, 2023 @3:19 PM

Article image
‘My nails are longer than my future’: Our Generation, the 254-scene play about teens, cuts and Covid
Sieges, riots, serial killings, sex work … Alecky Blythe has put them all on stage. She reveals all about her latest project – an epic look at the comic ups and touching downs of teenagers across Britain today

Claire Armitstead

08, Feb, 2022 @6:00 AM

Article image
‘We put Disney in the bin’: Victoria Hamilton-Barritt on being theatre’s top Christmas villain
She starred in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights while eight months pregnant and played Cinderella’s stepmother in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s abruptly closed musical. Now Hamilton-Barritt has bounced back as a tormented ogress in Hex

Chris Wiegand

22, Nov, 2022 @2:42 PM

Article image
‘The best summer of my life’ – Kae Tempest takes Sophocles on a gender odyssey
The writer has turned a Greek tragedy about a marooned soldier into an all-women play for the Covid era. They reveal how its creation mirrored their own journey

Kate Wyver

05, Aug, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
‘You immediately tell your friends to cancel their tickets’ – what’s it like to star in a flop?
How does it feel to go back on stage night after night in a play that’s been mauled by critics and deserted by audiences? Richard Eyre and other directors and actors relive their trauma

Mark Lawson

16, Dec, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Meet the new guard running British theatre

Andrew Dickson: Theatre has just gone through an extraordinary changing of the guard – with almost a dozen bosses at top institutions moving on. So are their young replacements planning a big shakeup?

Andrew Dickson

17, Feb, 2013 @8:30 PM

Article image
Babygrows are such sweet sorrow: Romeo and Juliet get a gritty romcom reboot
Romeo, an out-of-work single dad, falls for Julie, a top student who dreams of being an astrophysicist. We go behind the scenes at a Shakespeare update that swaps fair Verona for Splott in Cardiff

Arifa Akbar

13, Feb, 2023 @6:00 AM

Article image
Hamlet, Cabaret and a fistful of Romeos: the best theatre, comedy and dance of autumn 2021
Cush Jumbo tackles the troubled prince, Jessie Buckley and Eddie Redmayne head for 30s Berlin, while standup favourites and dance spectaculars burst back on the stage

Arifa Akbar, Brian Logan and Lyndsey Winship

26, Aug, 2021 @7:00 AM