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Review - The Father and the Assassin - Eerily topical but lacks ambition

Updated: Jul 16, 2022

Rated 🍯🍯🍯

Growing up in India in the 90s, I was conditioned to see Mahatma Gandhi as a venerated saint, the great freedom fighter who fought relentlessly and inexorably for Indian independence from British raj.

That the great Father of our Nation exhibited more than a few - sexist to say the least, misogynistic to say the worst - tendencies, was omitted altogether in elementary school textbooks and relegated to tiny footnotes in secondary school textbooks. Silly, pesky little issues like that were irrelevant compared to the man's overall legacy. If you wanted to hear from those who challenged this man's ideologies, you had to seek them out yourself; you could not rely on school textbooks or mainstream media to expose you to the contrarian perspective. But even among those who critiqued the Gandhi way, there was unanimous agreement that his assassination was a great national tragedy, that his assassin was a radical Hindu supremacist whose ideology had no place in independent India.

Let me say that again. A radical Hindu supremacist whose ideology had no place in independent India.

The great irony is that today, Hindu supremacism - the exact ideology that Gandhi's assassin subscribed to - is the norm rather than the exception in India. The current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janta Party are remaking an India where Hindus are more Indian than Muslims, and where Hindu supremacism reigns supreme more overtly and blatantly than ever before. But how a nation can condemn Godse's radical Hindu nationalism on one hand, and condone the same brand of Hindutva that dominates India's political landscape today on the other hand, is beyond me. I was most irked when, in his first year as Prime Minister, Modi spoke of Gandhi's great legacy and launched a grand national scheme (the Clean India mission to end open defecation) on Gandhi's birthday. If I were Gandhi, I would be turning in my grave that Modi uses my name, misleading a gullible public into thinking that we are not so dissimilar after all, when in reality Modi's vision for a (Hindu) India is everything I ever fought against.

Therefore, Anupama Chandrasekhar's play, The Father and the Assassin, is so very topical (although the play itself makes no reference to modern day politics). But despite the immediate relevance of the issues at the heart of the play, I came away thinking the play lacked ambition.

I liked the detailed, thorough investigation into Godse's childhood and formative years, but the thoroughness wore off and the narrative became increasingly murky as the play advanced into Godse's adulthood. What planted the Hindutva ideal so deeply and immutably in Godse's mind?

The play shows us that the child Nathuram, after realising he is a boy and not a girl as he has been led to believe all his life, accuses his parents of making him live a lie. From the way he throws, smashes and destroys the food offerings on the table - offerings made to the Hindu Goddess Durga - in his fit of rage, I would have thought he would grow resentful of the religion that his parents exploited to convince him of his gender and earn their living. The opposite happens and he comes to believe truly and deeply in Hinduism. To a radical degree. What is it about Hinduism that appealed to him so strongly? The play leaves this unanswered, leaving the audience to find an explanation in Savarkar's mentorship alone and believe that that was all it took to systematically brainwash Godse and Aapte.

Savarkar never extolled the virtues of the Hindu religion, nor did he provide the slightest bit of spiritual guidance to his pupils Aapte and Godse. His treatise, although it wielded religion, was purely a political one - his philosophy was merely that one, 'we were here first', and two, 'we are more in number', and so 'we' - Hindus - should dominate Indian politics. Is that enough to radicalise two young, brilliant boys? Maybe, but I am not entirely convinced that that is all there is to the story of Godse's radicalisation.

The play does not depict Godse's attempt to propagate - perhaps even evangelise - his point of view, instead depicting the character as a lone wolf, immersed in his own thoughts - thoughts he shared with no-one other than Aapte and Savarkar.

In reality, Godse took to passionately propounding his ideology. He is known to have written impassioned columns in newspapers advocating Hindutva.

The play also entirely omits Godse's political activism.

Godse is known to have joined the highly controversial organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh - an extreme right-wing Hindu nationalist political party. He is known to have started his own organization in later years. That sounds like a man with at least a little bit of leadership ability to mobilise support for his cause. That sounds like a man who had a point of view and made it known, not someone who is plain and 'ordinary' as stated by Godse in the play's climactic scene, moments before he pulls the trigger. In the play, Godse is often depicted as a 'fly in the wall', merely watching from the sidelines as Nehru, Gandhi, Patel and other leaders debated and discussed their stances on various issues.

I was most disappointed at the way the play treated the assassination plot.

It felt rather abrupt that after years of meek, ineffectual activism, the Godse and Aapte duo suddenly chanced upon the idea of an assassination, and that Godse somehow felt 'it had to be him' that pulled the trigger and not Aapte (why?) and why Aapte just went with that idea when a previous scene credited Aapte and not Godse with a propensity for aggression, why at trial Aapte pled not guilty and Godse tried to take the entire blame upon himself so that Aapte had a chance at exoneration (was that decided improptu by Godse acting unilaterally or was that agreed between the duo earlier?) - big open questions that the play does not address at all. I was particularly excited to see how Godse would react to the fact that after he was sentenced to death by hanging, Gandhi's sons made clemency pleas for him (they were turned down by the Prime Minister Nehru), but this bit was also, unfortunately, not included in the play at all.

In all, the play does not deliver a comprehensive and exhaustive historical narrative.

Perhaps it did not intend to be a historical narrative, and perhaps it was only meant to give an insight into Godse the person - explore his rather timid demeanour, showcase his tendency to pick out a role model and defer to them to a sycophantic degree (first Gandhi, then Savarkar, and perhaps also that Pune school watchman), address his disillusionment with his own family and family life more generally, etc. - and to the play's credit, it does explore these issues beautifully. But I did leave thinking the play lacked ambition. It trivialised itself with the character Vimala making her entrance into the narrative every now and then to offer unnecessary platitudes. The encounter between Godse and Gandhi after Godse's death drastically reduced the intensity of what could have been a hair-raising moment in the play.

Then, there is the scene about Partition.

Godse spoke of how the British authority who was tasked with drawing out the border dividing India and Pakistan had never even been to India. He spoke of how the timeframe planned for Partition was so small, and later even advanced by 10 months - because the person responsible wanted the damn thing over with so he could get back to Britain as soon as possible. He spoke of how this poor planning led to civil strife - the communal riots and bloodshed that followed Partition.

Wait, are we supposed to believe that Godse's heart was bleeding for those who lost their lives? Are we supposed to believe that Godse's opposition to Partition was on the grounds that there would be violence? What about the fact that Godse wanted a unified India not because he was concerned about violence, but because he did not want to cede a chunk of India's proprietary geographical territory to Muslims, like a child that does not want to share its candy? What about the fact that he wanted Muslims to live in a unified India, but as second class citizens?

The Godse in the play puts forward both of these conflicting rationales without reconciling them. What's more, he blamed it all on Gandhi even though Gandhi and he wanted the same things - they both wanted a unified India, albeit for different reasons. Godse wanted Gandhi to start another protest - conceivably the non-violent kind, ironically - believing that if Gandhi protested again, he could make the government bend to his will. What if Gandhi did protest? Would Godse have gone and protested by Gandhi's side?

Cast of play The Father and the Assassin bow to audience
Cast members of The Father and the Assassin bow to the audience after a performance at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London

In all, Godse's thought process in the latter half of the play was not explored adequately, leaving several loose ends in his rationalisation. Or is it that Godse's rationalisation isn't supposed to add up? (I am not convinced this was the intent.)

Overall, the play made for an enjoyable, memorable evening, and it kept my attention throughout. Many scenes were emotional and evocative. I subtract two stars however for historical incompleteness and want of ambition.

Three stars.

Watched 25 May 2022 at the Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London.


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