NEW DELHI — Monday, India paused to remember the life of Mohandas Gandhi. Like every year on this national holiday commemorating the birth of the Father of India, there were grand words, garlands, and one nagging question: Is this little man, swaddled in homespun cloth and armed only with his own reason, still relevant in an India of Internet millionaires and nuclear weapons?
This year, an answer and a revival of sorts has come from a most unexpected source – a Bollywood comedy about a witless Mumbai gangster.
Puneet Sood, a smartly dressed software analyst fresh out of college, says he "could never relate to Gandhi before this movie." Yet "Lage Raho Munnabhai," with its light-hearted take on a gangster's conversion to Gandhian nonviolence, is providing the perfect antidote to decades of solemn ceremonies and austere textbooks, which have increasingly cast Gandhi as a museum piece of impractical ideals.
For some young Indians, it has been a call to action. For example, college students in Lucknow recently abandoned a history of violent protests in favor of handing out flowers – a tactic taken directly from the film. Far more, however, echo the feelings of Mr. Sood when he says that this Oct. 2, he looked at Gandhi with new eyes – perhaps not converted, but certainly understanding better why a nation in crisis came to call him "Bapu," father.
"Gandhi was beginning to be forgotten in some ways," says Vamsee Juluri, a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco. "This movie has rediscovered Gandhi as a universal figure."
To the broader world, it might seem strange that Gandhi – the man who adorns every rupee note and is synonymous with the liberation of India – should be forgotten in his own country. But there are few here who would argue the point.
Within the political establishment, former prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi (who was not related to Mohandas Gandhi) are accorded much greater status. And the rise of the brash and nationalistic Bharatiya Janata Party in the 1990s deflated Gandhi's image further. He was accused of making India "wimpish," suggests historian Amulya Ganguli.
Moreover, within India, his legacy is not so easily defined. His great and obvious success, the establishment of an independent India is a historical fact. But he sought to influence Indians in so many more intimate ways, and his success here is not at all obvious.
Whether it is homespun clothes to promote India's economic self-sufficiency or a nation committed to nonviolence, Gandhi's influence in the Indian state and society has been slowly salted away. On Sept. 11, the 100th anniversary of Gandhi beginning his nonviolent movement in South Africa, Indian intellectuals openly wondered which was more relevant to India today: Gandhi's legacy of nonviolence or the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
"All the major pillars of Gandhian thought are not relevant today," says Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
At times, it seemed that all that remained was the image of a good man who left behind a nation and impossibly high expectations for it. When films and plays picture Gandhi looking at modern India, they "idealized him as a saintly figure, but almost whining" about the current state of affairs, says Professor Juluri.
And that is the appeal of Munnabhai: Gandhi gets his hands dirty. He appears as an apparition only visible to the wayward gangster, counseling him on how to help others deal with everyday problems – the son who frittered away his father's fortune, the man who spits on the stairway, the bureaucrat who wants a bribe from the penniless pensioner. Gandhi's answer, in every case, is to confront the problem directly, but never to resort to violence.
"I haven't come across those kind of principles portrayed in such a manner," says Sood, lingering outside the theater in a New Delhi shopping area. "In school, it's not instilled in you, it's just taught to you. Here you can feel it."
The result has been one of Bollywood's biggest successes this year. Theaters in southern states such as Kerala, which usually shun movies made in Hindi, have embraced Munnabhai. One boy's school in Kolkata has organized field trips to the film, while a business school in the central Indian city of Nagpur made viewing compulsory. And in a case of life imitating art, one of India's most notorious gangsters recently arrived at a court hearing bearing flowers, saying Munnabhai had put him on the path to Gandhian nonviolence.
Renewed interest in the father of civil disobedience even has a name here: "Gandhigiri," – the use of moral force to assert a point of view – instead of "dadagiri" – the use of brutal force.
"It definitely showed a different way of tackling things – nonviolence, which is not really common," says Ritosh Mukhija, a student at the Indian Institutes of Technology here, adding: "If it could work 50 years ago, it can work today."
Not that Mr. Mukhija and his friends are ready to exchange their jeans for homespun clothes. "It's not the easiest [path], true," says Rupali Arora, who is visiting from Bangalore. "That's why it's the last route people will take."
Yet for many, it is a reminder of the character of a man who has recently been seen only as a caricature. "When I was in school, we were taught about the freedom movement and Gandhiji ... those values were there," says Seema Khandekar as she waits to enter the theater.
So on this night, she's brought her two young daughters. "It's a fun movie," she smiles. "Sometimes these things do help, don't you think so?"
• Saurabh Joshi contributed to this report.