‘I thank life for gifting us a Nelson Mandela’

‘If someone leaves you with a feeling of being diminished, it means he is a small man.

‘It’s only a big man who makes you feel big. He gives you what he has — his greatness.

‘It’s like the light that falls evenly on the dog and the king. Nelson Mandela made everybody in the room feel wonderful.’

Filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt recalls his meeting with South Africa’s apostle of non-violence.

When I heard that the apostle of peace, Nelson Mandela, had passed away, what echoed in my consciousness were the words he had uttered to me when I met him on November 26, 1997.

I had asked him what his advice to India was and he laughed… I’ll never forget his laughter; it reverberated through the entire room. And he said, “It would be preposterous for me to give advice to a country like India which is the mother of civilisation.”

But then he took a pause, and in that pregnant pause he said it all, before the words came spilling out of his mouth. “Just live the words of Gandhi,” he said.

The tragedy of India is that the Mahatma, who has numerous streets named after him and has had his statues put up everywhere, who’s there in our school books and on our currency, who is used by everyone to hardsell his political ideology, is not emulated in India. His philosophy was brought back to life again by this man in South Africa.

It was in Robben Island, where he was locked away for 27 years, that Gandhi flowered in the consciousness of Nelson Mandela.

When Mandela came back, he showed the world that it is possible for the blacks and the whites — as they were called in those days, a nomenclature that needs to be relegated to the waste bin of history — to live together.

He showed all South Africans that the only way to carve out the destiny of South Africa was to reconcile and move on together.

That’s what separates visionaries and great icons like him from the ordinary lot.

At this moment in history, as India is about to choose its leaders for the next five years, it’s important to ask why have we not lived what Nelson Mandela lived in his country.

We were shooting for a film called Kartoos — a rank bad film — with Sanjay Dutt, Jackie Shroff and Manisha Koirala, image, left. But that film was responsible for making me meet the greatest icon of our times.

It was a very unusual sight to see that he had fair-skinned guards and that he was being protected. It made me see the irony of how things had changed.

Nelson Mandela was a very tall man. He was wearing a silk shirt, I remember, and he smiled. It was a continuous feature of that meeting. The smile never left his face.

He almost seemed to embrace you all the time. There was never this feeling of hurry that indicated you were overstaying or you had only this much time with him.

I still remember his handshake. He had a very big hand and a very, very warm, very strong handshake. He just held you completely. He looked into your eyes deeply and acknowledged your existence.

He didn’t look at you as just another person. He looked into the person in you.

You felt like you were being communicated to and there was a feeling of great deep comfort, unlike those power-drunk people who put you on edge, make you feel it is your privilege to be there and make you very uncomfortable with your own stature in life.

This man made you feel that you were part of him, that you were as big as him. That according to me is the litmus test of a great man.

The impression that he made on me was one of generosity, generosity, generosity, generosity.

I realised that when he gave me that autograph, image, left, when he penned those words calling me an ‘outstanding man’, my chest swelled with pride… Not only had I got Nelson Mandela’s autograph but he had written such lovely words about me.

And I discovered it was not I who was outstanding; it was he who was outstanding. In the small time that I interacted with him — our meeting lasted 20-25 minutes — there was no way he could have seen the depths of my consciousness and what I was all about.

If you go to a sandalwood tree, its perfume lingers on you. That’s the nature of the sandalwood tree.

If someone leaves you with a feeling of being diminished, it means he is a small man.

It’s only a big man who makes you feel big. He gives you what he has — his greatness.

It’s like the light that falls evenly on the dog and the king. Nelson Mandela made everybody in the room feel wonderful.

We spoke about the politics of India.

India was going though a difficult time in 1997. We had revolving door governments. I think I K Gujral saab was in power… There was a very uncertain air about what tomorrow may hold. The economy was showing some signs of recovering but, politically, it was unsettling times.

I spoke about that. He talked about the importance of co-existence and how to hold hands together and walk through troubled times, which we were hardly doing. This nation needs to listen to what was embedded in the voice of that apostle.

He said that together, only together, will you be able to negotiate through these troubled times. Not by animosity and not by unleashing this kind of violence against each other. He spoke about the need to have truth as the only lodestar that will see us through any dark period.

I was personally happy to meet him and touch him and be in the same space and interact with him.

His passing is the passing of a great, great right meteor which was up there giving us the light. That’s gone.

Yes, whatever is born, dies, but I thank life for gifting us a Nelson Mandela. He will sparkle in our consciousness for times to come.

Mahesh Bhatt spoke to Savera R Someshwar

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