“Rajiv will live again”

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Simi Grewal

I had never met Rajiv Gandhi until I approached him for my documentary.

sonia-rajiv-gandhi6

I remember, the first time, I suddenly got very nervous when he was in front of me. I blurted, ‘I’d like to make a documentary on you’, and then I lapsed into a long silence, which never seemed to end. It may have gone on for minutes, but it seemed like hours – till I heard his soft-spoken voice gently prodding, ‘Why don’t you tell me about it…’

Luckily I found my voice again.

Rajiv-ji told me he had seen the film I made on Raj Kapoor and ‘liked it very much’. I soon learned that Rajiv-ji relied on instinct. I asked him to read my synopsis but he refused! When I asked why, he looked at me and replied, ‘Trusting is better than reading.’

She tuned in to the BBC and we heard those awful words:

“Rajiv Gandhi has been assassinated”

He never asked me how I was planning to make my film, never refused my direction; never interfered. People may not believe this but he never once asked for my questions in advance! Which is why his answers were so spontaneous.

In the very first interview which we shot on the patio of 7 Race
Course Road, Rajiv-ji opened up. It was for Part One – ‘The Person’.

I never expected that he’d speak so candidly about his family, his
childhood, Sanjay, his mother, his children and other personal things.

I think the ‘rare’ moment came when he talked about Sonia and
their love; right from the time he first set eyes on her to their happy family life. It wasn’t a Prime Minister talking – just a regular, loving husband and father.

I soon saw that the gravitas expected of a PM did not weigh on
Rajiv-ji. He extended little courtesies like ‘Ladies first’ and other little gestures that you don’t expect from heads of state. But it came naturally to Rajiv. There were no hard edges. He was an elegant, graceful, soft-spoken aristocrat.

Rajiv lost the election. And I lost my beloved mother. Daddy was already gone. It was a very painful time and my sister and I went away to London for several months.

For a man who initially resisted stepping into politics, I would soon also learn that he was a far-thinking with modern progressive ideas..

Over the next 4 1/2 years I travelled with him all over India and abroad. Be it Pakistan, China, Amethi, Tamilnad, every tour in India. Where Rajiv Gandhi went – so did we. My experiences and adventures on tours could fill up a book!

Apart from several long interviews conducted in 7 RCR, his Parliamant House office, South Block,I also filmed him piloting his plane, playing with his dogs and driving his car. I remember I was holding the portable light sitting next to him at the wheel. The roads were cleared of traffic and Rajiv-ji drove really fast! He would careen and swerve on those Delhi roundabouts and my poor cameraman was literally rolling from side to side on the floor of the backseat.

‘Educated women representing different fields should be part of the mainstream political system’, he would say.

On hearing the clatterbangs behind him, Rajiv-ji kept asking politely, ‘Are you alright?’

All we could hear were feeble grunts and groans!

1989 was a bad year for both of us. Rajiv suddenly called for an election on 17 October. I was still editing my film and Channel Four demanded it immediately.

My mother was very ill at the time and I had to work day and night to deliver my films to London.

Rajiv lost the election. And I lost my beloved mother. Daddy was
already gone. It was a very painful time and my sister and I went
away to London for several months.

We returned only when we were conveyed several messages from him.

When I reached Delhi, Rajiv-ji was now in 10 Janpath.

He said he had seen the two parts of my film and thanked me.
So did Sonia-ji, in a beautiful letter. In those days her letters were
handwritten.

Rajiv-ji asked several times, ‘what can I do for you?’

‘Nothing’ I replied.

‘There has to be something’

‘Ok then – I’d like an autographed photograph’ I replied – and he
laughed.

Knowing of my recent loss, he said, ‘work is the best antidote for
grief’.

So we decided that I would continue my documentary with Part
Three – his new phase, as Leader of the Opposition.

We reeled with shock! I thought, hoped, maybe he is only hurt, maybe he can get medical help and be alright. Frantic, I rang Rajiv-ji’s private secretary, Mr. V. George – and he confirmed the awful news.

A trust had been built by now and I felt a friendship grew.

He shared his thoughts and fears, he also analysed his successes
and failures; he voiced his aspirations and dreams. I noted every
conversation in my diaries, as I always have since my childhood.

Not once, but several times, Rajiv-ji encouraged me to join
politics.

‘Educated women representing different fields should be part
of the mainstream political system’, he would say.
I remember in April ’91, I had written his AICC speech, which he
liked, and he once again said, “I hope you are thinking of coming in to politics one day.”

But I had no interest. In my ringside view I had seen the
vagaries of power! I saw how it changed people’s loyalties and
behaviour. For when I started my film Rajiv was Prime MInister.

Then two years later, when he lost – I saw how people shifted their allegiance. Then again, in 1991, when they realized he would come back in power – those same people did an about turn!
It was a disillusioning, but valuable lesson in human behaviour.

Over the months I kept inviting him to Mumbai for dinner, to meet the luminaries of our city. We even discussed the guestlist I had sent to his private secretary – and of course – the menu!

Food was a favourite topic. He loved the sitaphal ice-cream from Mumbai which I took regularly for him and his family.

When I was with him in end April’91, campaigning was underway.

‘Now your dinner will have to wait till after the elections,’ he said.

‘You wont be able to come after the elections’, I shook my head.

‘Why not?’

‘You’ll be Prime Minister then. So it won’t be possible’

‘Of course it will’, he brushed it aside, ‘I promise’.

I completed shooting the last interview for my documentary that
day and gave him some ideas for election campaign films, which he liked, and he asked me to make them.
I filmed him just two weeks before, in between his tours.

And that was the last time…

Campaign films done, I returned to Mumbai. It was quite late at night and the TV had gone off in the entire area. So I decided to play video games to wind down.

My sister, Amrita, was strangely restless and I remember her looking for a radio.

‘Who on earth listens to radios’ I told her.

She tuned in to the BBC and we heard those awful words:

“Rajiv Gandhi has been assassinated”

We reeled with shock! I thought, hoped, maybe he is only hurt, maybe he can get medical help and be alright. Frantic, I rang Rajiv-ji’s private secretary, Mr. V. George – and he confirmed the awful news.

My thoughts went to Sonia-ji, Priyanka and Rahul – that close family unit – and what it would do to them…

As for me. Its 25 years? I still have not got over it…

Part Three of ‘India’s Rajiv’ remained untouched. Everytime we
sat down to edit it, my crew and I would break down. I couldn’t do it.

Then finally I was sent a message from Sonia-ji. Rajiv-ji had given so much of his time for my film; I should make it. For him.

Films are a form of immortality. ‘India’s Rajiv’ is the only complete
interview-based documentaion of his entire life.

At the Rajiv Gandhi Memorial at 1, Safdarjung Road, many of his
huge hoardings and quotes on display are incribed: ‘From an interview with Simi Garewal’ or ‘From ’India’s Rajiv’.

I realized then, that this is what ‘posterity’ means. We will all go one day. I will not be here – but this Memorial will remain forever and so will the film I made on him.

Future generations will watch it; they will get to know Rajiv Gandhi as he was….and Rajiv will live again..

(Simi Grewal wrote this piece five years ago. We’ve tweaked a word or two to make this blog more relevant for Rajiv Gandhi’s 25th death anniversary)

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