GANDHI DIDN'T PLAY CRICKET, BUT HE DID PLAY BALL
By Raakhee Mirchandani
October 29, 2006 -- Every Yankee fan is familiar with the pantheon of greats: the Babe, the Iron Horse, the Mick, Joltin' Joe, Scooter and Mr. October.
But what about the Mahatma? Yeah, as in Mohandas K. Gandhi.
Turns out the frail Indian freedom fighter - famous for liberating the subcontinent from British rule without raising a fist - once traded his trademark loincloth for Yankee pinstripes (metaphorically) to pinch hit for the Bombers in 1933. He even managed to turn an infield dribbler into an inside-the-park homer.
At least that's how a new film short, "Gandhi at the Bat," tells us it happened. The 11-minute movie, based on a short story by Chet Williamson published in The New Yorker in 1983, imagines the Mahatma's top-secret trip to the U.S., President Roosevelt's request to cover it up and Babe Ruth giving the slugging swami batting tips.
"It's one of those crazy ideas, and sometimes you don't know where they come from," Williamson says. "These ideas are like a gift. You say thank you, write them down - but you never know where they came from."
Last year, the film's writer and director, Stephanie Argy, was on the Internet looking for another baseball tall tale, about two major leaguers teaching Fidel Castro how to play. She stumbled upon Williamson's story and got hooked.
"When I found 'Gandhi at the Bat,' I almost died laughing," she says. "I think this story works because Gandhi is such an extraordinary personality and human being, and accomplished so much."
The film is part of the sixth annual Indo-American Arts Council Film Festival, starting Wednesday at a handful of Manhattan theaters (for info, go to iaac.us). "Gandhi at the Bat" plays Friday at 6 p.m. at the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Gallery.
Other participating films include Mira Nair's "The Namesake," starring Kal Penn and based on Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer Prize winning book, and a token big-budget Bollywood blockbuster "Umrao Jaan," starring former Miss World Aishwarya Rai.
Williamson, a die-hard Phillies fan, suspects he was inspired by Ben Kingsly's portrayal of the bespectacled spiritual leader in the 1982 bio-pic "Gandhi." He chose the Yankees because they struck him as quintessential American team.
The story begins with Gandhi showing up at Yankee Stadium, ready to take in the American pastime. Made to look like pieced-together newsreel footage, it captures the game-loving guru as he sits in the stands, telling a hot dog vendor he'll pass because he doesn't "eat the meat of dogs." He's not even sure about the fundamentals of the game - since hitting the ball goes against his belief in non-violence.
The narration, however, it what sells it, with Williamson's original text the basis for a play-by-play announcer who describes the Mahat-ma's odd base-running style: "Gandhi started down the first base line in what could only be described as an energetic shuffle."
"It's written like a sportswriter who was at the game that day," Argy says.
When Argy and her filmmaking partners tell people about the movie, they play it straight, as if they'd unearthed a little known story from American history. Inevitably, some wind up thinking it just might have happened.
"We always get this long pause and people say, 'Really?'" she says. "It's because you just don't know. With everything he did, why couldn't he have done this? It's preposterous, but knowing it's Gandhi you're just not entirely sure it's fake."