Indira Gandhi: The First Iron Lady of Politics

Today marks the 100th birthday of the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Though their names were similar, there was no connection between Indira Gandhi and the country’s great champion of independence, Mahatma Gandhi.

Nor was there much connection in their style of politics. In contrast to the Mahtama’s peaceful non-cooperation tactics, Indira boldly used her power as the head of state to undercut her opponents.

In her 1975 interview by the Post, she seems to be a stern, focused woman of steely determination. “She is straight-backed and reserved,” wrote Joy Billington, who described petitioners trying to present the Prime Minister with a sari. Several times the outfit was passed back and forth, the petitioner insisting on getting Indira to accept the dress. But the Prime Minister “makes her point, finally: ‘No, as a matter of principle I don’t accept gifts.’”

Just how determined she could be was revealed just three months after this article appeared.

An Indian court found her guilty of violating campaign laws in her 1971 election, which had led to her appointment as Prime Minister. As punishment, she would have to give up her office and stay out of politics for six years. She appealed the conviction. But when that didn’t work, she declared a national state of emergency and remained in office.

The emergency lasted two years and angered many Indians by introducing laws limiting personal freedoms. When she ended the emergency, her political opponents, many of whom had been jailed, worked to remove her from power. They succeeded in 1977. She was imprisoned for a few months on corruption charges, but in 1979, she and her party returned to power.

In 1984, she was assassinated by her bodyguards, members of the Sikh faith, in retaliation for her ordering the military to put down a Sikh separatist group.

She played a particularly tough brand of politics and, judging by her career, she played it well.

Read “Indira Gandhi: The Most Powerful Woman in the World” from the March 1, 1975, issue of the Post.

Featured image: Indira Gandhi (Library of Congress)

The Best Movies to Watch This Fall

Noted film critic Bill Newcott, creator of AARP’s “Movies for Grownups,” offers his picks for the coming season.


Murder on the Orient Express (Nov. 10)

Still from The Orient Express Movie
20th Century Fox

Kenneth Branagh (who also directs) stars as Hercule Poirot in the second big-screen version of Agatha Christie’s classic. When a train passenger (Johnny Depp) is killed in his compartment, Poirot gets to work probing an all-star cast of suspects, including Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penelope Cruz, and Judi Dench.


Darkest Hour (Nov. 22)

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill
Focus Features

For those who complained that Christopher Nolan’s summer blockbuster Dunkirk failed to give sufficient context for Britain’s defining event at the outset of World War II, here comes Darkest Hour, the compellingly human story of how Winston Churchill summoned his country’s resolve when all seemed lost.

Gary Oldman gives the performance of the year — and perhaps of his life — as Churchill, thrust into the position of prime minster at the very moment Hitler is absorbing all of Europe under the Nazi banner. Alcoholic, physically frail, and haunted by his disastrous military experience in World War I, he’s a guy who dreamed of being prime minister his whole life … only not under such dire circumstances.

No sooner has Churchill moved into 10 Downing Street than virtually the entire British army finds itself stranded on a beach in Dunkirk, just across the English Channel but out of reach of transport ships, which are being relentlessly bombed by German planes. Besides facing external threats, Churchill is almost immediately undermined by outgoing prime minister Neville Chamberlain (Marigold Hotel co-star Ronald Pickup) and the weaselly Lord Halifax (Game of Throne’s Stephen Dillane), who has designs of his own on the prime minister’s office. These two desperately want to negotiate with Hitler and are more than willing to hand over Europe if he’ll just keep his mitts off Dear Old Blighty.

Oldman’s Churchill, battling depression and personal demons, barely has the strength to summon his own courage, much less instill it in his countrymen. But in a truly enchanting — and, I’d guess, wholly fanciful — scene, he finds himself riding a crowded London underground train where, to his utter astonishment, he finds the brave words of ordinary folks inspiring him to do the right thing.

The greatness of immortal leaders, Darkest Hour tells us, is generated not from within themselves, but from the wisdom and vision of those they lead. A powerful lesson for Winnie, and one worth remembering 77 years later.


The Current War (Nov. 24)

Still from The Current War
The Weinstein company

How’s this for a crackerjack movie idea: Thomas Edison goes to war with George Westinghouse over how best to deliver electricity to the masses: AC or DC.

What, you’re not at this moment frantically dialing Fandango to reserve your tickets? Well, it’s surprising how much mileage writer Michael Mitnick (TV’s Vinyl) and director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl) get from the premise — and how compelling Benedict Cumberbatch (Edison) and Michael Shannon (Westinghouse) are in their roles.

Every schoolkid knows (or should know) the story of how Edison experimented with thousands of possible filaments for his light bulb before hitting on the one that could burn for hundreds of hours. But getting light bulbs into America’s homes was one thing; pushing the necessary electricity through wires into every U.S. neighborhood was quite another. Edison’s preferred direct current system required transformers every couple of miles, but was so safe you could press your hand to a bare wire and not get shocked; Westinghouse’s alternating current could travel hundreds of miles but, if handled without insulation, would cause instantaneous death.

And so the drama unfolds, the two men feuding from afar, sniping at each other in the press, secretly envying each other’s unique elements of genius. Cumberbatch’s Edison has the boyish charm that endeared the inventor to America, masking an all-consuming ambition. As a Westinghouse, Shannon presents a guy who is more businessman than visionary, a gentleman appalled by his rival’s dirty play (Edison convinces the State of New York to execute a prisoner via AC current and then goes about declaring that the man had been “Westinghoused”).

If you’re wondering who won the AC-DC debate, be my guest and stick a finger in the nearest wall socket. For a gentler and more appealing charge, experience the enlightening history of The Current War.


The Shape of Water (Dec. 8)

Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water
FOX Searchlight

Imagine E.T., only instead of outer space, the alien is from beneath the sea, and instead of a little boy named Elliot, the hero is a mute middle-age cleaning woman named Elisa, and instead of hiding in a closet, the alien stays in Elisa’s full bathtub.

As in E.T., the alien is the subject of a U.S. government search that is likely to end in his death and dissection. Unlike E.T., there’s quite a bit of nudity and just a smidge of alien-human sex.

Those are the ingredients of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, at once a nearly beat-for-beat remake of Steven Spielberg’s 1982 classic and also a uniquely grown-up fable of forbidden love, high adventure, and magical images. From the opening shot — Elisa’s dream of living underwater, her apartment furniture bobbing about as if the place were a submerged Titanic stateroom — del Toro immerses us in his unique brand of Fantasyland… forbidding and irresistible, dangerous and delightful.

Sally Hawkins (Maudie), ratcheting up her Adorable Quotient to DEFCON 1, stars as Elisa, a meek and mute laborer who operates a bucket and mop at a top-secret government research laboratory along with her adoring partner Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Behind one heavily fortified sliding door, they encounter a most unusual research subject: a Creature from the Black Lagoon-type character with whom Elisa strikes up a tentative after-hours friendship.

It’s not much of a relationship at first, just some informal sharing of hard-boiled eggs. But soon they’re conversing in sign language and listening to Benny Goodman records together, and when Elisa learns that a cruel-hearted military scientist (Michael Shannon) is planning to cut the critter open to see what makes him tick, she engineers a brave and daring escape plan.

Once Beauty and the Beast are alone in that apartment, well, that’s when the similarities to E.T. take a momentary leave of absence.

Shannon, whose performances here and in The Current War embody his startling versatility, plays the heavy with Big Bad Wolf ferocity, his performance tempered by some revealing glimpses of his unhappy home life. Richard Jenkins, always a welcome sight, turns up as Elisa’s artist neighbor, a struggling illustrator whose own tentative search for affection inevitably ends in cold rejection. The two men’s hollow lives add to the poignancy of the film, infusing it with a sense of yearning, a melancholy Elisa just might be able to break through with her most unusual love.

Visionary as always, del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy) brings his uniquely Mexican celebration of the fantastic and grotesque to bear in The Shape of Water. Next up: His take on that darkest of fairy tales, Pinocchio. I can’t wait.


Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Dec. 15)

Still from Star Wars: The Last Jedi

When we glimpsed Luke Skywalker at the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens — 32 years after his previous appearance in Return of the Jedi — he was just sort of standing around atop a cliff. We’re guessing Luke (Mark Hamill) will have a lot more to do in this follow-up, including, we hope, a reunion with his sister, Princess Leia (played by the late Carrie Fisher in her final role).

This article is featured in the November/December 2017 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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What the Queen Does for a Living

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II in New Zealand, 1963. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

At first glance, the queen appears hardly essential to the survival of Great Britain. She signs her name to Parliamentary laws and “accepts” every new prime minister, but these are just formal ceremonies: the British government could function easily without them.

Meanwhile, the queen, throughout her 60-plus-year reign, has been steadily giving up privileges other monarchs took for granted. Her royal household — including her family, her staff, and the upkeep on several houses — is $60 million each year. While this is a princely sum, it has been frozen for 20 years and its purchasing power has dropped by 75 percent. Moreover, the queen now pays income tax, which further reduces that figure.

It’s a precarious position, this queen business. Without any true power of her own, her income is subject to the approval of Parliament, which can deny any expense it doesn’t like. Meanwhile, there is a significant number of Britons who call for the end to a monarchy that seems expensive and silly to them.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth must regularly appear among her subjects and work her royal charm to build support and allegiance to herself. As British journalist Malcom Muggeridge observed in the Post back in 1957:

When, as in the case of Queen Elizabeth II, a monarch only reigns, with no ruling powers whatsoever, it is inevitable that the focus of interest should be transferred from the office to the person.

It is the queen herself, her family, her associates, her way of life, which hold the public attention. The role she has inherited is purely symbolic, and the functions that go with it are purely ceremonial. Because she has no power, she must be, in herself, wondrous. If she were ordinary, she would be nothing.

She must be alluring, removed from the necessities and inadequacies of ordinary men and women — a creature of this world in the sense that she has a home, a husband, and children, and yet not quite of this world in that she is a queen.

Muggeridge concedes the queen does a fairly good job of projecting this royal mystique, despite the disenchanted mood of post-war Britain.

The monarchy has grown more glamorous in circumstances which, theoretically, should have reduced it to the proportions of a Scandinavian dynasty.

Debutantes throng more numerously and eagerly than ever to be presented at court. Mayors and other local dignitaries proudly rustle up gray top hats for the Buckingham Palace garden parties. Labor ministers lay aside their red ties and delightedly attire themselves in knee breeches to attend upon Her Majesty.

This is the queen’s greatest, and most historic service to the country: dispensing royal approval and honors. Each year, hundreds of British citizens are nominated for knighthood, or an order of chivalry like Commander of the British Empire. The queen, advised by the Prime Minister’s cabinet, grants these awards to a handful of distinguished, and proud, men and women. The title lack the privileges they once conveyed, but they’re still highly valued. Few Britons turn down them down.

Strangely enough, people are still clamorous for these baubles, which constitute an inexpensive form of political patronage. Happy the government that can bribe with knighthoods, baronetcies and peerages rather than with jobs and money. It is so much cheaper and less complicated.

The queen would seem to be essential to this procedure. If the honors were conferred by a president or a prime minister, the odds are that they would lose some of their allure. The worthy alderman kneels ecstatically with creaking joints before the queen to receive the accolade; the aged party hack finds one more canter in him when it is a question of being elevated to the peerage by Her Majesty in person.

Answering the question posed by his article, “Does England Really Need a Queen?” Muggeridge concludes:

Queen Elizabeth II, 1963
Queen Elizabeth II prepares to speak to a harbor throng near her yacht in New Zealand. (Photo by Ollie Atkins, © SEPS)

The British monarchy does fulfill a purpose. It provides a symbolic head of state transcending the politicians who go in and out of office, who, as King Lear so wonderfully said, “ebb and flow by the moon.”

It expresses that continuity which has enabled Britain to survive two great revolutions — the French and the Russian — and two ruinous and destructive world wars, without being torn by civil conflict. But this function must not only be fulfilled. It must be seen to be fulfilled.

The queen, in other words, must be put across, not only as a charming wife and mother who dresses pleasingly, if not always elegantly, who wins hearts wherever she goes, and who presides gracefully over a lunch or dinner table even when her guests include politicians, writers and statesmen, rather than her own intimates, sharing her own simple, unintellectual tastes.

She must be put across, as well, a useful unifying element in a society full of actual and potential discord.

This post was updated on September 10, 2015.