Mahatma Gandhi, subject of many films, wasn’t a film buff himself

Film-makers have always been interested in Gandhi though Gandhi himself might not have shown much interest in the medium. Mahatma Gandhi is said to have watched just two films

Mahatma Gandhi, subject of many films, wasn’t a film buff himself

Pragati Saxena

Mahatma Gandhi, whose life and times fascinated filmmakers all over the world, is said to have watched just two films. One of them was a pro-Soviet Hollywood film Mission To Moscow (1943) which he did not like much. The other film was Ram Rajya directed by Vijay Bhatt. He did not apparently watch the entire film.

A newspaper report described the private screening of Ram Rajya as a “historical event in Indian cinema”, and said that, at the end, “Mahatmaji seemed quite cheerful”.

He had asked Vijay Bhatt to make a film on the poet-saint of Gujarat, Narsi Mehta. But when the film was made and released in 1940, Mahatma Gandhi was too busy to spare time and watch it. He did not even watch a film on Raja Harishchandra, whom he almost idolised.

Once when the Indian Cinematograph Committee wanted to interview him, Gandhi said, “Even if I was so minded, I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire, as I have never been to a cinema. But even to an outsider, the evil that it has done and is doing is patent. The good, if it has done any at all, remains to be proved."

In an open letter to Gandhi in 1939, published in FilmIndia in which he tried to change Gandhi’s opinion about films and exhorted Gandhi to watch films, film-maker KA Abbas wrote, “I have no knowledge of how you came to have such a poor opinion of the cinema…I don’t know even if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil.”

Gandhi and Charlie Chaplin

Rachel Dwyer, Professor of Indian Culture and Cinema, revealed to The Hindu in an article that Mahatma Gandhi was not really keen to meet Charlie Chaplin, believing that he was just a comic actor, until informed that he was a working-class hero.

When the two did meet during Gandhi’s visit to London for the Second Round Table, Chaplin was completely enthralled by Gandhi and after the meeting reportedly said, "Gandhi is a tremendous personality, tremendous! He is a great international figure! More, he is A GREAT DRAMATIC FIGURE." Chaplin was so impressed with Gandhi’s ideas on technology that his movie Modern Times almost echoed Gandhi’s sentiment that machinery should benefit humanity and not throw it out of work, a thought which was quite contrary to his previous belief that technology could release man from the bondage of slavery.

First films on Gandhi starring Gandhi!

Film-makers were always interested in Gandhi though Gandhi himself might not have shown much interest in the medium. He was first seen in the silent newsreels which were shown before the feature presentation. Many of these newsreels can be found online. The earliest would be a 1922 newsreel, Ghandi on the British Pathe’ YouTube channel in which a lean and agile Gandhi can be seen addressing a gathering. The title reads: 'Gandhi—now condemned to six years’ imprisonment—the only cinema pictures ever taken of the notorious agitator.' Another newsreel ‘Gandhi Fast Brings New Indian Crisis’ was shot in 1932 during anti-untouchability protests.

An American newsreel company Fox Movietone succeeded in getting something sensational in April 1931—Gandhi’s speaking voice (the segment was titled ‘Mahatma Gandhi Talks’). The shooting crew travelled to Borsad village to interview him and the equipment was transported by bullock cart and this shot was given a great deal of footage and importance. Gandhi in the very beginning tells the crew, “I do not like this kind of thing, but I shall reconcile myself to it”.

First documentary

AK Chettiar assembled the first full-length documentary on Gandhi in 1944. Chettiar was a newsreel cameraman with Pathe News in America. He travelled around the world for about three years and collected 50,000 feet of footage of Gandhi and then edited them down to a 21-minute documentary. KA Abbas compared this documentary titled Mahatma Gandhi: 20th Century Prophet to Joris Ivens’ The Spanish Earth and Dziga Vertov’s Three Songs About Lenin in his review of the documentary in FilmIndia and wrote in the end, “Will the first film seen by Mahatma Gandhi be ‘MAHATMA GANDHI’ starring Mahatma Gandhi?”

First Hollywood Feature Film

The credit of portraying or caricaturing Gandhi for the first time goes to a 1939 Hollywood adventure film Gunga Din, which starred Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The protagonist, a water carrier (bhishti) in this film is subservient (and played by Sam Jaffe, a white man) and wears almost the same attire as Gandhi. But it’s the portrayal of the villain (Eduardo Ciannelli, also white), a murderous cult leader, which was offensive and a demeaning caricature of Gandhi.

Indian film press was quick to take notice and condemn it. In one of its reviews, FilmIndia compared this portrayal of Gandhi with a 1935 comedy called Everybody Likes Music, in which Gandhi was “portrayed as an immoral drunkard dancing with a woman.”

Gandhi was portrayed in a feature film for the first time in 1963 in Hollywood’s Nine Hours to Rama. The film was based on a novel by Stanley Wolpert, and tried to capture the hours leading to the assassination of Gandhi. Though the film looks impressive, yet Indian characters played by Hollywood actors trying to speak English like Indians looked far from real. But thankfully the character of Gandhi was played by an Indian actor JS Casshyap. He is there, but only in a few scenes, and his imitation of Gandhi was close enough.

Now whenever social media talks about Gandhi’s assassination and Nathuram Godse, some scenes from this film are often displayed as the scenes from actual events. Do not be duped by it. They are from the film Nine Hours to Rama.

When Nehru said ‘Don’t deify him’

In the last few decades, Mahatma Gandhi has been portrayed by several Indian actors right from Naseeruddin Shah to Darshan Jariwala, Annu Kapoor, Surendra Rajan, Neeraj Kabi and Dilip Prabhavalkar.

The West was always interested in making a film on Gandhi. In 1923, the British government had approached Hollywood director DW Griffiths to make an anti-Gandhi film. But nothing came out of it. According to Professor Rachel Dwyer, Hungarian filmmaker Gabriel Pascal and English film director David Lean were prominent among many directors who wanted to make a film on Gandhi. David Lean came to India in 1958 seeking approval for his script but was turned down. After four years he ended up making the iconic Lawrence of Arabia. Richard Attenborough received an offer from the British Gandhian Motilal Kothari to discuss a film on Gandhi. After a year of the discussion, when Attenborough called on Jawaharlal Nehru in New Delhi to seek his approval, he is quoted as saying, “Whatever you do, do not deify him—that is what we have done in India—and he was too great a man to be deified.”

Nehru’s choice for the character of Gandhi was actor Alec Guinness. And while mentioning this, Nehru reportedly quipped, “idea of being portrayed by an Englishman would have made Bapu laugh a great deal.” Richard Attenborough finally did make the iconic film Gandhi after more than 18 years of this meeting and the role of Gandhi went to Ben Kingsley, a Britisher of Gujarati origin.

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