Review: The Mahatma on Celluloid by Prakash Magdum
India’s colonial government in 1927 appointed a committee headed by T Rangachariar, a former judge of the Madras High Court, to investigate the growth of the new medium of cinema that seemed to have become immensely popular in the country
India’s colonial government in 1927 appointed a committee headed by T Rangachariar, a former judge of the Madras High Court, to investigate the growth of the new medium of cinema that seemed to have become immensely popular in the country. The committee interviewed a large number of people, including Dadasaheb Phalke, credited with making India’s first full-length film Raja Harishchandra (1913), as well as political leaders such as Lala Lajpat Rai, who said he did not really like Charlie Chaplin. Another political leader went a little further and said he did not like cinema at all. This was Mahatma Gandhi.
During his lifetime, Gandhi saw only two films. The first one was Mission to Moscow (Directed by Michael Curtis, 1943), a Hollywood production based on the 1941 eponymous memoir by the American ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E Davies. Made on the request of President Franklin D Roosevelt to create a favourable impression of the Soviet Union during World War II, when it was an ally of the US, the film would be later scrutinised by the notorious House Committee on Un-American Activities during the anti-communist moral panic of the early 1950s. Gandhi did not watch the full film and was scandalised by dancing sequences that featured women in short clothes.
The other film he watched was the Hindi feature Ram Rajya (Directed by Vijay Bhatt, 1943), starring Prem Adib as the Hindu god Ram and Shobhna Samarth — grandmother to Kajol — as Ram’s consort and goddess Sita. Gandhi, of course, often referred to Ram Rajya — the mythological golden age when Ram was the king of Ayodhya — while describing the just society he envisaged for India after independence. After watching 90 minutes of the 144-minute-long film, he got up and left. It was one of those days when Gandhi did not speak at all — so, as a gesture of approval, he patted director Vijay Bhatt. Besides these two instances, Gandhi was always vocally against the art form, once even suggesting that it was the cause of an epidemic among children in Ahmedabad.
Gandhi’s antipathy for films seems to have been reciprocated by Indian cinema in equal measure. Noted film scholar Rachel Dwyer in her paper, The Case of the Missing Mahatma: Gandhi and the Hindi Cinema (2011), writes: “While Gandhi’s image is well known in India and throughout the world, mostly in photographs, chromolithographs, and newsreels, there are surprisingly few Indian films about the father of the nation and his role in the national drama, the historic struggle for independence.” However, in his recent book, The Mahatma on Celluloid, archivist Prakash Magdum provides exhaustive details of films made — and aborted — on Gandhi, and the entire cinematic culture that has developed around one of the most iconic personalities of the 20th century.
Magdum has packed his book from cover to cover with anecdotes, information, and analysis collected and arrived at over years of research. At the very beginning of the book, he recollects watching Richard Attenborough-directed Gandhi (1982) as a school student in his village in Maharashtra and the impression it had on him. “(T)he growth and development of the Indian motion picture industry ran almost parallel to the Indian freedom movement led by Gandhi,” he writes in the Preface. “While the first feature film in India was made in 1913, Gandhi had entered the scene of the struggle for India’s independence in 1915.” Gandhi did not look like a film star, and as the decades passed, his strict regimen, multiple jail terms, and the physical and mental strain of the long struggle took their toll on his body. But till his assassination in 1948, Gandhi continued to attract the cameras — not only of Indian film companies but also major international ones.
For instance, in the 1950s, David Lean, the director of epics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965), and A Passage to India (1984), planned to make a biopic on Gandhi titled An Experiment. “Alec Guinness to play Gandhi, Lawrence Olivier as Lord Mountbatten, William Holden as an American doctor, Cary Grant as a British officer, and Yul Brynner as Pandit Nehru,” writes Magdum. But, unfortunately, this film — like many other proposed biopics of Gandhi — was never made.
From the very beginning, it was not only documentary and news cameras that yearned to capture Gandhi. Feature films, too, started to depict Gandhi very early on. For instance, Bhakta Vidur (Directed by Kanjibhai Rathod, 1921), a mythological, silent film in which the character of Vidur was moulded on Gandhi, earning it the distinction of being the first film to be banned in India. Magdum provides lists and brief synopses of films from Achhut Kannya (Directed by Franz Osten, 1936), which propelled Ashok Kumar to superstardom, to Lage Raho Munna Bhai (Directed by Rajkumar Hirani, 2006) that have been inspired by Gandhian ideals of the abolition of caste discrimination and ethical behaviour.
He also does not shy away from locating the popularity of some of these films in the contemporary socio-political landscape. For instance, in his discussion Kurmavatara (2013), directed by National Award-winning Kannada director Girish Kasaravalli, Magdum devotes several paragraphs to contextualising it within the anti-corruption protests of 2011. A former director of the erstwhile National Film Archive of India, Magdum’s painstaking research, which included watching hours of newsreel footage on the Mahatma as well as travelling for miles searching for films on him, is a notable addition to thousands of books that have been written on Gandhi. It will be of interest to both film scholars and aficionados as well as those interested in Gandhi himself.
Uttaran Das Gupta is a New Delhi-based writer and journalist. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat