The Mahatma before Attenborough filmed ‘Gandhi’ - Hindustan Times

The Mahatma before Attenborough filmed ‘Gandhi’

May 31, 2024 11:24 PM IST

Gandhi’s radical politics fascinated filmmakers during his lifetime and after

Richard Attenborough, the director of the film Gandhi (1982) begins his book, In Search of Gandhi (1982), with the words, “I carried ‘Panditji’ — as I eventually came to know him — home in my arms.” What he meant was his carrying the historic bust of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister (PM), sculpted by his favourite artist, Jacob Epstein. The 1948 bust was cast in bronze. But my story begins with a film that would have celebrated its centenary this year.

In 1931, Charlie Chaplin met Gandhi in London (London Express / Getty Images) PREMIUM
In 1931, Charlie Chaplin met Gandhi in London (London Express / Getty Images)

The idea of a film about Gandhi was not new even in the 1920s, underlining the fact that the world knew his unique persona and his way of fighting colonial slavery even then. One hundred years ago, the British government approached one of the most influential figures in the history of motion picture, DW Griffith, to do a film on Gandhi. Gandhi’s utter civility of non-violence had scared the brutally weaponised British colonialists and they wanted to pull Griffith’s powers to counter the “force” through propaganda. It was the same Griffith who had already made a name through his racist film The Birth of a Nation in 1915, which had glorified the dreadful Ku Klux Klan, the American hate organisation that employed terror in pursuit of its white supremacist agenda. The British needed Griffith. Gandhi walked alone, fearless. Interestingly, the timelines of Gandhi’s life and the growth of motion picture move on almost parallel tracks, though the man himself was averse to cinema. He saw the film Ram Rajya (1943) at Sumatiben Morarjee’s Juhu bungalow in Mumbai when he was 74 years old!

The popularity of Gandhi and his path of non-violent satyagraha (firm adherence to truth) captured popular imagination not only in India but also across the world. The panic of the British became known when they banned the 1921 Indian silent film, Bhakta Vidur (aka Dharma Vijay), a subversive political allegory directed by India’s first Dalit director, Kanjibbhai Rathod, and produced by the Kohinoor Film Company whose owners Dwarkadas Sampat and Maneklal Patel played the lead roles, respectively, of Vidura and Krishna. The story was written by Mohanlal G Dave, Indian silent cinema’s first scenarist to get his name above the title. The film was partially made against the draconian Rowlatt Act of 1919, passed by the British government to increase their grip on power over the common citizenry in India. It gave them the power to arrest any person without a trial. When Gandhi went on satyagraha against the Act, it was called the Rowlatt Satyagraha. Bhakta Vidur was the first Gandhian film banned by the British in several parts of India. In Mumbai, at Majestic Cinema, where the film was released, the police had resorted to lathi charge.

Yet another allegorical film was the silent Khuda ki Shaan aka Wrath (1931), produced by the Imperial Film Company that had produced India’s first sound film, Alam Ara, the same year. Directed by RS Choudhury, Wrath dealt with religious bigotry and the caste system. Baba Garibdas, played by the Parsi actor Cowasji Makanda, bore a remarkable physical resemblance to Gandhi, to whom caste and creed were artificial barriers created by vested interests. Leading studios were also releasing documentaries showing the Gandhian nationalist movement across the country, such as March for Freedom, Topical of Mahatma Gandhi and Others, Bombay Welcomes Mahatma Gandhi, et al. No wonder the colonial rulers thought of countering Gandhi through Griffith way back in 1923.

A full-length documentary, Mahatma Gandhi, was “collected and edited” by AK Chettiar under the technical directorship of PV Pathy, and was produced and distributed by Documentary Films Ltd., Madras. Its advertisement said, “Full Length Picture in Tamil: The first and only film showing the Movements and Activities of Gandhiji.” (Talk-a-Tone, September 1940). Widespread exhibition of all this filmic documentation in support of Gandhian anti-colonial struggles had sent signals to the British.

Hungarian Gabriel Pascal had proposed a film, The Life of Gandhi, in 1953, but it remained unrealised. Among several other abandoned films on or about Mahatma Gandhi, the one that needs our attention was by David Lean, who had gained official support from the Indian government after meeting Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, in 1958. In a nutshell, Gandhi was all over the world media, including cinema, right from the early 1920s to the 1980s, before Attenborough made his film. The British director had committed himself to promoting those eternal values of tolerance, non-violence, humanitarian harmony and peace (In Search of Gandhi).

Incidentally, Pascal was the first film producer to successfully bring the plays of George Bernard Shaw to the screen. In his autobiography, Roses in December, MC Chagla writes about then PM Lal Bahadur Shastri viewing My Fair Lady (adapting George Bernard Shaw’s play, Pygmalion) in a Delhi cinema house. Shastri had fallen in love with the film. Shaw met Gandhi in London, in 1931. The same year, Charlie Chaplin also met Gandhi.

With his unique sense of humour, Gandhi enjoyed cartoons lampooning him. Kladderadatsch, a popular satirical journal founded in Berlin in 1848, often published cartoons depicting Gandhi and India between 1920s and 1940s. Gandhi had a hearty laugh — both toothy and toothless. The world heard it. MK Gandhi’s ability to laugh at himself had endeared him to the world at large, among both friends and foes. Gandhi is a timeless globality.

Amrit Gangar is a Mumbai-based author, curator and historian. The views expressed are personal

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