Rediscovering a Gandhi film

Print edition : February 24, 2006

A shot in the documentary showing the Mahatma with a child. - K.V.SRINIVASAN

An abridged version of a long-lost documentary on Mahatma Gandhi, with the commentary in English, is traced in the United States. But the original Tamil and the Telugu and Hindi versions remain elusive.

THE film opens with images of Buddhist monuments in India, signifying non-violence. The following scenes show the flag of the United Nations being lowered and lakhs of people grieving at a funeral. The narrator asks: "Who was he then, this man, that the whole world should mourn him?" and marvels at how millions of people mourned his passing away, especially when he was "without the power of wealth or gun."

Then follow scenes of Gopalakrishna Gokhale's visit to South Africa in 1912 and with him is seen Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, dressed nattily in a suit; Jawaharlal Nehru spinning a "charka" (wheel); a shot of a beaming Mahatma Gandhi playing with a child; and Gandhi taking a bath in the sea at Dandi at the end of his 1930 march to gather salt.

These scenes are from a documentary film in English on Gandhi, made in Hollywood in 1953 by Tamil writer and journalist A.K. Chettiar. Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth Century Prophet, thought to be lost for more than 40 years, has now been discovered in the United States by Dr. A.R. Venkatachalapathy, Associate Professor at the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS), Chennai.

A.K. Chettiar, who belonged to Kottaiyur near Karaikudi in Tamil Nadu, was a great admirer of the Mahatma. He was influenced by the Gandhian philosophy of non-violence, satyagraha and passionate humanism. He was a simple, self-effacing man, and never sought the limelight. He was also an admirer of Subramania Bharathi, the great Tamil nationalist poet, and C. Rajagopalachari (Rajaji).

A.K. Chettiar trained in photography at the Imperial College of Photography, Tokyo, and the New York Institute of Photography. He was the founder-editor of a Tamil monthly magazine, Kumari Malar (1943-1983), in which he gave prominence to articles on Gandhian tenets such as wearing of khadi, prohibition, combating untouchability, and establishing Dalits' right to enter temple.

It was on October 2, 1937, Gandhi's birthday, when A.K. Chettiar was travelling on a ship from New York to Dublin, that it occurred to him that he should produce a documentary on Gandhi.

According to Venkatachalapathy, over the next two and a half years A.K. Chettiar made stupendous efforts to collect films on Gandhi shot by more than a hundred cameramen across the world over three decades. He travelled more than one lakh miles across the world, found 50,000 feet of film shot, edited them into a 12,000-foot documentary and released it in 1940. A.K. Chettiar's visits to collect the footage included trips to South Africa and Europe.

The Mahatma at a spinning wheel.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

"Chettiar was 26 years old when he began his efforts. He was 29 when he completed the film," said Venkatachalapathy.

The documentary was released first in 1940 with a Tamil commentary, and then dubbed into Telugu. Later, the film was withdrawn from theatres because of a threat of government repression. It was screened with a commentary in Hindi just before Independence in August 1947.

A.K. Chettiar re-edited the film in Hollywood with a commentary in English and screened it in the U.S. in 1953.

For long it was thought that these films, in Tamil, Telugu, Hindi and English, were lost. But when Venkatachalapathy got in touch with A.K. Chettiar's friends, they were sure that the film was there somewhere. They thought it might be found in the National Film Archives in Pune, but no one had seen it in several decades. R.A. Padmanabhan, Gandhian and A.K. Chettiar's contemporary, watched it in the 1940s. What set Venkatachalapathy on his search was the experience of editing, two years earlier, A.K. Chettiar's Tamil book Annal Adichuvattil (In the Footsteps of the Mahatma), which is about his experience of making the film. The book, with a foreword by Venkatachalapathy, has been published by Kalachuvadu Pathipagam, Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu. Its English version will be published by Orient Longman.

S. Theodore Baskaran, writer and film historian, was also searching for the film. In an article "The making of Mahatma Gandhi" published in The Hindu on September 29, 2002, Theodore Baskaran dealt with how A.K. Chettiar laboured over the production of this documentary through the years of the Second World War. After A.K. Chettiar returned to Chennai from Dublin, he founded a company called Documentary Films Limited and set about realising his dreams. The article says:

"He decided to collect the already existing... material on Gandhi from various sources - archives, news agencies, studios and individuals - then shoot contemporary scenes and string these precious visual records together. First, he searched Indian studios and then travelled abroad, to places where Gandhiji had been, to unearth previous footages. In Chennai, he was able to salvage precious footage of 1927 Congress. It showed Srinivasa Ayyangar leading Gandhiji to the dais, followed by Sarojini Naidu and Nehru...

"At the end of his travels, Chettiar found that after three years of work and travel over four continents, he had 50,000 feet of material. From this, he edited a 12,000 feet long film. The editing work got under way in Mumbai in January 1940. Even as his team was working, Ahmed Abbas of Bombay Chronicle wrote a piece about the film and many other dailies, including The New York Times, carried stories on Chettiar's film. The film was released on August 23, 1940."

Theodore Baskaran asked: "Now the question is... where is the film? Chettiar had once told me that he had handed over a print to the Films Division. But it is not with them. I drew a blank with the Pune Film Archives... A man who never sought fame and wealth, Chettiar would be least concerned to know that due place has not been accorded to him in the history of Indian cinema. But what he produced is a valuable visual record and a priceless heritage. It has got to be salvaged."

Venkatachalapathy's meticulous search has now unearthed the English documentary, a "discovery" that he says is "really exciting". The copy was acquired with the help of Whitney Cox and Blake Wentworth, doctoral students at the University of Chicago. But the other versions are yet to be found. "Importantly, the original Tamil version made in 1940 should be located," he said.

The Hollywood version that has been traced is an abridged one made in 1998 from the 81-minute version of 1953. This one, produced by Edith Martin for the American Academy of Asian Studies, runs for about 50 minutes. There are two separate title cards giving credit to A.K. Chettiar. One says: "Film material collected by A.K. Chettiar". The other calls him "Technical Adviser". The narration is by radio personality Quentin Reynolds. All those involved in the making of the original Tamil version - especially leading cinematographer P.V. Pathy - are recognised with the card "Acknowledging the cooperation of". Pathy, who graduated from Sorbonne University, was the technical director of the film.

Venkatachalapathy, Associate Professor at Madras Institute of Development Studies, who made the discovery.-K.V. SRINIVASAN

The earliest footage in the film, acquired from Gandhi's South African friend H.S.L. Polak, is of Gokhale's visit to South Africa in 1912. Gandhi, dressed in a suit, is photographed with Gokhale. Perhaps this is the only film footage available of Gokhale, who died in 1915.

In the film, the narrator often emphasises Gandhi's tenet of non-violence and calls it "a great force that has its own laws, that should be used scrupulously". There are superb scenes of the Dandi March: they show how when "a slight man of 61" began the march to gather salt, he was accompanied by "a group of 79" but was "joined by thousands" as days went by. The narrator says: "From all over the world, reporters came to report this march." He adds that every village on the way was decorated to receive the marchers, with shouts of "satyameva jeyate" (Hail the truth). Another scene shows Nehru spinning the charka and the narrator says: "Spinning bound India together."

A highlight of the film is the mass-spinning sequence shot by A.K. Chettiar himself at Tirupur, the hosiery town in Tamil Nadu. It shows 2,000 women spinning the charka with the song "Aadu Ratte" (Let the spinning wheel turn) sung in the background by Carnatic singer D.K. Pattammal. It is a patriotic poem in Tamil written by freedom fighter Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai. A.K. Chettiar paid daily wages from his own money to the 2,000 women who took part in the spinning sequence.

There is footage of the Madras Congress of 1927, the Lahore Congress and the Round Table Conference held in London. According to the narrator, the message was clear at the Madras Congress: "Towards using the technique of trying the non-violence... " A scene shows Devdas, Gandhi's son, massaging the latter's feet. Subhas Chandra Bose, Rajendra Prasad, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, Rajaji, J.B. Kripalani, Sarojini Naidu and Dr. S. Radhakrishnan are some of the personalities who figure in the documentary.

A.K. Chettiar was 72 years old when he died on September 10, 1983.

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