During his lifetime, the only Hindi film Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi watched was Ram Rajya, a film based on his favourite epic Ramayana. Gandhi, then 74, saw the film in a special screening at Juhu in Mumbai on June 2, 1944, during his illness.
Gandhi had agreed to see only select reels of the movie for 40 minutes but ended up watching the film for an hour and a half. Filmmaker Vijay Bhatt, a fellow Gujarati of Gandhi, later claimed that the Mahatma looked “cheerful” at the end of the show.
That same year, before Ram Rajya, Gandhi was persuaded to watch Mission to Moscow, a Hollywood movie by Michael Kurtiz filmed to promote the American alliance with the then USSR.
Like many of his contemporaries in the Indian freedom movement, Gandhi did not think very highly of cinema. He believed Hindi as well as foreign films promoted immorality and corrupted young minds.
When T Rangachariar, the then chairman of the Cinematograph Committee placed a questionnaire before him to know his views on cinema in 1937, the father of the Indian nation described cinema a “sinful technology”. Gandhi considered cinema a waste of resources and time.
The Mahatma even refused to invoke cinema for education.
“I have never once been to a cinema and refuse to be enthused about it and waste God-given time in spite of pressure sometimes used by kind friends. They tell me it has an educational value. It is possible it has. But its corrupting influence obdurates itself upon me every day. Education, therefore, I seek elsewhere.”
A great proponent of celibacy, the Mahatma believed that cinema could break a person’s vow for self-control. “You will avoid theatres and cinemas. Recreation is where you may not dissipate yourself but recreate yourself”, he said in the preface to his book Self-Restraint vs. Self-Indulgence.
In 1939 Khwaja Ahmad Abbas wrote an open letter to Gandhi, pleading with him to accept the positive contribution of cinema to entertainment and its utility as a tool to further the cause of Indian freedom movement. But it had no impact on Gandhi. Similarly, the request of Baburao Patel, editor of Filmindia, failed to move him from his stated position. Patel wrote once
“Let this champion of Daridra Narayan come down and meet us and we shall try to convince him, or be convinced. Surely as workers in the film field, we are not worse than the poor untouchables for whom the old Mahatma’s heart so often bleeds. And if he thinks we are, the more reason why he should come to our rescue.”
Gandhi was not even interested in meeting Charlie Chaplin, whom he called “a buffoon”, and was only persuaded to see him after Kingsley Hall Community Centre manager Muriel Lester described the Hollywood actor as somebody whose art was “rooted in the life of working people” The two met on September 22, 1931 during Gandhi’s visit to England for the Round Table Conference.
Hindi cinema was at a nascent stage during Gandhi’s lifetime. It was not the Bollywood of now, the largest industry producing films in the world, over two times more than China and almost four times more than Hollywood.
Hindi cinema used Gandhi’s name to sell its wares, even during the Mahatma’s lifetime and not just after his death. Such was Gandhi’s popularity in the 1930s and 1940s that many film hoardings would put life- size pictures of him over the photographs of heroes and heroines.
Several films boasted that they were a “helper to the cause of Mahatma Gandhi” and inspired by “the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi”. Even the Hollywood film Mission to Moscow, which Gandhi watched in 1944 in Mumbai, tried to exploit his name by sponsoring an advertisement which claimed, “Mahatma Gandhi sees the first talking picture Mission to Moscow”.
In India, Ajanta Cinetone’s Mill (Mazdoor) (1934), written by Munshi Prem Chand, was promoted as “the banned film” (its theme portraying the labour-capital conflict and exploitation of workers was rejected by the censors) and one which vindicated Gandhi’s principles.
Wrath (1931), a film produced by the Imperial Film Company and directed by R S Chaudhary, had a character modelled after Mahatma Gandhi called Garibdas, who fought against untouchability. The Bombay censors cut out many of its scenes and renamed it Khuda Ki Shaan. Vinayak Damodar Karnataki’s Brandy Ki Botal (1939) portrays demonstrations against liquor through the exhibition of the Congress flag, charkha, slogans emphasizing independence, and references to Gandhi and Patel. It refers to Gandhi as Azadi ka Devta (Angel of Freedom).
Diamond Queen, a film directed by Homi Wadia and produced under the banner of Wadia Movietone, which was canned when elections for the formation of an interim government in India were scheduled, had a poster proclaiming, “Fighting for democracy wiping out illiteracy.”
After his assassination, a good number of songs were composed to emphasize on the ideals of truth and non-violence and celebrate Gandhi’s contribution to India’s freedom struggle.
Mohammad Rafi gave voice to a private song, Suno-suno ae duniya waalon Bapu ki ye amar kahani (O people of the world, lend an ear to Bapu’s immortal story), which told the story of Gandhi – ‘De di hamme azadi bina khadag bina dhal, Sabarmati ke sant tune kar diya kamal’ (You gave us freedom without sword and shield. Sabarmati’s saint you did magic). More recently, Lage Raho Munnabhai’s Bande mein tha dum…Vandematram (The man had power...hail the motherland) was on people’s lips for a long time.
During Gandhi’s lifetime, Indian cinema did not quite have the kind of potential to shape minds it acquired a few decades later, after independence. It appears to the researcher that Mahatma Gandhi was so deified in his lifetime that no Hindi filmmaker or literary figure had the gumption to question his ideals, evaluate his life, principles and beliefs objectively, or put his relationships with his father, wife, brothers, sons, and other political contemporaries under the scanner.
This is something India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, cautioned Richard Attenborough against when the latter visited him to get approval for a biopic on Gandhi. In 1963, when Attenborough turned up in New Delhi to seek Nehru’s approval for his project, the Indian prime minister’s advice to him was, “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 even told Attenborough that Gandhi “had all the frailties, all the shortcomings. Give us that. That’s the measure, the greatness of a man”.
Excerpted with permission from Mahatma Gandhi in Cinema, Narendra Kaushik, Cambridge Scholars.