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Net search throws up documentary on Gandhi

T.S. Subramanian

A.K. Chettiar's 1953 film, made in Hollywood, has rare scenes

CHENNAI: A 1953 documentary in English on Mahatma Gandhi, made in Hollywood by A.K. Chettiar, Tamil writer and journalist, has been discovered by A.R. Venkatachalapathy, associate professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, Chennai, in Internet searches.

The film, "Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth Century Prophet" runs for 55 minutes. Rare scenes include Gopalakrishna Gokhale's visit to South Africa in 1912 and his meeting with Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru spinning a "charka" (wheel) and the Mahatma bathing in the sea at Dandi at the end of his Salt March.

Chettiar (1911-1983) made the first-ever documentary on Gandhi in 1940, in Tamil. He was the founder-editor of a Tamil monthly,Kumari Malar (1943-1983). He was trained in photography at the Imperial College of Photography, Tokyo, and the New York Institute of Photography.

Chettiar travelled to South Africa, Italy and other countries between 1937 and 1940 and collected 50,000 feet of the actual footage shot on Gandhi by various cameramen. He edited it into a 12,000-foot documentary, which was released with a commentary in Tamil, and shortly thereafter, with a Telugu voice-over. But the film was withdrawn from theatres for fear of government repression. On the eve of Independence, it was screened with a Hindi commentary.

In 1953, Chettiar re-edited the film in Hollywood with an English commentary and screened it in the United States. All these films were long believed lost.

Two years ago Dr. Venkatachalapathy edited Chettiar's book in Tamil, Annal Adichuvattil (In the tracks of the Mahatma), on the making of the film. He began searching for the film on the Internet databases of university libraries in the U.S and traced the English documentary to the San Francisco State University. Later he found another copy in the University of Pennsylvania. With the help of Whitney Cox and Blake Wentworth, doctoral students at the University of Chicago, a copy was acquired. Other versions are yet to be found.

The earliest footage in the English version, acquired from Gandhi's South African friend H.S.L. Polak, is of Gokhale's visit to South Africa. It also has footage of the Madras Congress, the Lahore Congress and the Round Table Conference in London.

Another highlight is a mass spinning sequence shot by Chettiar at Tirupur in Tamil Nadu. It features 2,000 women spinning the charka and in the background can be heard Carnatic singer D.K. Pattammal's rendering of "Aadu Raatee" (let the spinning wheel turn), a poem by freedom fighter Namakkal Ramalingam Pillai. The English version was produced by Edith Martin for the American Academy of Asian Studies. There are two separate title cards bearing Chettiar's name: one as "Film material collected by A.K. Chettiar for The Documentary Films Ltd., Madras, India" and the other as "Technical Adviser." The narration is by radio personality Quentin Reynolds.

Ramachandra Guha, historian and Gandhian scholar, said he was delighted at the discovery because the film was made by the tireless efforts of Chettiar. "The original documentary in Tamil should be traced because it includes shots of Tilak's funeral, and of Romain Rolland and Madame Montessori recording their views on Gandhi," said Dr. Venkatachalapathy.

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