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A documentary on Gandhiji

THE POSTMAN brought a couple of letters that raise questions, which warrant individual note. The first wondered whether it was true that the first full-fledged documentary on Mahatma Gandhi had been made by someone from Madras. Now I'm not sure whether the documentary on the Mahatma released by A. K. Chettiar in 1940 was the first, but certainly it was the first comprehensive film biography of Gandhi made in several languages.

The film, I understand, was made in 21 languages, the Tamil version being the longest at 12,000 feet. The Tamil commentary was partly by S. Satyamurti, a passionate believer in the film as a medium of conveying political thought, a cue the early Dravidian leadership was quick to follow. In fact, the film was probably the first to reach out to the whole country with a political - should I say `nationalist' - message. There apparently were two English versions, each of shorter length, one to more than 3000 feet.

A. K. Chettiar's Documentary Film Ltd. was responsible for the film. He spent two years in England and South Africa shooting as well as collecting archival material on the Mahatma. This travel, coupled with his visit to the U.S. in the mid-1930s to study in the New York Photography Institute, made him the most travelled Chettiar of the time. He was, however the third Chettiar to visit the U.S., the first two, A. M. M. Murugappa Chettiar and V. Vr. N. M. Subbiah Chettiar, were the first, travelling to the U.S. in 1930-31 to attend the International Chambers of Commerce Convention in Chicago. The two spent eight months on what was a round-the-world journey, one of the highlights of which was President Hoover's dinner to the delegates. When Mrs. Hoover stopped at their table and wondered whether they spoke English, an American at the table responded "Better than all of us!" Yet whether the two had finished local high school their descendants still debate.

When I met A. K. Chettiar in the early 1970s, he little reflected the success the film was supposed to have been. Dressed in crumpled khadi, he looked anything but prosperous. But ever smiling, he appeared to be without a care in the world as he brought out his intellectual magazine Kumari Malar that he had founded in the early 1940s.

A. K. Chettiar, whose stint at the New York Institute had been preceded by a year in Japan studying photography, shot all the contemporary scenes for the documentary. The 50,000 feet he shot and which he collected in four continents, was edited by P. V. Pathi, a Sorbonne graduate. D. K. Pattammal's singing in the film was her first playback effort.

What has happened to the film or the footage worthy of an epic that was shot as well as compiled? A. K. Chettiar always said that he had handed over a print to the Films Division, but neither they nor the Film Institute in Pune now have anything. In which case, has another valuable part of historical record vanished?

In his last years (he died in 1983, aged 72), A. K. Chettiar published Kumari Malar from a `cottage' on Moubray's Road that, I got the impression, he rented from The Hindu family. Not far from here there remains the sole memorial to a bit of Gandhian history in Madras. In front of the Chola Hotel is a stone spinning wheel surmounting a monument, which proclaims that while staying in the house on this site, Mahatma Gandhi had given the call for satyagraha in 1919. The house, a guesthouse of The Hindu family, was also occupied at the time by C. Rajagopalachari. Out of their discussions after the declaration of the Rowlatt Act there came Gandhi's call to passive action.

S. MUTHIAH

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