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The making of "Mahatma Gandhi"

Through the years of World War II, A. K. Chettiar laboured over a movie on Mahatma Gandhi. On the occasion of Gandhiji's birth anniversary, S. THEODORE BASKARAN recounts how the film took shape.


The mass spinning scene from A.K. Chettiar's movie.

I WAS watching a film on Martin Luther King at the United States Information Service centre in Kolkata and a familiar scene flashed on the screen — a mass spinning session in a village in Tamil Nadu. I recognised it as a clip from the historical Tamil film "Mahatma Gandhi" released in 1940.

A.K. Chettiar (1911-1983) a Chennai-based journalist was interested in photography and trained for one year in Tokyo in 1935-36 and also in the New York Institute of Photography. He decided to make a movie on Mahatma Gandhi, whose passionate humanism made a deep impact on him. Chettiar recorded that the idea occurred to him on Gandhiji's birthday, while on a ship from New York to Dublin, from photography to filmmaking was but a step for him.

Back in Chennai, he promptly founded a company called Documentary Films Limited and set about realising his dream. He decided to collect the already existing actuality material of 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. Jiten Bannerji, later to make his mark as a cinematographer in Tamil cinema for Calcutta-based Arorora Films, had shot the footage. In Mumbai Chettiar got a clip of film, shot by Dada Saheb Phalke, of Tilak's funeral.

His first destination was London in 1937, where he enlisted the help of V. K. Krishna Menon, and began his search for Gandhiji actuality material from studio shelves. One rare footage he collected was from Henry Pollack, who had worked with Gandhiji in South Africa. It showed Gokale's visit to South Africa in 1913 and his meeting with Gandhiji. Chettiar visited Romain Rolland in Paris, who initially refused to be filmed as he thought that his face was not suitable for movies. But Chettiar succeeded in persuading him and Rolland's reminiscences of Gandhiji were recorded by the French cinematographer Charles Metain.

His next stop was South Africa where he spent three weeks. Sculptor Collanbagh assisted him in filming at Phoenix farm and Tolstoy farm, both still functional in 1938. While Chettiar was in Johannesburg, war broke out. He managed to return to India in a passenger vessel but, as a precaution, sent the film footage as freight in a cargo vessel. He figured that a passenger vessel was a more likely target for German submarines.

Once in India, he proceeded to Sevagram at Wardha where he got some valuable material. There, Chettiar met Arianayagam, the main proponent of Gandhiji's Basic Education idea and J. C. Kumarappa, the Gandhian economist. While at Lahore he salvaged from a local studio some footage of Lahore Congress of 1929. In Bombay, he was able to buy a film showing the Dandi March from a private photographer for Rs. 1000. (Chettiar, adhering to the tradition of trading community, meticulously recorded financial transactions, however small). Of all the events in British India, the Salt Satyagraha was the most filmed. In Varanasi, he met with Madan Mohan Malaviya and filmed him, even though he was in poor health. In Adyar Theosophical Society, he shot a two-minute scene of Maria Montessori talking about Gandhiji. Similarly he was able to film Salem Vijayaraghavachariar. Chettiar met C. F. Andrews in Shanthi Niketan, but before he could film him, the Deenabhandhu passed away.

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.

In making the film, Chettiar harnessed a galaxy of talents available. Dr. P. V. Pathi, a leading cinematographer, was the technical director. A graduate from Sorbonne University, he had just completed a film on the Sahara Desert. Tha. Na. Kumarasamy, famous for his Tamil translations of Bengali classics, wrote the script. S. Satyamurthy was persuaded to provide off-screen voice though three people — Serukalathur Sama the film actor, Vai. Mu. Kothainayakiammal, a popular novelist, and Saw. Ganesan, Tamil scholar — spoke most of the other commentary. Singer D. K. Pattammal sang a song glorifying spinning, in what is one of the earliest playback singing efforts. For Gandhiji's favourite hymn Vaishnava Janotho, Chettiar chose a Gujarathi voice, Sundari Bai, so that the diction was authentic.

When the world of entertainment in India was struggling with the new fangled medium of motion picture, Chettiar decided the capture on film historical moments of a heroic age and provided respectability to cinema in the manner he put it to use. Toiling single-handedly in anonymity, he completed this work that involved extensive travel during the war years.


Mahatma Gandhi with Acharya Kripalani.

By the time the film was ready for release, the Congress Government under Rajaji had resigned in Madras, in 1939, and the British Government had tightened censorship. Yet "Mahatma Gandhi", was released without any beauracratic hassle.

I could not get to see the film, but I came across two contemporary reviews of it — one by C.A. Ayyamuthu in his magazine Kudinool and the other by Kalki in Ananda Vikatan. The film opened with shots of monuments associated with the Buddha, to emphasise Gandhiji's message of non-violence and then moved on to the British period where the story began.

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. I got a lead that Vithalbahai Jhavery had it and used part of the footage for the film he made on Gandhiji titled "Mahatma — Life of Gandhi 1869-1948" which is now with Gandhi Films Foundation in Mumbai. But I could not locate Chettiar's film.

In 1943 in his journal Kumari Malar, Chettiar began writing a series of articles on how he made the film on Gandhiji. However, the series was stopped abruptly after a few issues. He explained that, in the articles, he as the author — Chettiar — was coming to the forefront rather than Gandhiji and so he thought it was time to stop.

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 to be salvaged.

I got to know A. K. Chettiar in the mid-1970s when he had his Kumari Malar office in what was then Mowbray's Road. A taciturn man, who would get articulate once he got to know you and, it was a treat to listen to his experiences.

Just as in his writing, he chose the precise word to express himself. In 1982 we had planned a rendezvous in Kottaiyur, his native village, along with our mutual friend, Raja Muthiah Chettiar, another resident of that village. It is one of my eternal regrets that it never came to pass.

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