Bapu Gandhi, how about a movie date?
The father of our nation, M K Gandhi, never really took to the movies. The busybody he was, other pressing issues were always at hand but when rumors of his opposition to the medium became public, in cinema’s defense stood the great intellectual wall of Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, journalist, nationalist and creator of the Indian tramp avatar of Raju for Raj Kapoor.
As Hitler declared war on the world, Indian film industry celebrated its silver jubilee in 1939 and Abbas in an open letter to Gandhi on his birthday, made an impassioned plea on behalf of cinema, most of which is reproduced below and is worthy of your time. In 1944, Gandhi saw his first and last Hindi film, Vijay Bhatt’s Ram Rajya. He was 74 but he never criticized cinema again.
My dear Bapu,
I crave your forgiveness for intruding upon your time at a moment when greater issues of war and peace claim your undivided attention. But, war or no war, the unceasing now of life must go on in all its numerous channels. Even under shell fire men must love and be loved, make friends and seek comradeship, laugh and make others laugh, entertain and be entertained.
And, as before, children must rush to their fathers with their problems and their troubles. To whom shall we, the sons of India, go for consolation and guidance but to you – you whom we have come to love and honor like a father? Today I bring for your scrutiny and approval, a new toy my generation has learnt to play with – the CINEMA!
In two of your recent statements I have been surprised and pained to find Cinema mentioned in (what appears to me) slightly contemptuous terms. In reply to a request from the lady editor of a Bombay journal for a message on the occasion of the Indian Motion Picture Congress, you briefly stated that you never saw pictures. In a more recent statement you include cinema among evils like gambling, satta, horse racing etc. which you would like to banish but which you leave alone ‘for fear of losing caste.’
Now if these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them. But in view of the great position you hold in this country and, I may say in the world, even the slightest expression of your opinion carries much weight with millions of people. I have no doubt that a large number of conservative and orthodox persons in the country will be confirmed in their hostile attitude towards the Cinema after reading your statement. “There must be some great evil in cinema it the Mahatma does not approve of it,” they would say. And one of the world’s most useful inventions would be allowed to be discarded or (what is worse) left alone to be abused by unscrupulous people!
I have no knowledge of how you came to have such a poor opinion of the cinema. I don’t know even if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil.
I frankly confess that there are many films that are morally as well as artistically bad. Their producers exploit the baser passions of man to make money.
I also confess that you and most of those of your generation will not like the playful romanticism that my generation gloats over in most films. I do not wish to discuss this here. No two generations have ever agreed in their social outlook and never shall. The concept or morality changes from age to age. A hundred years ago it was sinful to cross the seas. Fifty years ago it was immoral for a woman to be seen talking to a man. Today all that is changed.
The attraction of the opposite sexes is one of the fundamental facts of life. Men and women have loved each other ever since the time of Adam and Eve. And believe me; it is not in the power of average human beings to grasp the subtle differentiation between physical attraction and spiritual love.
In any case, here I am not pleading for romantic films. I do not expect you to see them or even approve of them. All that I wish to say is that cinema is an art, a medium of expression and therefore it is unfair to condemn it because of the questionable character of some (or most) of the films.
After all, books are not to be condemned because they include treatises on pornography. The airplane which has revolutionized world transport and is often used to rush medical supplies does not deserve to be abolished because Hitler uses it to bomb innocent human beings.
None of these inventions are bad in themselves though unscrupulous persons may exploit them for undesirable purposes. But then unscrupulous men have abused and exploited even such noble institutions as religion and patriotism! Religion does not become bad simply because billions of human beings have been killed in its name and patriotism is still a virtue even if jingoes have waged imperialistic wars for supposedly patriotic purposes.
Then why brand the cinema as evil when, properly used, it can be an instrument of much good in this world? There seems to be a general impression (and I fear that you have been led to share it) that the Cinema exclusively deals with sex and love themes. I am not surprised that such an impression exists because until recently it was true and, in the case of India, it is still largely true.
But in a few lines I wish to sketch briefly for your information some of the social and educational activities carried on through films in foreign countries.
Education: In most western countries visual instruction in Science, Natural History, Geography and History is imparted through the screen to supplement the text books and lectures.
News: News reels often flashed within a few hours of happenings bring a visual record of events of political and general interest before the cinema-goers.
General Knowledge: Short films on such diverse topics as science, lives of great persons, travel, household management, hygiene, cooking etc. are regularly shown with entertainment films.
Anti-Crime: The crime wave in U. S. A. has been appreciably checked by exposing crime methods in such films as the “Crime Does Not Pay” series.
But even among entertainment films, the socially useful and morally uplifting element is steadily on the increase. I give below a list of only a few western and India films which are unexceptionable even from the viewpoint of the strictest moralist. I am sure if you saw them, you would have nothing but praise for them
Life of Louis Pasteur: The story of the great scientist and humanitarian who discovered the cure for rabies (American).
Boys Town: The story of a noble clergyman’s efforts to redeem derelict children (American).
Life of Emile Zola: The inspiring story of the great French writer and fighter for justice (American).
Lost Horizon: A plea for nonviolence and absence of conflict as the only cure for the world’s ills (American, It reminded everyone of many of your teachings and was perhaps inspired by them!)
Sant Tukaram: A beautiful dramatization of the life of the Maharashtrian poet-saint (Indian).
Seeta: A film based on the epic story of Rama and Seeta (Indian).
Vidyapati: A beautiful story of a great poet and Ram-bhakt (Indian).
Aadmi: A brilliant drama of a fallen woman’s brave fight for regaining her lost soul and the social issues involved. (Indian)
Janma Bhoomi and Dharti Mata: Commendable attempts at depicting the problems and life of rural India (Indian).
Sant Tulsidas: Based on the life of the great poet who gave India the gospel of Ramayana in the national language (Indian).
And do you know Mahatmaji that some patriots are endeavoring to produce a film record of your own inspiring life? You may find it difficult to believe but I sincerely hold that the national movement led by you has indirectly caused much purification and regeneration in the realm of the Indian cinema. By giving back to us our national self-respect you caused a tremendous cultural upsurge and revitalization of national art which has been naturally reflected in better and more socially useful films.
That is why I believe it is not an unpardonable impertinence to depict you as ‘leading the Nation’ even in the realm of motion picture art. It has been possible to produce such pictures because a small but happily increasing group of honest and socially conscious people have started taking interest in films. Ten years ago such films were not produced because the educated and respectable folk looked down upon the cinema as something evil and loathsome.
Today those earlier prejudices are breaking down. The ‘cleansing’ of the Indian films will be in direct proportion to the number of honest and responsible people who are able to take the place or ignorant profiteers who dominated the industry for so many years. We want more decent people to take interest in this industry so that it becomes an instrument of social good rather than tamasha.
But these people may be discouraged and kept away if you and other great men like you continue to count the cinema among such vices as gambling and drinking. You are a great soul, Bapu. In your heart there is no room for prejudice. Give this little toy of ours, the Cinema, which is not as useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a smile of toleration.