Nobody in India had seen Gandhi in a suit.
Often criticised as the “half naked fakir” for the lack of attire, many didn’t believe their leader had even worn one. But they got to see it on 23rd August 1940.
Around 1937, AK Chettiar a young photographer, while crossing the Atlantic on a ship, observed passengers reminding each other of the fact that it was the Mahatma’s Birthday. AK got inspired and later obsessed with the man who was making history. And he went on to make history himself.
Trained in photography at Tokyo and New York, AK would set up a company “Documentary Films Limited”. When the world of cinema in India was struggling to survive, making a documentary was indeed a brave move and that too on the ruling British’s number one foe.
Gandhi was close to achieving his goal of Indian independence and was being targeted by photographers every minute of the day. Not wanting to compete with them, AK decided he could take the viewers behind the veil of the leader. He decided to collect the existing archival footage of Gandhi from different sources and then shoot contemporary scenes and link them together.
For four years in the midst of a turbulent world war, Chettiar travelled a hundred thousand miles over four continents unearthed footages of Gandhi from archives and individual collections.
With dark clouds of war looming, AK took precautions. While he travelled in a passenger ship he would send the acquired film in another cargo ship, so that one of them may survive if a torpedo hit either.
AK acquired 50,000 feet of archival footage shot by almost a 100 cameramen over 3 decades, sufficient to commence editing his documentary Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth Century Prophet. Toiling single-handedly in anonymity, he had completed this Himalayan endeavour.
The earliest footage in the film, acquired in London covered Gokhale’s visit to South Africa in 1912. It’s perhaps the only footage of Gokhale and with him stood a young lawyer Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, dressed tidily in a suit.
AK also possessed films of the Madras and Lahore Congress, the London Round Table Conference, Jawaharlal Nehru spinning a “charka” (the narrator says: “Spinning bound India together”) And even Tilak’s funeral shot
by Dadasaheb Phalke.
Very intimate scenes of Gandhi’s life including one that shows his son massaging the Mahatma’s feet were quite rare to an audience which had only imagined these scenes before. AK’s prime acquisition was Mahatma seabathing at Dandi while ending his Salt March for which he paid a princely sum of 1000 Rs to a private photographer. (AK meticulously recorded financial transactions, however small.)
Romain Rolland in Paris, initially refused to be filmed, assuming his face was not photogenic. But Chettiar’s persuasion worked and Rolland’s reminiscences of Gandhi were recorded by the French cinematographer Charles Metain.
As a photographer, AK shot Phoenix and Tolstoy’s farm in South Africa, both still functional in 1938. He also filmed a mass spinning sequence with 2000 women (all paid a day’s wages from his pocket) at Tirupur. In the background can be heard Carnatic singer D.K. Pattammal’s rendering of “Aadu Raatee” (a patriotic poem by Namakkal Kavignar).
On 23 August 1940 the documentary was released. The opening shots were of Buddhist monuments to emphasise Gandhi’s non-violence. With voice-overs in Tamil and later Telugu it was about to give a tough competition to the popular cinemas running at that time. But after the initial screening, the film was withdrawn from theatres fearing government repression.
Seven years later, on the eve of Independence, it was screened in Delhi with a Hindi commentary. AK Chettiar later re-edited the film in Hollywood in English and screened it across the U.S. in 1953. The American version has two separate title cards. One says: “Film material collected by AK Chettiar” and “Technical Adviser”. The film was screened in Washington with President Eisenhower seeing it. Many dailies, including The New York Times, reviewed the documentary.
The original 81-minute film, `Mahatma Gandhi – 20th Century Prophet,’ is reportedly lost today, but AK’s experiences putting together the documentary survive in a series that he wrote with the title Annal Adichuvattil (In the footsteps of the Mahatma) in a magazine he edited – Kumari Malar – The only memories of a mammoth effort. Luckily a part of the film was discovered in Madurai recently.