22 December 2010

The Image of Gandhi in 'Gunga Din'

In a most significant display of contempt and cynicism the 1939 Hollywood film 'Gunga Din' cast the 'mad guru' in the physical mold of Mahatma Gandhi. From his slight physique to his austere sartorial look wearing just a loin cloth and a chaddar (a large cotton shawl) draped over his shoulder or head, the demented villainous guru recalled the unmistakable figure of Mahatma Gandhi. Except for the head gear (turban), this was the dress which Gandhi wore during his visit to England for attending the Round Table Conference. Adopted from 1921 onwards, this dress contributed substantially in endearing him to the peasant masses of India. It was widely familiarized to the Western public through the visual media.

Gunga Din collapses the actor and personality of Gandhi into one. For the white audience, this effected a closure between the real person and the villain in the film, but for the Indian audience, it opened up the imperialist's motivated misrepresentation. Yet, this collapsing of the two identities made the identification of the Indian audience with the guru and what he stood for that much easier and more significant. The film had once again picked up, what a television critic was to point out much later, writing in the journal Voice in 1985, 'the worst nightmare of the British in India,' by making him the chief threat to the British Raj. In the 1930s, Gandhi was a permanent nuisance to the British. By and large, he was considered and projected not as a saint in Britain, but as one official put it, 'cunning as a carload of monkeys,' and his views on caste, the cow, Lancashire and women were made fun of, as reported by Suhash Chakravarty in The Raj Syndrome (1989). Even sympathizers like Edward Thompson, who came to be a correspondent of Gandhi's and was a supported of the Congress, found him deceitful. In his novels (such as his 1932 A Letter from India) he offered serious doubts about Gandhi. In fact, Gandhi was not treated particularly well in colonial fiction.

The portrayal of Gandhi as the chief villain highlighted the dichotomous perceptions of the two different audiences, Western and Indian. For the Western audience, the empire films confirmed the newsreel projection of Gandhi. According to Martin A. Jackson's article 'Film and the Historian,' published in the journal Culture in 1974, these images of Gandhi were of a 'peculiar Oriental who had outlandish ideas about independence and who wore a loin cloth.' Moreover, Gandhi 'being odd in appearance, full of surprises and engaged in the strangest activities, such as fasting or marching for independence,' was a good subject for the new cameras. It was this image that was duplicated in the feature film. Hollywood's heavy reliance upon the British India Office for cooperation in the making of the film, along with Katherine Mayo and other British writers as a source of information, resulted in the particular propaganda thrust of Gunga Din. In this film especially, as noted by Garry Hess in America Encounters India (1971), Hollywood gave shape to the British propaganda in the USA, which depicted the Congress as fascist with its dictatorial leadership, its domination by a single race (Hindus), its standard uniform of dhoti and Gandhi cap (substituted by a turban in the film) and its veneration of Gandhi, which was projected to resemble that accorded to Hitler by the Germans. Yes, this film also allowed for alternatives US perceptions. Ideologically, Gandhi had his following and admirers in the USA, which comprised a strong anti-imperialist lobby.

For the Indian audience, therefore, the resultant and essentially ambivalent cinematic portrayal provoked wide condemnatory comment in the media. The close resemblance to the villain in Gunga Din to Gandhi also reinforced the contemporaneity of the film. Writing about Gandhi's portrayal in this film, a 1939 issue of the journal Film India recalled an earlier cinematic attempt in 1935, when RKO had produced a two-reel comedy, Everybody Likes Music, in which, 'Our revered leader Mahatma Gandhi was portrayed as an immoral drunkard with a low woman in a cheap saloon. His figure, his dress and all his peculiarities so sacred and dear to our nation were used to convey an exact identification, same as in Gunga Din, that could not be missed.' For exhibition in India, the offensive portion in the film, Everybody Likes Music, was censored in 1935. Yet, this insult, it was pointed out, was 'broadcast all over the world and the white man laughed at the man who we worship as a God in our country.'

Such a reaction from the Indians was no surprise to the British. They were in fact aware, according to contemporary documents from the India Office Records, of the annoyance in India caused by a German broadcast in which a Germanophile Indian student sneered at Mahatma Gandhi and other India leaders while denouncing the concept of non-violence. Gunga Din went far beyond this: British army officers are shown to abuse the guru, repeatedly denigrating him as 'the dog,' 'the filthy scum' and the 'maniac.' This abuse and ridicule directed at the Mahatma, could hardly fail to provoke an Indian audience.

At the same time, cinematically, this audience had Gandhi and his ideology amply projected in their own movies. A silent-era film Sant Vidur (or Bhakta Vidur), produced in 1921, provided a direct nationalist projection of Gandhi. In this Vidur was molded on the personality of Mahatma Gandhi, played by Dwarka Das, an actor with a tall and lanky figure. According to oral history records in the National Film Archive of India, his entire make up 'made him look like the Mahatma, including the Dandi Danda in his hand.' The film was banned initially because, as J. B. H. Wadia observed in an interview recorded in 1984, 'We know what you are doing, it is not Vidur, it is Gandhiji, we won't allow it.' Later on, with several cuts, the producer succeeded in showing the film in some of the provinces, including Bombay. It did roaring business everywhere. There were yet other films, like Brahmchari made in 1938, which showed Gandhi's Wardha-like ashram run on nationalist lines of self-help, hard work, the khadi (raw cotton) spinning and weaving program and other handicrafts. The charkha (spinning wheel), reminiscent of sudarshan chakra (the divine weapon of the Hindu god, Vishnu, and a destroyer of all evil), and looked upon as a potent icon of freedom movement, was popularly perceived as a symbol of the annihilation of foreigners. This film also ran into trouble with the censors because of its explicit nationalist overtones and identification with Mahatma Gandhi.

An important landmark in early films incorporating the contemporary nationalist discourse, especially in relation to Mahatma Gandhi, was Sant Tukaram (1936). A vastly popular film it ran continuously for a year in Bombay; in the countryside people walked for miles to see its open-air screenings. The film was rated as one of the three best films at the prestigious Venice film festival in 1937, marking the first time an Indian film won an international award. Tukaram, as Geeta Kapur argues in a 1987 article 'Mythical Material in Indian Cinema,' has necessarily to be seen as a socially symbolic narrative. It shows the cross-referencing between cultural creation and political situation already conditioned by the contemporary 'saint,' Gandhi. The film established a close parallel between Tukaram and Gandhi in their message.

In the late 1930s the marketability of nationalism and its viability were visible not merely in the films produced by Indians - most of which became popular hits - but also in the way producers, distributors and exhibitors advertised their products. Mahatma Gandhi, for example, was a favorite for advertising the films. Large size photographs of Gandhi adorned the film advertisements along with much smaller photographs of the lead hero or heroine. According to documents in the Maharashtra State Archives, yet other films were advertised as 'helper to the cause of Mahatma Gandhi,' or invited the viewers to see their film, advertised as portraying 'the ideals of Mahatma Gandhi,' or claimed that 'Mahatma Gandhi's immortal words inspire a picture.' So much so that the distributors and exhibitors of a Hollywood film also felt it commercially prudent to put in a sponsored advertisement claiming, 'Mahatma Gandhi sees the first talking picture Mission to Moscow.' The report that followed suggested that Mahatma Gandhi considered this film to be of the 'right type.'

The British officials were aware of the public draw of the Mahatma's name in the film industry, as suggested by other documents in the Maharashtra State Archives. They had attempted to curb both advertisements and films that exploited the Mahatma's name. Yet, it is significant that despite this hyper-sensitive concern of the film censors in India - who saw in the title Mahatma (a Hindi feature film) 'a sinister association with Mahatma Gandhi' and pressurised the producers into changing it to Dharmatama - they failed to see or offer any comment on the allusion to Mahatma Gandhi in Gunga Din. One can speculate that perhaps they used this demeaning portrayal as a corrective to the one being projected in the indigenous film industry. In fact, it is interesting to note in this connection that Col. Hanna had raised severe objection to Gaumont British's synopsis of a film called Black Land in 1934, which came too close to some of the recent events in South Africa, having identifiable British officials under a thin disguise, as reported by Jeffrey Richards in The Age of the Dream Palace (1983).

The 1930s were also the years when Gandhi had emerged in the Western world, especially in the USA, as enormously newsworthy. A large number of documentaries and newsreels were made of Gandhi's visit to England and his activities in India by foreign producers in keeping with the importance of Indian news in general and that of Gandhi in particular. The newsworthiness of India can be seen in the fact that the British Movietone News kept a crew permanently in India during these years, as evidenced by documents in the Maharashtra State Archives, with a view to securing a 'constant supply of Indian pictures.' Moreover, because these films were widely exhibited in the USA, it was considered 'highly desirable that their subject matter and method of presentation should be carefully considered' with an eye to the effect they were likely to produce abroad. Therefore, a close British superintendence was placed over the filming crews. This 'close co-operation' was of 'mutual advantage,' as certain aspects like the Round Table Conference, authenticating 'honest intentions of the British' came to be projected, on the one hand, and the filmmakers were able to cater to the growing demands of their market on the other, by acquiring a facilitated entry in India.

Consequently, a large number of documentaries and newsreels were  made on Indian themes by foreign producers. The Indian film-makers did not lag behind. For them it was an unlimited opportunity to project the national leadership and Indian's aspirations towards independence. For the British, however, these documentaries and newsreels featuring Mahatma Gandhi, including Gandhi in England, Gandhi Sees the King, Gandhi's Activities in England and others, soon turned into 'propagandist films pure and simple,' especially when the civil disobedience movement attained its height and had to be banned. The Congress greatly publicized this ban in its newsletters and the national media subjected it to extensive comments, as shown by documents in the Maharashtra State Archives. The Free Press Journal, on 16 December 1932, declared the ban on account of danger posed to the British empire by the Gandhian ideas. The Bombay Chronicle, on 17 December 1932, asserted that the films could be prohibited but not Gandhism. Regional language dailies, Gujarat Mitra and Gujarat Darpan, on 18 December 1932, similarly declared that Gandhism could hardly be destroyed by such activities. The censorship of Indian films and documentaries during these years was so tight that even the framed photographs of national leaders in the background were edited out, according to a 1945 issues of the journal Film India. Similarly, between 1 August 1936 and 31 March 1937, according to the India Office Records, several such films were banned on the grounds that they dealt with controversial politics and were likely to ferment social unrest and discontent in the country.

The Congress ministries, after assuming office, relaxed such blanket bans. it is in such a climate of less stringent censorship of Gandhi and his ideology that the film Gunga Din, caricaturing Gandhi, has to be seen. The cross-currents of imperial arrogance and commercial considerations, in combination with the ideological compulsions of the film, made them ignore the likely impact of caricaturing Gandhi on an Indian audience. Ideologically, the film shows a complex handling of Gandhi as a character. Gandhi's semblance is in the fact evoked to subvert his image and ideology. Gandhi is demystified as hypocritically spiritual while being shrewdly materialistic, violent and self-interested. This portrayal accepted the spiritual India of the past but reasserted the fall of Hinduism - into a ritualized violent cult going under the name of spiritualism - in the present context. This decadence is signified in the person of Gandhi, who, in certain sections of Indian society (among both Muslims and Sikhs) was seen as a Hindu fundamentalist, known to use religion and religious symbols as a rallying point for mobilizing nationalist opinion against the British. His real agenda is shown to be a violent takeover of India and not a non-violent satyagraha, as professed.

It is here that a complete travesty of Gandhian philosophy and his political program was effected. It is well known that the all-India movement of 1921-22 was abruptly and unilaterally called-off at the height of its popularity on 11 February 1922, at Gandhi's instance, following the news of the burning alive of twenty-two policemen by angry peasants at Chauri-Chaura in the Gorakhpur district of the United Provinces on 5 February. This decision was deeply resented by almost all the prominent Congress leaders, including his political heir, Jawaharlal Nehru (as reported in his autobiography), and even more so by the younger people. Gandhi's own defense of this action as stated in his paper, Young India, on 16 February 1922, is revealing: 'I would suffer every humiliation, every torture, absolute ostracism and death itself to prevent the movement from becoming violent.' Gandhi's firm commitment against violence was to surface repeatedly as he continued to make effective use of the weapon of fast-unto-death to end riots and other forms of violence.

Putting an end to an effective, revolutionary and violent situation created widespread dissatisfaction and anger against Gandhi and his methods, which produced a strong internal critique that condemned his non-violent doctrine unequivocally and, at best, made no pretense at understanding it. It also spurred fresh revolutionary terrorism, which climaxed in 1929-30, the year of a whole series of terrorist actions in Punjab and United Provinces towns. The Hindustan Socialist Republican Army, which played havoc with British life and administration in northern India, produced heroes and martyrs, who attained remarkable popularity. For example, Bhagat Singh, who was hanged for his terrorist activities, outranked for a short time even Mahatma Gandhi 'as the foremost political figure of the day in popularity,' as shown by confidential intelligence bureau accounts cited by Sumit Sarkar in Modern India (1985). The emergence of revolutionaries and terrorists as popular heroes and martyrs enormously furthered the cause of Indian nationalism. Yet, Gandhi's abhorrence of violence did not allow him to speak or plead on behalf of political heroes like Bhagat Singh. In fact, Gandhi condemned their violence. Durga Bhabhi, the still-living widow of a compatriot of Bhagat Singh, spoke in a 1997 communication to Uma Chakravarti of her own and widespread anger against Gandhi due to his failure to save nationalists like Bhagat Singh from the gallows by appealing to the viceroy for mercy.

For Gandhi, the doctrine of ahimsa (non-violence) was not only a personal credo and philosophy but was a deeply-felt and worked-out philosophy. As a politician, he was aware that the resultant perspective of controlled mass participation objectively fitted in with the interests and sentiments of socially-divisive sections of the Indian people. It could, for example, prove acceptable to business groups, as well as relatively better-off or locally-dominant sections of the peasantry, all of whom stood to lose if political struggle turned into uninhibited and violent social revolution. The concept of ahimsa and satyagraha, therefore, lay at the heart of the essentially unifying umbrella type role assumed by Gandhi and the Gandhian Congress.

The transformation of Gandhian work and ideology in Gunga Din worked toward exposing Gandhian philosophy to generate latent fears and reservations inherent in certain sections of colonial society. The film, therefore, could well be seen by the different Indian audiences as a deliberate travesty, which went beyond caricature and ridicule towards a motivated misrepresentation. The violent repression of Gandhi's non-violent satyagrahis by the colonial state apparatus during the course of the national movement from the 1920s onwards  was well known in India, as were General Dyer's orders to fire on a peaceful, unarmed crowd in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar in 1919. Stories of British violence against Indian nationalists had become part of nationalist folklore.

Rejecting these hard political realities about violence and the perpetrators of violence, according to Shahid Amin's 1984 article 'Gandhi as Mahatma' (published in Subaltern Studies III), the cinematic portrayal took off from the well-acknowledged skepticism of the British about Gandhi's non-violent program and the militant and violent action perpetrated by certain social groups in northern India in the name of Gandhi and his ideology. Even the revolutionaries, very far removed in methods from Gandhi, were known to celebrate their victories by evoking his name. For example, the Chittagong Group of revolutionaries headed by Surjya Sen brought off the most spectacular coup in the entire history of Indian terrorism on 18 April 1930 by seizing the local armory and celebrated it with a cry of 'Gandhiji's Raj has come,' as noted by Sumit Sarkar in Modern India (1985).

The film, therefore, portrayed Gandhi (a real-life Vaishnavite and follower of Bhakti), as a worshipper of Kali, the goddess of violence, believing in the cult of violence and murder, to achieve his surreptitious agenda. The conspiracy to take over the whole of India is shown to be a Hindu conspiracy headed by Gandhi and as much against the British as the Muslims. In the days of the communalization of Indian society and polity this could calculatedly generate great anxiety among the Muslims of India, especially those of the Frontier who had thrown in their lot with the Congress. Significantly, in the elections of 1937, the Congress, designated by the Muslim communalists as a Hindu association and projected by the British as such in the USA, had won an overwhelming majority in seven out of eleven states (and formed coalition governments in two others), which included the Muslim majority state of the Northwest Frontier Province. The Muslim League, which claimed to represent all Muslims, could not get a foothold in any state and was busy propagating the image of a Hindu-dominated India. Gunga Din greatly reinforced such a reading. The NWFP was especially troublesome for the British as it was Gandhi's influence on the Frontier leader, Abdul Gaffar Khan, which had led to the merging of his party, the Khudai Khidmadgar, with the Congress. The film's purely Hindu image of Gandhi and the latent violence of Hindus, not withstanding their minority position in this province, could be used to demystify and denounce his growing influence in the NWFP in particular and among the Muslims in India more generally.

[The foregoing was extracted and slightly edited from Colonial India and the Making of Empire Cinema: Image, Ideology and Identity by Prem Chowdhry (Manchester University Press, 2000), pp. 152-59.]

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