Sunday, September 28, 2014

Unseen Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi's unseen images & how they are a better way to take him closer to new generations

Economic Times:  Dt. 28th September, 2014 (Sunday)
by: Suman Layak

January 30, 2014, was a particularly sad day at the Gandhi Film Foundation (GFF). The death anniversary of the father of the nation, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, is usually a celebration — of his life and his values.

The foundation's new chairman, Nitin Potdar, had taken over in October 2013 and then discovered for himself the treasure trove the GFF was sitting on — five and a half hours of footage on Gandhi. Most of it had hardly ever been seen.

Potdar got the Gandhi Films Foundation staff to prepare a 10-minute short film on Gandhi's death out of the footage and invited schools across Mumbai for a viewing on his death anniversary.

Not a single school responded. Potdar, a Mumbai-based corporate lawyer who had taken charge at the foundation as he wanted to work with Gandhi's legacy, had two quick realizations that day. One, preachy programmes do not work. Two, Indians were missing out on some precious snapshots of Gandhi's life. 

The film footage with the GFF that has been salvaged is almost five and a half hours long (33,000 feet of reel). A major share of it was shot by the Crime Investigation Department (CID) of the police across the country during British rule. 

The footage was acquired by Gandhi Smarak Nidhi in the 50s after Gandhi's death; the GFF was set up soon after, with Devdas Gandhi, the Mahatma's youngest son, as its first chairman.

Another source of footage was what was shot during Gandhi's trip to London in 1931 to attend the second round table conference. Industrialist GD Birla had asked for the entire journey to be recorded.

Following an appeal by Devdas Gandhi, footage was also contributed by news organizations like BBC and French Pathe News. All the reels, shot in different formats, were shifted to Mumbai in 1983. Reels were then converted into a uniform 35mm format at Mumbai's Ranjit studio and work progressed as and when funds could be arranged.

A Candid Gandhi

So what's there in the footage? Firstly, there are some candid shots of Gandhi. After all, the cameras were following him all the time, especially the CID cameras.

Scenes from the famous Dandi Salt Satyagraha have Gandhi taking a dip in the Arabian Sea and then towelling himself dry; and how he finds a dirty corner and proceeds to pick up a broom and clean it. The shots of the sea journey to London are most interesting.
In one scene, Gandhi interacts with a baby and, as the baby starts laughing, Gandhi himself bursts into an uncontrollable fit of laughter. You can see he had only a few of his front teeth left at that time. The footage also shows him trying on a life jacket (see photo) and looking through the eyepiece of a sextant on the ship. There is another bit where he uses a safety razor.

The video footage carries on to his visit to some localities in east London where a reception is held for him a him and local children hand over gifts. This also has one of the few speeches. Gandhi is heard saying in this clip that no matter what the outcome of his visit may be, he would surely go away with the best wishes of the people of east London. 

The footages leads to other interesting observations: for instance, during the Dandi Salt Satyagraha — the entire length of the 240-kilometre march from Ahmedabad to Dandi — Gandhi walks with 70 volunteers. None of the senior members of Congress was walking with him. Only Sarojini Naidu meets him, but at the end of the march at Dandi.

Again there is a telling video of Gandhi's funeral. The procession carrying his body has only two politicians who probably matter sitting on the carriage — prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru sits at the front and deputy prime minister Vallabhbhai Patel sits at the rear.

Passion for Football

Gandhi communicated with the masses with ease and elan. It is a pity that his message needs marketing at this age. The entire footage was released as a movie in 1982 in Mumbai's Metro cinema — the effort flopped and no takers were found for a five-and-a-half-hour-long movie 

Or take for example Gandhi's association with football. Governing body Fifa has recognised Gandhi as one of football's legends — the only Indian getting such an honourable mention on the Fifa website. The little known fact is that during his stint as a lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi had started football teams in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg. The common name of the teams: Passive Resisters Soccer Club.

While it is not known if he himself played, there are photos of Gandhi speaking to players during half-time at friendly matches.

Fifa notes that two of the leading football clubs of South Africa today — Manning Rangers and Moonlighters FC — emerged out of Indian communities in South Africa and the tradition of playing football originated because of Gandhi's time in that country. In India, every football World Cup is a lost opportunity to let the country know about this part of Gandhi's  ..

But the GFF is not losing the opportunity with the footage this time around. Till date, says GFF director Subhas Jayakar, the only use of the footage has been for film-makers who bought bits and pieces to use in different period-films. Jayakar had been transferred to the GFF from the films division in 1967 and has stayed on since then. He was instrumental in getting Potdar to head the GFF. Richard Attenborough had gone through the entire footage before he made his Oscar-winning movie Gandhi, Jaykar recalls

Gandhi for the Masses

The foundation operates out of the annexe building of the Gandhi memorial called Mani Bhavan (Gandhi had stayed in this house, off Girgaum Chowpatty in south Mumbai). Potdar says: "After I took over as chairman of the GFF, for a few months I would sit in my car outside and watch people come in. I saw a lot of foreigners and some school children."

Potdar adds that he reckoned building a viewing centre inside the GFF was the best way to serv these two groups. "Also the footage is now being made into short films of 10-minute duration each.  Anyone can come and see whichever portion he wants to," Potdar says. He is also planning to add French, German and Spanish commentary.

His efforts have also led to information on more footage on Gandhi with private collectors in the UK and the US; the GFF intends to pursue and acquire them.

Potdar has also initiated a contact programme with schools. On October 1, the GFF will
organise a painting competition for children from 300 schools.   "I have taken two Gandhian values — honesty and simplicity — and have asked the children to paint on these themes. Our instructions to the schools are also that the children must discuss the subject with their parents the night before. At least Gandhian values will be discussed in 300 homes," Potdar says.

Veteran journalist Kumar Ketkar joined the GFF last year and says targeting students is the best strategy for spreading Gandhi's message.   "He was the only great leader who created a movement for values. That is why on August 15, 1947, he was not in Delhi but in Noakhali (now in Bangladesh), fasting and praying for communal harmony."   "If schools are interested, I will take projectors and the films to a hall near them, but first I want them to come here in small groups and see the short films," Potdar says

Even during ET Magazine's visit to Mani Bhavan for this story last week, there were two schools visiting with their students. Surely October 2, 2014, will be a happier day at Mani Bhavan.

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