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A Magnificent Obsession

A Magnificent Obsession In the Tracks of the Mahatma: The Making of a Documentary by A K Chettiar (Translated from the Tamil Annal Adichuvattil by S Thilanayagam); Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007;


swindled him and many amusing anecdotes – but what he does not tell us

A Magnificent Obsession

continues to intrigue the reader. For ex-

In the Tracks of the Mahatma: The Making of a Documentary

by A K Chettiar (Translated from the Tamil Annal Adichuvattil by S Thilanayagam); Orient Longman, Hyderabad, 2007; pp 150, Rs 375.


his unusual volume comes to us via two mediators – the translator S Thilanayagam who makes the Tamil text available to a larger readership, and the editor A R Venkatachalapathy who introduces the author and provides the context of how A K Chettiar came to make a film on Gandhi in the late 1930s. Nearly 40 years after making the film Chettiar wrote about his experience of working on this documentary – an account which was serialised in the journal Kumari Malar in ten instalments between June 1978 and April 1979. Another 40 years or so later this highly episodic, slightly erratic but riveting account now crosses the barriers of language and time.

The Lost Documentary

Translation of books from Indian languages into English is a thriving enterprise in our country today, but a large proportion of what gets translated happens to be from the genre of fiction alone. There are gems in other genres – autobiography, travel, local history, personal essays and treatises on music and folklore which have by and large escaped the attention of translators and publishers so far. The present volume is a welcome exception. It would be difficult to categorise Chettiar’s narrative, because it is not a memoir. He is singularly reticent about his personal life; what he describes pertains only to his magnificent obsession of making a film on Mahatma Gandhi for which he travelled all over the world collecting footage while the war clouds were gathering over Europe. Out of some 50,000 feet of film on Gandhi that he collected or shot, eventually he used 12,000 to make a film with Tamil (and a few months later Telugu) commentary which was released in 1940. In 1947, on the eve of the independence day it was screened in Delhi with Hindi commentary and in 1952-53 he re-edited the film in Hollywood with English commentary and showed it in Washington. The triumphant account of this event is provided in an appendix with which the volume ends. It seems typical of the ups and downs in the life of A K Chettiar that a few hours after the screening of the film at the Dupont theatre which was attended by president Eisenhower, the ambassadors of India and 30 other countries, several American senators, former actresses like Shirley Temple and Myrna Loy among many other celebrities, the proud director of the film was sleeping at the air port lounge because he did not have enough money for staying in a hotel. He did not think it was much of a hardship except for the fact that he missed having a proper bath!

Unfortunately none of the original versions of Chettiar’s documentary are available today. The editor Venkatachalapathy tells us in a footnote that as the book was going to press an abridged version of the English film had been traced: “The film titled Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth Century Prophet re-edited in 1998 from the original length of 81 minutes to 45 minutes is a reminder of A K Chettiar’s effort”

– probably the only reminder – apart from this present book. Had the original film been available today it would have been a priceless document in the archives of documentary film history. It was probably the first bio-documentary film in India – made at a time when film producers in Chennai felt no one would come to see a full-length documentary even if it was screened free. Chettiar mentions a photograph of Gandhiji riding a bicycle over a bridge, and another of him in a full-sleeved kurta, dhoti and cap which might have become collectors’ items today.

What Chettiar tells us is fascinating – his travels and travails in collecting material, his encounter with famous men and women across the world, the help and support he received from unexpected quarters, the generosity of numerous unknown people, the avarice of a few who ample, how did he fund his frequent international trips and pay for the film footage in foreign exchange at a time when it was not easy for Indians to take money abroad? Even though it is well known that the Chettiar community was generally well off and the film industry was one of the areas in which they made their financial investments, that does not quite explain how he could execute the wildly ambitious vow he made on-board a trans-Atlantic ocean-liner in 1937: “I will travel all over the world. I will visit every news agency. I will rummage through film heaps in every part of the world. I will look into every film library. I will accomplish this task at any cost.” We are also left wondering how he happened to be studying in Japan in 1936, in the New York Institute of Photography in 1937 and what took him to Fiji and West Indies before that – experiences he mentions very casually in his account. One would have also liked to know a little more about his associates in the enterprise – specially one Dr Pathy whose participation in the project seems to have been as dedicated and untiring as Chettiar’s own.

Rich Narrative

Apart from showing how the magic of Gandhi’s name opened doors for him in most places he went (which must have been the original impulse of writing this account) the book tells us a lot more – methods of film making those days, facts and figures about trade transactions, vignettes of quotidian life in the 1930s, personal idiosyncracies of many famous people, and much else. For example, when Chettiar requested Rajagopalachari (as he had approached many other political leaders) to agree to be filmed, he refused with a brusque comment “You Chettiars have established yourselves in the film industry. Are you now producing this documentary on Gandhi because there is no money in feature films?”. The famous Tamil writer Kalki offered his unsolicited help by trying to convince Rajaji that it is not a moneymaking venture but purely a labour of love

– but without success. It must be added however that when the film was completed Rajaji came to the screening and

Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

had good words to say about Chettiar. We also learn that Romain Rolland who had already written his biography of Gandhi initially refused to say a few words in front of the camera because he believed that his face was not photogenic. Chettiar’s reason for not meeting George Bernard Shaw is equally entertaining. Apparently when Radhakrishnan requested Shaw to contribute to a volume to honour Gandhiji on his 17th birthday, Shaw wrote back “Gandhi never cared to write about me when I was 70. Why should I write about him?”. After hearing this story Chettiar decided not to make the trip to England after all. We come to know that an enthusiastic copy-writer had smartly described the Gandhi film in an advertisement as “Mahatma Gandhi in Celluloid”, creating an impression that dolls in his likeness had been made in celluloid. Chettiar received an order for one dozen such dolls to be sent by value paid on postage (VPP). The volume is full of these delightful anecdotes, not chronologically arranged, but somehow they all fall into place in this lively narrative.

As early as 1943 A K Chettiar had published a book of essays in Tamil on cinema titled Thiraiyam Vazhvum from which one chapter has been used in this volume as the prologue. The editor and the translator deserve our thanks for the two appendices they have provided – one about the excitement and elation of screening the Hindi version of the film at the Regal theatre in Delhi the evening before the midnight hour of India’s freedom, and the other about Chettiar’s year-long struggle in US in 1952-53 to remake the Gandhi film in English in a studio in Hollywood. The US account has been adapted from Chettiar’s 1956 travel book America Nattil. He was a journalist, editor of Tamil journals and a travel book writer. We are not told if he made any film other than the documentary on Gandhi.

Chettiar’s devotion to Gandhi’s ideals is apparent throughout the book but the worshipful attitude of the author co-exists with his matter of fact description of the practical aspects of film making – starting from buying raw stock, purchasing the right camera, shooting on location and travelling far and wide to collect existing footage, editing, sound recording, getting music composed and persuading famous singers to lend their voice, commentaries organised,promoting the film, negotiating with theatres to release it, getting the press to cover the event and endless such details that need to be meticulously looked after. Many aspects of life come together in this account: politics, ideology, trade, industry, censorship and media. The nar-– from the illustrious to the ordinary rative has an extraordinary geographic – making this slim volume a rich and sweep – ranging from South Africa, layered slice of history. France, Italy, US to different corners of India – and an amazing human variety Email:


Economic and Political Weekly June 2, 2007

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