One man’s mission to defy censorship and make a film on Mahatma Gandhi

AK Chettiar’s labour of love, made in 1940, surfaced only around the time of Independence.

- By Prakash Magdum*

A K Chettiar

In a strange state of circumstances, the reels of a film starring Mahatma Gandhi in the title role had to be hidden away in temples and other religious places in India for many years. Well, that was what happened with the unique and iconic film Mahatma Gandhi, made by A.K. Chettiar, which was released in August 1940 in India. About two and a half hours long, the film was not a feature or fictional film, and neither a documentary nor a newsreel. It was a curious mix of many formats and was something in between.

The film may not have been fictional, but its survival entailed a lot of real-life drama. Due to the charged political atmosphere in India, and with the Gandhi-led struggle for Independence against the British in the final stages, the producers of the film thought it fit to lie low for some time even after the film was released and had a successful run for a few weeks.

There was another film on Gandhi, made after Independence, which also went through a somewhat similar struggle for survival. The unusual length of this documentary film by Vithalbhai Jhaveri, again titled Mahatma Gandhi, made its commercial release difficult. Breaking it up into segments to make it watchable would have led to loss of significance over time. So, although it was considered as one of the most authentic documentations on Gandhi’s life, it did not get the patronage of either the audience or the government.

Gandhi was a hot topic for the screen, and reel imitated real life! Not knowing any other way to save the film, and fearing its confiscation by the British authorities, the producers of Mahatma Gandhi (the one made before Independence) decided to hide the reels of the film in temples, religious mutts and in friends’ homes scattered across south India. After a long hiatus of seven years, the film resurfaced at a right time. It was screened one day before India gained independence. On 14 August 1947, Mahatma Gandhi had a grand re-release in New Delhi, amidst celebrations of victory against the mighty British who had ruled India for more than 150 years.

The film Mahatma Gandhi was a dream come true for the man who had passionately searched and acquired footage on Gandhi from various sources like a possessed devotee. It was while travelling on a ship from New York to Dublin in 1937 that this twenty-six-year-old Indian man, A.K. Chettiar dreamt of making an authentic film on Gandhi’s life. Coincidentally, the day happened to be Gandhi’s sixty-eighth birthday.

Annamalai Karuppan Chettiar, born on 3 November 1911 in Kottaiyur near Karaikudi in Madras Presidency, had dreamed big, because even though many newsreels had focused on Gandhi, no full-length biographic documentary had been attempted before. Having been trained in photography at the Imperial College of Photography at Tokyo and the New York Institute of Photography in New York, Chettiar had the right credentials for the job. Moreover, he had developed a deep interest in Gandhi and his philosophy. Given all this, it was most appropriate that he thought of taking up such a challenging project.

Chettiar’s dream of 1937 finally took shape after three years, in 1940, after a monumental effort on his part, of tracing and acquiring footage from various parts of the world. He travelled almost 1,00,000 miles across four continents to collect footage shot by more than 100 cameramen. The footage he tirelessly collected totalled a staggering 50,000 feet approximately, of which only a fourth could ultimately be used in the film. It would really be any archivist’s dream to search for and find the large amount of footage that was edited out of the film. It would surely be a treasure trove of visual documentation of the Father of the Nation. I hope it miraculously surfaces one day!

At the re-release of Mahatma Gandhi in 1947, the who’s who of Delhi’s elite as well as common citizens of newly independent India made for the audience. Leading the huge group of luminaries was Dr Rajendra Prasad, the President of the Constituent Assembly, who attended the show along with his family. There were several important national leaders, Members of Legislatures, ambassadors of foreign countries and representatives of the media in the audience. Indira Gandhi and Devdas Gandhi, one of Gandhi’s sons, also attended the screening. A total of twelve reels of the film were screened that day, of which ten were in Tamil and two in Telugu. But language was not a problem for the audience as they knew Gandhi’s life story only too well. A year later, the film was released in 1948 with a Hindi commentary.

The two-and-a-half-hour film was initially named the Life History of Mahatma Gandhi, which was changed to Mahatma Gandhi: His Movements and Activities. When the film was submitted for certification, there were two sympathetic Indian members on the Madras Censor Board – K Srinivasan, then editor of the Hindu newspaper and Dr U Krishna Rao, a member of the Madras Corporation. With their positive recommendation, the film was cleared for general release. But these two members had to pay the price for passing the film without any cuts and they were not nominated again to the Censor Board. The film ran successfully for weeks, and one of the prominent national leaders to see it was Rajaji. After watching the film, Rajaji said, ‘I never expected it to be so good. It is well done.’

Apart from many other things Chettiar attempted was a short film on Gandhi in colour at Sevagram. Colour film was just being introduced in the industry and it cost Rs 80 for 100 feet of film stock. Moreover, for developing the negative, it had to be sent all the way to London. But the novel experiment failed, as the 100 feet in colour which he had shot turned out to be bad. A few years later, a Russian photographer successfully filmed Gandhi, just few days before his death, in colour.

After the successful run of the film in India, the producers decided to release it worldwide. Gandhi could not just be confined to Indian borders; he belonged to the world. Accordingly, they made an agreement with the American Academy of Asian Studies in San Francisco for the film’s release in the USA in 1953. A special screening was organized in Washington on 10 February 1953 by the Indian Ambassador to the USA, Jagan Mehta. It was seen by the US President Eisenhower, General Carlos P. Romulo, the President of the United Nations, and the Russian Ambassador Andrei Gromyko.

Mehta also hosted the premier of the film organized for the diplomats of the United Nations on 28 April 1953 at the Guild Theatre in New York. It was attended by Sir Gladwyn Jebb, British Ambassador to the United Nations; Andrei Y. Vishinsky, Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations; Arthur Lall, Indian Consul General; V.K. Krishna Menon, Indian delegate to the United Nations; and John D. Rockefeller Jr, a noted American philanthropist.

It is a tragedy that the original film is believed to be lost. But in the archiving world nothing is considered lost forever, until found! Proving this maxim true, an abridged version of this English 1953 film was successfully traced by A.R. Venkatachalapathy in 2007. The film, now with the new title Mahatma Gandhi: Twentieth Century Prophet, is a re-edited version of forty-five minutes, down from its original length of eighty-one minutes.

Excerpted with permission from The Mahatma on Celluloid: A Cinematic Biography, Prakash Magdum, HarperCollins India.
Courtesy:, dt. 10.01.2023

* Prakash Magdum is the director of the National Film Archives of India in Pune.