MUMBAI: It is one of the greatest ironies. Cinema has today served Gandhianism in a new garb of Gandhigiri and made the Mahatma relevant to today's generation through 'Lage Raho, Munna Bhai'.
In 1982, it also portrayed him in the vastly popular Richard Attenborough direction 'Gandhi'. However, Father of the Nation himself thought of cinema as 'often bad' and 'sinful'.
Gandhi reserved extreme scepticism for motion pictures. The Indian Cinematograph Committee's questionnaire requesting his views on the state of Indian cinema famously earned his brutally frank opinion: "Cinema is a sinful technology".
A cursory flip through books showcasing Indian cinematic history reveals the extent of the Mahatma's disdain for the bioscope.
His newspaper editorials and letters to film associations equated cinema with evils like gambling, sutta, horse racing and so on. In his paper, 'Harijan', he wrote, "If I began to organise picketing in respect of them (the evil of cinema), I should lose my caste, my Mahatmaship."
Gautam Kaul's book 'Cinema and The Indian Freedom Struggle' carries excerpts from the Mahatma's reply to the Indian Cinematograph Committee, dated November 12, 1927. It began with characteristic humility: "I should be unfit to answer your questionnaire as I have never been to a cinema." Gandhi then proceeded to stronger views: "But even to an outsider, the evil that it (cinema) has done and it is doing is patent. The good, if it has done at all, remains to be proved."
In 1938, when Indian cinema celebrated its silver jubilee, Gandhi was requested to write a message for the official souvenir. His secretary replied uncharitably: "As a rule, Gandhi gives messages only on rare occasions and this is only for a cause, whose virtue is ever undoubtful.
As for the cinema industry, he has least interest in it and one may not expect a word of appreciation from him." The film fraternity didn't take Gandhi's condemnations lying down. Film-maker Khwaja Ahmed Abbas wrote an open letter to the Mahatma in 'Filmindia' in October 1939.
"In two of your recent statements, I have been surprised and pained to find cinema mentioned slightly in contemptuous terms," wrote Abbas. "In a recent statement, you include cinema among evils like gambling, sutta, horse racing, which you leave alone for fear of losing caste.
If these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them. My father never sees films and regards them as a vice imported from the West," the letter read. "But your case is different and even the slightest of your opinion carries much weight with millions of people. I have no doubt that a large number of conservative and orthodox persons in the country will be confirmed in their hostile attitude towards the cinema after reading your statement."
The letter ended with an impassioned plea: "Give us this little toy of ours, the cinema, which is not so useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a smile of tolerance."
Fortunately, for Indian cinema, not all leaders shared Gandhi's distaste. Sarojini Naidu, in an interview with Baburao Patel, editor of 'Filmindia', said, "Cinema can do to a whole people what a loving and devoted wife can do to an erring husband."
Asked if films were not a cause for despair for her as they were for Gandhi, she replied, "They are my love and hope. You better leave the Mahatma alone to his own ways.