Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Mahatma and the Clown

Add ImageRecently I watched Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film Gandhi, an epic film that (along with a phenomenal performance by Ben Kingsley in the title role) presents a great look at how the British Raj functioned in India, and how Gandhi's practice of nonviolent resistance helped to win Indian independence. The depiction of the 1919 Armitsar Massacre, when a British general ordered a brutal attack on unarmed civilians, is particularly relevant to our play. (You can watch the devastating clip on YouTube.)

The film also tipped me off to an interesting historical footnote:

In 1931, when Mahatma Gandhi traveled to London for a Round Table Conference on Indian Independence, he also met with cultural luminaries like George Bernard Shaw and Charlie Chaplin. Professor Madhu Dandawate spoke about the encounter between the political and spiritual leader of India and the world's most famous clown:
Gandhi went to see Charlie Chaplin in a small house in a slum district of London. After their meeting was over, Gandhi asked Charlie Chaplin: "Would you like to see the demonstration of our prayers?" He said: "There is no room for you." Gandhi said: "You sit on the sofa, we will sit down on the floor", and he offered the prayers, Charlie Chaplin wrote. "Gandhi and his men did not feel embarrassed to sit on the floor in front of me but I literally felt embarrassed to sit on the sofa and look down upon Gandhi and his colleagues."
Chaplin's son also wrote about the encounter in his biography of his father:
He [Charlie Chaplin] always felt that the degradation of the very poor is the cruelest of all suffering. I remember how horrified he was by the wretched poverty he saw in India... and how admiringly he spoke of Mahatma Gandhi, who joined with the outcasts when he could have lived a very comfortable life. Gandhi, he said, was not only one of the most brilliant men he'd ever met, but one of the most godlike as well...
Supposedly Gandhi had never seen any of Chaplin's films, but he agreed to meet with the film star when he learned of his humble upbringing in an impoverished section of London.

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