Of the Mahatma, Chaplin, and the Modern Times.
Autumn was in the process of turning lush green to bare brown.
The city of London was host to the series of meetings known as the Round Table Conferences, between the Leaders of the Freedom Struggle in India, and the colonial rulers of the British Raj. The buzz was that Mahatma Gandhi would be coming to Britain for the first time since he joined the Freedom movement.
Gandhi came, participated in the Conference and spoke eloquently about India’s requirement of independence. But he was outmanoeuvred by the British Raj representatives and the supporters of the Caste System.
The Conference was over and Gandhi was preparing for his departure, when a telegram reached him.
A certain Charles Chaplin, who was in Britain at that time, had requested permission to be granted an audience with him.
Gandhi, who did not know who this gentleman was, replied that it would be hard for him to find time and asked his aides to send a reply declining the request.
“Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures”, said those who knew who said person was. Gandhi was intrigued by the man and so agreed to meet him.
So the following week, on 22 September, 1931, people were given the double thrill of welcoming both men. Hundreds of people crowded around the house to catch a glimpse of the famous visitors, some even clambered over garden fences to look through the windows of the house.
Chaplin recalls walking up the steps to the flat on the East End of London where Gandhi was staying. He was nervous, and rehearsed his lines (he was an actor, after all), and approached him: “I am all for the freedom of your country and its people. But there is one thing that I don’t understand. Why do you oppose the use of machines? Don’t you think that a lot of work would come to a standstill if machines are not used?”
“I am not against machines but I cannot bear it when these very machines take away a man’s work from him. Today we (are) your slaves because we cannot overcome our attraction, for your goods. Freedom will surely be ours if we learn to free ourselves from this attraction.”
Gandhi responded frankly.
The encounter was a brief one, but it left a deep impression on Chaplin. A few years later, he released his seminal work, one of the movies for which he would be universally known for, the origins of which could be traced back to this vey exchange.
Modern Times was not just a Chaplin movie. It was a Chaplinesque critique of all the things that was wrong with the world at that time, and still is, even now. Humans work so hard to maintain those very machines that will make him unemployed in the future, pushing his ilk into poverty. Modern Times is a movie which examines this paradox. A movie which delves into the problems of overwork, of unemployment, of machines eating away into the lives of humans, of corporations that are paranoid about each second of time the worker wastes at the workplace.
All of these, combined with the slapstick comedy synonymous with his movies. And with the uplifting theme of the indefatigable human spirit.
That is why Modern Times is indeed a true classic.