When Gandhiji met Chaplin

It started off as an innocuous mention of this meeting in a book, but when I delved into it, it turned out to be an intriguing story. The mention was - Gandhi meets with Charlie Chaplin at the home of Dr. Katial in Canning Town, London, September 22nd 1931’.

I found some details in a book ‘Indian Summer’ by Alex Von Tunzelmann, a very interesting account of the road to Indian independence. Alex briefly explained that Gandhiji was in Britain as the sole Indian representative for the round table conference. At that point of time, two celebrities were visiting London, one being Gandhiji and the other, Charles Chaplin, the actor. Some bright guy decided that they meet. According to Alex, Chaplin arrived at the appointed east dock house and tried to figure out what to say. The two men met at the first floor apartment and waved to the spectators below (see video link at the end). Chaplin remembered later ‘now came that uneasy terrifying moment when I should say something astutely intelligent upon a subject I knew little about’. What did Chaplin say?

BBC reportedChaplin was in London primarily for the British premiere of City Lights. Increasingly he was becoming politically minded and wanted to share his thoughts with 'great people'. He met George Bernard Shaw, Ramsay MacDonald, H.G. Wells and Churchill, and he wanted to meet Gandhi. The only opportunity was while Gandhi was visiting a doctor friend not far from Kingsley Hall in the East End. Crowds had gathered to follow Gandhi and more crowds were there to see Chaplin. It was only a brief meeting - but they made the front pages of the newspapers.

Gandhi foundation recorded the meeting as follows - 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."

Was that all? Actually none of the above accounts are complete in themselves.

Eric L Flom provided more details the meeting in the book ‘Chaplin in the Sound era’. Following an excursion to Spain, Chaplin made his way back to London where he hoped to have a few months of rest before returning to California. There he received an unusual invitation to meet Gandhi at the house of a prominent Indian doctor. Neither knew about each other. Curiously they discussed the impact of machinery on human life. Chaplin recalled saying “I should like to know why you are opposed to machinery. After all it is a natural outcome of man’s genius and part of the evolutionary progress. It is here to free him of bondage & slavery, to help him to leisure and higher culture…. You must progress like the western world. Sooner or later, you will adopt machinery”. Gandhiji accepted his criticism graciously and many years later, Chaplin used the discussion and his comments about the absurdity of the machine age in his movie ‘Modern times’.

Now you start noticing the undertones, Chaplin’s biographers write that Gandhiji wanted to meet Chaplin and other books vice versa. Gandhi's secretary, Mahadeo Desai, says that Gandhi was told that Charlie Chaplin would like to see him. But Chaplin had said: "I had been asked if I would like to meet Gandhiji. Don Byrne comments in his book ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ - He only agreed to meet him when he heard that Chaplin had come from a poor family in the East end where Gandhiji himself had stated as a student.

Joyce Milton in the book ‘The Tramp’ mentions Chaplin saying ‘The Gandhi’s and Lenin’s do not start revolutions. They are forced up by the masses and usually voice the wants of a people’, to Churchill even before meeting Gandhi (So obviously he knew about Gandhi despite the reports to the contrary). Churchill replied “you should run for parliament’. She also mentions that Chaplin (vainly) recorded in his autobiography about luminaries like Gandhi and Einstein who ‘wanted to meet him’.

Time magazine issue (Oct 5th 1931) clarifies thus - Mahatma Gandhi even talked to Charlie Chaplin—at the cinema actor's request. When told by his Indian friend Mrs. Sarojini Naidu that "the famous Mr. Chaplin wants to see you," Gandhi seemed puzzled, asked: "What is he famous for? Who is this Mr. Chaplin?" Sensitive Cinema actor Chaplin had been stopping the week-end with pugnacious Winston Churchill, M. P., public foe of Indian Independence. Mr. Churchill has called Mr. Gandhi "a half-naked, seditious fakir!" Mr. Chaplin, possibly primed by Mr. Churchill, fired the following question at Mr. Gandhi soon after he was introduced: "Why do you champion such a crude device as the hand spinning wheel? Inventions are the inheritance of mankind and should be allowed to relieve the burdens of mankind. I am diametrically opposed," wound up Cinema actor Chaplin with a Churchillian flourish, "to the abolition of machinery!" "The hand wheel and the hand loom," answered Spinner Gandhi, "are necessary to provide occupation for India's millions. Modern machinery installed in India would leave our people too much leisure. Also we would produce more than we need and thus enforce idleness upon some other part of the world as a result of our overproduction."

Abruptly St. Gandhi jerked out his dollar watch, announced that it was 7 p.m.—time to pray. Mr. Chaplin was moved to kneel and he scarcely wobbled during the long Hindu prayer. Departing after some further talk with the Mahatma, Charlie Chaplin gasped to reporters: "Gandhi is a tremendous personality, tremendous! He is a great international figure! More, he is A GREAT DRAMATIC FIGURE.

In the book Charlie Chaplin and his times, by Kenneth Schuyler Lynn, the conversation goes thus ‘ After all if machinery is used in the altruistic sense, it should help release man from the bondage of slavery, give him shorter hours of labor and time to improve his mind and enjoy life. Gandhiji replied that the first task was to rid itself of English rule. He clarified that machinery in the past had made India dependent on the English and boycott was a method of ridding itself of the dependence. That is why it is our patriotic duty to spin our own cloth. The altruistic aspect was apparently never explored in the discussion.

Christian pacifist & Gandhi's hostess, Muriel Lester, observed Gandhi and Chaplin as they “sat on a couch, rather apart from the rest of us, and talked about the people”. In her book ‘Entertaining Gandhi’, she states - "One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying 'But he's only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.' The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name." "'But don't you know that name, Bapu?' I inquired, immensely intrigued. 'No' he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give." "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 honors them always in his pictures."

"So the following week, on 22 September, 1931, at Dr Katial's house in Beckton Road, Canning Town, the local 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.

Kathy Taylor, a resident says -Dr. Katail was at 45 Beckton Road, that was on the north side, on the corner of Hudson's Road. That would be the 3rd road on the left as you came of the Barking Road. Although she was a child she clearly remembers the excitement of all the people in the street who were crowding around the doctors house eager to see Charlie Chaplin. The house has long since disappeared.

Interesting isn’t it? When you read these many accounts, how words are twisted here & there to subtly convey different tones& meanings? In the end, it was just a brief and uneventful meeting of two remarkable lives in the summer of 1931.

As Premen Addy said in The Hindu - There was enjoyment and laughter on the faces of the Great Soul and the Immortal Trump. Gandhiji knew nothing of Chaplin's world, and Chaplin had no special knowledge or understanding of Gandhiji's. But they were kindred spirits drawn instinctively to each other by a common concern for suffering humanity and a shared sense of fun. They both loved a good joke, and one at their own expense was to be relished most of all.

Watch the video of the event
Pic - Wikipedia, courtesy Life


It is quite interesting to note some observations on machinery and the contrasting views.

"Modern machinery installed in India would leave our people too much leisure. Also we would produce more than we need and thus enforce idleness upon some other part of the world as a result of over production" Interesting comment. In spite of so much machinery, I don't see any one sitting idle! The over production and machinery have increased the basic needs. That's all they seem to have done!!

Destination Infinity
Quite interesting episode in Chapline's life. Gandhi ji did not peep out of the window though he was waving at the crowd.
Very nice post - a simple incident, and so many dissimilar reports on it.

Did Gandhi really say Charlie Chaplin is only a buffoon, or was it someone else? Anyway it seems two people who had not in the least either looked for such a meeting, met.
harimohan said…
even though they did not know each other there is an attraction between great souls this comes naturally ,tks for the video link i could delve into more Gandhiji footage
Steve said…
Thanks for another fascinating post. I was intrigued when I ran into a picture of another improbable meeting - the King of Thailand and the King of Rock and Roll.

But yours has the added interest of the various interpretations of the event.
Kamini said…
Very interesting and unusual post. I enjoyed it very much, as also the video. Thanks!
...its interesting how the outsiders end up subtly nuancing it very differently no? sometimes i think its these outsiders who cause wars. hmmm
Happy Kitten said…
That was interesting...but I could not recognize Chaplin in the picture! guess the trade mark mustache is absent or something else?

thanks for the link to the newham story..

these days one continues to hear that Mahatma sidelined many other greater freedom fighters and that Ganhiji's aura was the making of the media and the people around him! this discussion came up recently at a frnd's place and I have since been reading a little more on the Mahatma... sadly he continues to leave more lasting impression on the non Indians than most Indians...

wish we could have him now... he would have surely come up with tactics that would work for the present times...
Maddy said…
Hi DI - yes, such was the thought process in those days, assuming that machinery would probably lead to all kinds of ill..but well!!
PNS - you are right, he just came near the window..
Raji - So said his hostess..
Thanks hari

Wow Steve - that should have been kinda interesting?

Thanks Kamini & CIW..

HK - Thanks again, i was listening to a newscast the other day, they did a survey in Bombay and many id not even know who MG was, other than a possible link to Sanjay dutt.

Chaplin is the suited booted guy..but actually MG was a canny guy, you know!!
Kunjootty said…
that was a very interesting post... and well researched :-) never heard of such a meeting between them both before.

btw, thanks for dropping by at my blog :-)
Maddy said…
thanks Kunjootty...your name was the clincher..i had an aunt by that name, a favorite..
vinay dave said…
Who are the other persons in this picture...?
Maddy said…
the title says - Gandhi meets with Charlie Chaplin at the home of Gandhi's friend Dr. Chuni Lal Katial in Canning Town, London, September 22, 1931. Sarojini Naidu is standing on the right.