When Mahatma Gandhi Met Charlie Chaplin (1931)

Mahat­ma Gand­hi and Char­lie Chap­lin were both forged in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and both went on to become icons of the 20th. His­to­ry has remem­bered one as a tire­less lib­er­a­tor and the oth­er as a tire­less enter­tain­er; decades after their deaths, both con­tin­ue to com­mand the respect of many in the 21st cen­tu­ry. It’s under­stand­able then, that a meet­ing between Gand­hi and Chap­lin at the peak of their fame would cause some­thing of a fuss. “East-Enders, in the thou­sands, turn out to greet the two famous lit­tle men,” announces the title card of the British Pathé news­reel clip above. Cries of “Good old Char­lie!” and “Good old Gand­hi!” were heard.

The occa­sion for this encounter was the Round Table Con­fer­ences, a series of meet­ings between the British gov­ern­ment and polit­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tives of India held with an eye toward con­sti­tu­tion­al reform. “The buzz was that Mahat­ma Gand­hi would be com­ing to Britain for the first time since he joined the Free­dom move­ment,” writes blog­ger Vijaya­mad­hav. The buzz proved cor­rect, but more his­toric than the results of that par­tic­u­lar con­fer­ence ses­sion was what tran­spired there­after. “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, said to have seen only two films in his life (one of them in Hin­di), “did not know who this gen­tle­man was,” and so “replied that it would be hard for him to find time and asked his aides to send a reply declin­ing the request.” But it seems that Gand­hi’s cir­cle con­tained Chap­lin fans, or at least advi­sors aware of the polit­i­cal val­ue of a pho­to oppor­tu­ni­ty with the most beloved Eng­lish­man alive, who pre­vailed upon him to take the meet­ing. And so, on Sep­tem­ber 22, 1931, “hun­dreds of peo­ple crowd­ed around the house” — the char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly hum­ble lodg­ings off East India Dock Road — “to catch a glimpse of the famous vis­i­tors.” Some “even clam­bered over gar­den fences to look through the win­dows.”

Chap­lin opened with a ques­tion to Gand­hi about his “abhor­rence of machin­ery.” Gand­hi’s reply, as record­ed in The Print: “Machin­ery in the past has made us depen­dent on Eng­land, and the only way we can rid our­selves of that depen­den­cy is to boy­cott all goods made by machin­ery,” espe­cial­ly those machines he saw as rob­bing Indi­ans of their liveli­hoods. Chap­lin lat­er wrote of hav­ing received in this con­ver­sa­tion “a lucid object les­son in tac­ti­cal maneu­ver­ing in India’s fight for free­dom, inspired, para­dox­i­cal­ly, by a real­is­tic, vir­ile-mind­ed vision­ary with a will of iron to car­ry it out.” He might also have got the idea for 1935’s Mod­ern Times, a comedic cri­tique of indus­tri­al­ized moder­ni­ty that now ranks among Chap­lin’s most acclaimed works. The abstemious Gand­hi nev­er saw it, of course, and whether it would have made him laugh is an open ques­tion. But apart, per­haps, from its glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of drug use, he could hard­ly have dis­agreed with it.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Char­lie Chap­lin Archive Opens, Putting Online 30,000 Pho­tos & Doc­u­ments from the Life of the Icon­ic Film Star

Watch Gand­hi Talk in His First Filmed Inter­view (1947)

Char­lie Chap­lin Gets Strapped into a Dystopi­an “Rube Gold­berg Machine,” a Fright­ful Com­men­tary on Mod­ern Cap­i­tal­ism

Mahat­ma Gandhi’s List of the 7 Social Sins; or Tips on How to Avoid Liv­ing the Bad Life

Char­lie Chap­lin Does Cocaine and Saves the Day in Mod­ern Times (1936)

Watch 85,000 His­toric News­reel Films from British Pathé Free Online (1910–2008)

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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