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.
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.