indian cinema heritage foundation

ख्वाजा अहमद अब्बास का पत्र महात्मा गांधी के नाम

29 Sep, 2023 | Archival Reproductions by Cinemaazi
Mahatma Gandhi and K A Abbas from Cinemaazi archive.

My respectful congratulations on the happy occasion of your 71st birthday.

I crave your forgiveness for inviting upon your time at a moment when greater issues of war and peace claim your undivided attention. But, war or no war, the unceasing flow of life must go on in all its numerous channels. Even under shellfire men must love and be loved, make friends and seek comradeship, laugh and make others laugh, entertain and be entertained.

And, as before, children must go to their fathers with their problems and their troubles. To whom shall we, the sons of India, seek for consolation and guidance except to you—you whom we have made to love and honour like a father? Today I bring for your scrutiny—and approval!—a new toy our generation has learnt to play with —the CINEMA!

In two of your recent statements, I have been surprised and pained to find Cinema mentioned in (that appears to me) slightly contemptuous terms.
In reply to a request from the editor of a Bombay journal for a message on the occasion of Indian Motion Picture Congress, you briefly stated that you never saw pictures. In a more recent statement you include cinema among evils like gambling, betting, horse-racing, etc., which you would like to banish.
Now if these statements had come from any other person, it was not necessary to be worried about them. After all, individual tastes must be conceded. My own father never sees films and regards them as an imported vice from the West. I respect his opinion even though I may not be able to share it. But your case is different. In view of the great position you hold in this country—and, I may say, in the World—even the slightest expression of your opinion carries much weight with millions of people. I have no doubt that a large number of conservative and orthodox persons in the country will be confirmed in their hostile attitude towards the Cinema after reading your statement. "There must be some great evil in cinema if the Mahatma does not approve of it," they would say. And one of the world's most useful inventions would be allowed to be discarded or (what is worse) left alone to be abused by unscrupulous people!

I have no knowledge of how you came to have such a poor opinion of the cinema. I don't know even if you have ever cared to see a motion picture. I can only imagine that, rushing from one political meeting to another, you chanced to catch a glimpse of some lewd cinema posters that disfigure the city walls and concluded that all the films are evil and that the cinema is a playhouse of the devil. 

I frankly confess that there are many films that are morally as well as artistically bad. Their producers exploit the baser passions of man to make money.
I also confess that you and most of those of your generation will not like the playful romanticism that my generation gloats over in most films. I do not wish to discuss this here. No two generations have ever agreed in their social outlook and never shall. The concept of morality changes from age to age. A hundred years ago it was sinful to cross the seas. Fifty years ago it was immoral for a woman to be seen talking to a man. Today all that is changed.
The attraction of the opposite sexes is one of the fundamental facts of life. Men and women have loved each other ever since the time of Adam and Eve. And, believe me, it is not in the power of average human beings to grasp the subtle differentiation between physical attraction and spiritual love. In any case, here I am not pleading for romantic films. I do not expect you to see them or even approve of them. All that I wish to say is that cinema is an art, a medium of expression, and therefore it is unfair to condemn it because of the questionable character of some (or most) of the films. After all, books are not to be condemned because they include treatises on pornography.

None of these inventions are bad in themselves though unscrupulous persons may exploit them for undesirable purposes. But then unscrupulous men have abused and exploited even such noble institutions as religion and patriotism! Religion does not become bad simply because billions of human beings have been killed in its name and patriotism is still a virtue even if jingoes have waged imperialistic wars for supposedly patriotic purposes. Then why brand the cinema as evil when, properly used, it can be an instrument of much good in this world?

There seems to be a general impression (and I fear that you have been led to share it) that the Cinema films exclusively deal with sex and love themes. I am not surprised that such an impression exists because until recently it was true and, in the case of India, it is still largely true. But in a few lines I wish to sketch briefly for your information some of the social and educational activities carried on through films in foreign countries. 

In most western countries visual instruction in Science, Natural History, Geography, History, etc., is imparted through the screen to supplement the text-books and lectures. News: News-reels, often flashed on the screens within a few hours of important happenings, bring a visual record of events of political and general interest before the cinema-goers.

General Knowledge:
Short films on such diverse topics as Science. Lives of great persons, Travel. Household management, Hygiene, Cooking, etc., are regularly shown with entertainment films.

The crime wave in U. S. A. has been appreciably checked by exposing crime methods in such films as the "Crime Does Not Pay" series.

Political Information:
"March of Time" is a new feature which brings a pictorial record of world events, so assembled that each feature provides intelligent information on some vital political problem of world interest—e.g., American Foreign Policy, Japan's Problems, The New Turkey, Present Situation in Mexico etc.

Then I may also mention some of the most inspiring 'documentary' films about China and Spain that were recently shown in India. These are, of course, what may be called the extra-entertainment, non-commercial films but the demand for them is increasing and a considerable part of the programme in cinemas is being taken up by such useful films.
But even among entertainment films the socially useful and morally uplifting element is steadily on the increase. I mention below a list of only a few Western—and Indian—films which are exceptionable even from the viewpoint of the strictest moralist stance and I am sure if you saw them, you would have nothing but praise for them. I may add that each of them has been very popular and literally millions of cinema-goers all over the world have seen them.
Life Of Louis Pasteur:
The story of the great scientist and humanitarian who discovered the cure for rabies (American).

Life of Emile Zola:
The inspiring story of the great French writer and fighter for justice. (American)

Boys Town:
The story of a noble clergyman's efforts to redeem derelict children. (American)

Lost Horizon:
A plea for non-violence and absence of conflict is the only cure for the World's illness. (It reminded everyone of many of your teachings and was perhaps inspired by them!) (American)

The story of the Mexican hero who liberated his country from foreign rule (American).

Sant Tukaram:
A beautiful dramatization of the life of the Maharashtrian poet-saint. (Indian)
Sant Tukaram (1936)

Sant Tulsidas:
Based on the life of the great poet who gave India gospel of Ramayana in the regional language (Indian).
Sant Tulsidas (1939)

An epic film based on the story of Rama and Seeta (Indian)
Seeta (1934)

A beautiful story of a great poet and Ram-bhakt. (Indian)

Janma Bhoomi and Dharti Mata:
Commendable attempts at depicting the problems and life of rural India (Indian).
Janma Mhoomi (1936)

A brilliant drama of a fallen woman's brave fight for reclaiming her lost soul and the social issues involved. (Indian)
Aadmi (1939)
And do you know, Mahatmaji, but some patriots are endeavouring to produce a film record of your own inspiring life? You may find it difficult to believe but I sincerely hold that the national movement led by you has indirectly caused much purification and regeneration in the realm of Indian cinema. By giving back to us our national self-respect you caused a tremendous cultural upsurge and revitalization of national art which has been naturally reflected in better and more socially useful films.
And do you know, Mahatmaji, but some patriots are endeavouring to produce a film record of your own inspiring life? You may find it difficult to believe but I sincerely hold that the national movement led by you has indirectly caused much purification and regeneration in the realm of Indian cinema. By giving back to us our national self-respect you caused a tremendous cultural upsurge and revitalization of national art which has been naturally reflected in better and more socially useful films.

That is why I believe it is not an unpardonable impertinence to depict you as "leading the Nation" —even in the realm of motion picture art!

It has been possible to produce such pictures because a small but happily increasing group of honest and socially conscious people have started taking interest in films. Ten years ago such films were not produced because the educated and 'respectable' folk looked down upon the cinema as something evil and loathsome.

Today those earlier prejudices are breaking down. The 'cleansing' of the Indian films will be in direct proportion to the number of honest and responsible people who are able to take the place of ignorant profiteers who dominated the industry for so many years.

We want more decent people to take interest in this industry, so that it becomes an instrument of social good rather than a tamasha. But these people may be discouraged and kept away if you and other great men like you continue to count the Cinema among such vices as gambling and drinking.
You are a great soul, Bapu. In your heart there is no room for prejudice. Give this little toy of ours, the Cinema, which is not so useless as it looks, a little of your attention and bless it with a smile of toleration.

Respectfully and affectionately yours,

K A Abbas

This article first appeared in 'filmindia' magazine in October, 1939 issue.

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