I have had the good fortune to get my hands on some Filmindia issues from 1939, courtesy of my friend Shalini, who sums up the reading experience perfectly: “…like being in a time warp with a sarcastic, witty, opiniated guide.”
In 1939 Hollywood released the blockbuster film Gunga Din, which went on to win an Oscar nomination and is considered a classic. But Baburao Patel and his colleague Khwaja Ahmad Abbas (the famous screenwriter and journalist) didn’t see it that way, and said so, eloquently! Their battle on an international landscape gives us a fascinating look into what the fight against British rule and imperialism meant to them. Mr. Abbas fired the first missive off in the February issue (click to enlarge the scan for reading):
Filmindia continued to support this view in every following issue. In the middle of the year Baburao embarked on a world tour via ship, and met with Alexander Korda in London after travelling through Italy, Hungary and Germany and examining their film industries; he left Germany just as World War II was declared! Korda had produced and directed a film called The Drum in 1938 which also portrayed Indians in a bad light, and Baburao did his best to convince him to do better.
A sidebar in the September 1939 issue says this:
Face to Face with Korda
The man who made “Drum” and the man who kicked a hole right through it came face to face at the London Films Studios at Denham, England. The British Film Institute arranged this meeting between Baburao Patel and Producer Alexander Korda.
“What was wrong with my ‘DRUM’?” was almost the first question Korda asked and it took Baburao Patel several hours to tell him that there was nothing right with it. At length Baburao Patel explained the political and psychological situation in India, why people resented such Imperialist themes as “Drum.” Korda pleaded that he had merely produced the picture as entertainment and not as propaganda. “Even as that,” retorted Patel, “you ended by slandering my people.”
In the end, however, Korda saw the point of the Indian’s argument and has promised to be extra careful about Indian sentiments in future.
I don’t know off-hand how well Korda did on that front—maybe another of you oldie film buffs can fill me in!
Baburao took the S.S. Normandie from London to New York, where he was greeted with enthusiasm as a “Million Dollar Personality.” From the October issue:
In California, Baburao met with studio executives and stars, and also with Gunga Din‘s producer-director George Stevens. Here’s what Baburao had to say about his time in Hollywood:
“The world had its ear turned to Hitler’s dreadful war-song. They had hardly any time to listen to India’s complaint about films that slandered India and her great people…
I had to shout, write and threaten. I did all that to carry my quarrel to their heart and home. From Alexander Korda in London to Harry Warner in Hollywood, all were seen and told. All listened sympathetically and anxiously. Sympathetically, because, Americans are good sportsmen and anxiously, because, India is a good potential market for American films…
Everyone seemed to understand and everyone promised. Even genial George Stevens, the man who produced “Gunga Din” without any intention but merely for entertainment, saw the force of my arguments when I explained to him the reasons of our resentment. And George said, “Next time I produce an Indian subject, I hope to please India.”
Luckily for us, Baburao made it home across the seas now made perilous by war:
Ships were sunk ahead and behind, floating sea-weeds became magnetic mines and human imagination ran riot…And now I am glad I went but more so because I returned.
I can only shake my head when I see this, about his stay in London:
I have only one complaint. And that is that in London, the capital of our King Emperor, twenty six good hotels refused to give me lodgings because I was an Indian. Englishmen are still as stupid as ever and believe in such puerile demonstration of their supposed racial superiority. The Germans who rain bombs on their wives and children can enjoy the hospitality of any hotel in London, but the Indians who feed and maintain the British prestige are denied this ordinary coutresty.
At least there has been some progress in the world. I would also really love to know what Baburao thought about the way the Chinese, Africans, and yes! my own gora people! were portrayed in Indian films across the decades. But I guess that would be a story for another day.