Did the world only learn about Mahatma Gandhi after the 1982 biopic on him?

Did the world only learn about Mahatma Gandhi after the 1982 biopic on him?

By: anurag baruah&
May 31 2024

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Did the world only learn about Mahatma Gandhi after the 1982 biopic on him?

(Source: Facebook/Wikimedia Commons/Modified by Logically Facts)

During an interview with Hindi news channel ABP News (archived here) on May 29, 2024, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was asked about the Opposition’s absence from the consecration ceremony of the Ram Mandir temple in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya and if this would impact the ongoing Indian general elections.

While responding to this, the prime minister said, "Mahatma Gandhi was a great soul in the world. In these 75 years, was it not our responsibility to inform the world about Mahatma Gandhi? No one knew about him. When the first film on Gandhi was made, there was curiosity about him in the world. We did not do it. It was our responsibility."

(The prime minister’s statement can be heard at the 1:07:08 timestamp of this video)

 

The first film on Gandhi was made in 1982 by Richard Attenborough, and Modi was likely referring to it. Interestingly, the Indian government, led by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, contributed a part of the film's total budget through the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). 

However, the claim that Gandhi was an unknown figure prior to the film is incorrect. Public records and media coverage point towards Gandhi's worldwide popularity even before the Attenborough film.

A timeline

In March 1930, Gandhi undertook the Dandi March (Salt March) as an act of civil disobedience against the British government in India. The New York Times published a piece about Gandhi’s salt march on April 6, 1930, with the headline, “GANDHI MAKES SALT, DEFYING INDIA'S LAW” on its front page. 

On January 5, 1931, TIME magazine published a piece naming Gandhi as the Man of the Year for 1930. The tradition of naming a person who was a living symbol of the year that was goes back to 1927.

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Screenshots from the TIME magazine website show the Man of the Year cover in 1931 and the New York Times piece on Gandhi’s salt march. (Source: TIME/NYT)

The magazine picks the individuals in terms of influence and importance, highlighting Gandhi’s fame across the world. Gandhi also featured on the TIME cover on two more occasions — March 31, 1930 and June 30, 1947.

On September 20, 1931, the Iowa-based Burlington Hawk-eye paper devoted a full page to him with a banner headline that read, "Most Talked About Man in the World."

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Screenshot of the Burlington Hawk-eye page on Gandhi. (Source: Screenshot/Burlington Hawk-eye)

Archival footage (archived here) from 1931 shows Gandhi arriving in the U.K. with a crowd of enthusiastic onlookers and pressmen surrounding him. Similar footage (archived here) from 1931 shows Gandhi with Charlie Chaplin, a comic actor, filmmaker, and composer who rose to fame in the era of silent film to become a worldwide icon. The video description says that thousands of people gathered to greet the duo in London. 

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Screenshots of the archival footage available on YouTube. (Source: Screenshots/British Pathé)

Before 1982, notable documentaries were made about Gandhi, reflecting on his life and contributions. In 1953, director Stanley Neal presented a detailed account of Gandhi's life in a film titled "Mahatma Gandhi: 20 Century Prophet". In 1968, director Alain Tanner explored Gandhi’s role in India’s freedom struggle and its impact on the global civil rights movements. 

Speaking to Logically Facts, Dr. Ashwin Zala, Associate Dean of the Gandhi Research Foundation, reiterated that Gandhi was well-known before the film was made in 1982. “Richard Attenborough made the film because Gandhi was a world-famous personality. There must be something significant about a British filmmaker creating a movie on Gandhi. Louis Fischer, a famous American journalist, had written a book on Gandhi. This film was made after reading that book,” he said.

Zala also added that after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 several countries organised special sessions in their Assemblies to pay tribute to him. “The UN lowered its flag to half-mast, the first time this happened on the death of an Indian person,” he told Logically Facts. 

Nobel nominations, statues, stamps, and more

Gandhi was nominated five times — 1937, 1938, 1939, 1947, and days before his assassination in January 1948 — for the Nobel Peace Prize. Multiple famous and old statues of Gandhi around the world, dating back to the 1950s, also testify his immense popularity worldwide.

Lake Shrine, California, USA (1950): The Gandhi World Peace Memorial features a thousand-year-old Chinese sarcophagus containing a portion of Gandhi's ashes in a brass-silver coffer. It is noted as the first monument dedicated to Gandhi globally.

Brussels, Belgium (1969): A statue in Park Marie Josee, Molenbeek was installed to commemorate Gandhi's 100th birth anniversary.

London, UK (1968): Late U.K. Prime Minister Harold Wilson unveiled a statue of Gandhi in Tavistock Square. 

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Photos showing the statues at Brussels, Belgium (1969) and London, UK (1968). (Source: Wikipedia/Embassy of India, Belgium)

Zala said, “By 1982, over 94 countries had released postage stamps in his honour. These included major nations such as the United States, South Africa, Malta, Mauritius, Brazil, Cuba, Dominica, Russia, Finland, France, Mexico, Romania, Sharjah, and Spain, as well as international organisations like the United Nations.”

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Gandhi postage stamps issued by several countries. (Source: StampexIndia/SAADA/The Embassy of the Russian Federation in the Republic of India/philindiastamps)

Inspiring Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In his interview, Modi referred to former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr., an American Christian minister, activist, and philosopher who was a leading figure in the American Civil Rights Movement. 

He said that people knew about them but not Gandhi. However, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in September 1958 that Gandhian philosophy was “the only morally and practically sound method open to oppressed people in their struggle for freedom.” 

Further, describing his trip to India in February 1959, King wrote, “It was wonderful to be in Gandhi’s land, to talk with his son, his grandsons, his cousin and other relatives; to share the reminiscences of his close comrades; to visit his ashrama, to see the countless memorials for him and finally to lay a wreath on his entombed ashes at Rajghat…”

Mahatma Gandhi's great-grandson Tushar Gandhi also pointed out that both Mandela and King have acknowledged Gandhi as being their inspiration. 

Rev. King (archived here) based his people’s civil rights fight on the nonviolent Satyagraha spearheaded by Bapu. Leaders of the Civil Rights Movement came to Bapu’s Ashrams, trained in nonviolent Satyagraha, and then went back to train their cadres in the U.S.,” he said.  He also mentioned that Mandela in his autobiography wrote that after discovering Gandhi while in solitary confinement on Robben Island, he never felt alone. 

Comments create uproar in India

Modi’s comment drew flak from politicians and journalists in India, with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (archived here) and Congress president Mallikarjun Kharge (archived here) calling the statement “a lie”. Communist Party of India-Marxist General Secretary Sitaram Yechury (archived here) also took to X to call the prime minister’s claim “shocking”.

Veteran journalists Rajdeep Sardesai (archived here) and Tony Joseph (archived here) were among those who criticised the prime minister’s comments.

Clearly, there is enough evidence that shows that Gandhi was known worldwide even before a film was made on him. 

(Note: We have reached out to the Prime Minister's Office for a comment and the story will be updated if and when we receive a response.)

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