World Tour Revisited: Charlie meets Gandhi, September 22nd, 1931

Gandhi had never heard of Charlie Chaplin before this meeting and afterward called him “a very charming man.”

The following is Charlie’s description of their meeting from his 1933 memoir “A Comedian Sees The World”:

A message from Mahatma Gandhi stated that he would like to meet me, either  at the Carlton Hotel or elsewhere. We eventually decided on the home of his friend, Dr. C.L. Catial, in Beckton Road, Canning Town.

Frankly I have not followed the ramifications of Hindu politics. My knowledge has come only through the occasional scanning of the headlines in the daily press. Nevertheless, Mr. Gandhi is a figure of the twentieth century, a dissenter and reactionary of a new kind who has utilized passive resistance, a modern method in warfare, which has proven a force almost equal to violence….

Mr. Gandhi greeted me warmly…holding onto his calico as he extended one hand to shake mine.

The crowd was still cheering, so he went to the window. One of the Hindu ladies pushed me also and the Mahatma and I stood smiling and waving. Afterwards a request was made for the press to leave, but before doing so they insisted Mr. Gandhi and I pose for pictures. When the room was cleared I finally found myself seated next to him He was talking over personal matters with one of his followers.

An admirer of Gandhi’s–a young English girl–sat down beside me. “Don’t you think Mr. Gandhi has a wonderful personality?” she asked. “After you’ve talked to him I feel sure he’ll win you over.”
For some reason I find it difficult to make conversation, what with the milling crowds cheering outside and a gaping audience inside. I become self-conscious. It all seems like a revival meeting.

Now Mr. Gandhi is free is sits alone. Suddenly a voice breaks in: “Look here young woman, Mr. Chaplin is here to talk to Mr. Gandhi, not you. So give them a chance.”

Whereupon the young lady got up and excused herself, and Mr. Gandhi and I were left on the settee.

The woman’s interrupting remark terrified me. I felt it was a challenge. I shifted uneasily, then giggled at Mr. Gandhi. They must be waiting for me to say something profound.

How on earth do I get myself into these situations? I thought. Here you are, a harmless actor on a vacation, striving to have a good time, and you get into this predicament. What do you know about India, politics, cabbages and kings, and what do you want to know about them anyway?

However, I pulled myself together and started. “I was just telling the young lady that I couldn’t quite agree with all your principles. I should like to know why you’re opposed to machinery. After all, it’s the natural outcome of man’s genius and is part of his evolutionary progress. It is here to free him of the bondage of slavery, to help him to leisure and higher culture. I grant that machinery with only the consideration of profit has thrown men out of work and created a great deal of misery, but to use it as a service to humanity, that consideration transcending everything else, should be a help and benefit to mankind.”

“What you say is very true, but in India conditions are different,” said the Mahatma. “We are a people who can live without machinery. Our climate, our mode of living, make this possible. I wish to make our people independent of industry, which weapon the western world holds over us. When they discover that there is no profit in exploiting India they will leave it to us. Therefore we must be independent of your industry. We must learn agriculture, to grown our own rice and spin our own cotton. These are essentials necessary to the lives of our people. Their wants being modest and their demands few, they do not warrant the complexities of western machinery.” 

“But,” I argued, “you cannot retrogress. You must progress like the western world. Sooner or later you will adopt machinery.”

“When that time comes we shall use it,” he said. “But before doing so we must make ourselves independent of it if we are to gain freedom.”

After the meeting, Chaplin was invited to stay for evening prayers.

It seemed strange and unrealistic, here in this small room in the East End of London with the milling crowds outside. As the bronze diffused sun sank over the begrimed housetops, four figures sat crosslegged in silent prayer–three Hindus and one Englishwoman–while an audience of twenty or more of us looked on. 

And I came away wondering whether this was the man destined to guide the lives of over three million people. (Charles Chaplin, “A Comedian Sees The World, Part IV,” A Woman’s Home Companion, December 1933)

1 Comment

  1. One of my favourite film stars quoting one of my most treasured childhood poems. I like to wonder where he first learned this, and why it stuck with him."The time has come", the Walrus said,"To talk of many things:Of shoes, and ships, and sealing-wax,Of cabbages and kings,And why the sea is boiling hot,And whether pigs have wings."- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) Told to Alice by Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.