Nirupama Kotru, a film buff renews her acquaintance with Chaplin and, in the process, learns a life lesson.
“In that dark room in the basement of Oakley Street, Mother illuminated to me the kindliest light this world has ever known, which has endowed literature and the theatre with their greatest themes: love, pity and humanity.”
— Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography
He has been called a genius by scientists, philosophers, writers, humanists, film-makers and actors. His films continue to fascinate generations. They are timeless in the true sense of the word. As children, we laughed at the slapstick and the physical humour in his films. As adults, we have learnt to appreciate the world-view that lies behind some of his funniest films. Charlie being sucked into the giant machine in Modern Times (1936) remains one of the indelible memories of childhood. Later in life, one came to appreciate the thought – the causes and consequences of the Great Depression (1929–39) – that went into the writing of the film.
Charlie Chaplin has been an important influence in Indian films. Take celebrated actor-director Raj Kapoor, for instance. Raj Kapoor absorbed the mannerisms associated with Chaplin’s Little Tramp, including the waddle. It is a tribute to Chaplin’s genius that this Indian actor came to be universally recognised as the tramp, with his film Awara (the title of the film means a vagabond or a tramp) becoming a huge hit at home and abroad. Many actors after Kapoor, among them Sridevi (Mr India,1987), Mehmood (Aulad,1968), Kamal Haasan (Punnaigai Mannan,1986), and Chiranjeevi (Chantabbai,1986), channelised their inner Charlie into their performances. But it was Noor Mohammed who first adopted the Chaplin persona, and even used the screen name “Charlie” in films like The Indian Charlie (1933), Toofan Mail (1934) and Musafir (1940).
In November 2022, when I was informed that I would have to travel to Geneva for work, my first reaction was far from enthusiastic. I thought Geneva would be bitterly cold; also I needed to start planning my forthcoming family vacation to the United States. The United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), under whose aegis this program of the Intergovernmental Forum on Mining was taking place in Geneva, had asked India to send a women leader in mining.
Over the next four working days, I came to love Geneva Lake Geneve, the beautiful weather, the lovely architecture and the people. But the highlight of my trip was the last day, which I had taken off. The surprising part was that none of my colleagues, including those posted in the three Indian Missions/Consulates in Geneva, had visited the Chaplin Estate (The Manor de Bain). It was sheer luck that I remembered reading about Chaplin spending the last twenty-five years of his life in Switzerland, until his death in 1977. I discovered in the nick of time that Corsier-sur-Vevey was less than a two-hour drive from Geneva. I realised that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A quick booking of tickets on the Chaplin World website and I was off to the Manor de Bain! I decided to combine my Vevey trip with one to Gruyere, the beautiful town which lends its name to a popular kind of cheese.
After a quick trip to Gruyere, I set off for Vevey. My heart started racing as I passed the town square in Vevey which had huge murals of Chaplin on some buildings. Finally, I entered the hallowed portals of the estate where Chaplin spent twenty-five years with his wife, Oona, and his children. Passing through his study in the main living quarters, as I entered the drawing room with its cosy sofas, I came across French windows which overlooked the massive grounds of the estate. I stopped to take a picture. Suddenly, my phone camera froze. I panicked. I tried to close the camera app and switch off my phone, but nothing worked. I thought, this was it, I won’t be able to take any more pictures to remind me of this special day. Dejected, I moved into the dining room. A lady guard came to me and asked me if I would like to write something in the visitor’s book, which I did, sitting down on a chair in the corner.
All this while I was feeling disappointed. Suddenly, I looked up to see a home video playing in a loop, of Chaplin enjoying a meal on a sunny day with family and friends. I thought to myself: Was this a sign? Was Chaplin saying, “Why are you obsessed with taking pictures? You have come so far to see my home; I want you to enjoy my estate, look at my work. Don’t let these modern gadgets rule your life. Slow down.Take it all in.”
I calmed down and went back to those French windows in the drawing room to take in the magnificent view of the estate grounds. A man walked towards me. I asked him if he could help unfreeze my phone. He suggested I switch it off and then on again. I did that, and voila! It worked. Though I was relieved when my phone came back to life, I realised that in those intervening ten-fifteen minutes when my phone was frozen, I was forced to take a breather, to reflect upon the beauty I was surrounded by, and all the blessings which make life worth living. And I went back to the study and foyer of the house to spend some more time reading more about the struggles, trials and triumphs of this great artist.
As I emerged from the main building, I thought of rounding off the visit with a leisurely walk around the grounds. Suddenly I noticed a sign which said “The Studio”. I had deliberately avoided researching on what the visit had to offer, so I decided to just go with the flow and enjoy whatever was on offer. There was a screen outside “The Studio” which said that a film screening was to start in nine minutes. I waited, and finally watched the film, a moving take on Chaplin’s life and work, with ten other viewers.
After the film ended, we were asked to move towards the screen. Suddenly, the screen disappeared and lo and behold, I found myself on a beautifully recreated set from The Kid. We were prompted to go behind the set, and to my bewilderment, what followed was one set after another – The Great Dictator, City Lights, Gold Rush, Limelight, A King in New York, whew! It was such a delight to go through those sets, to see the wax figurines, to sit on the chair from The Gold Rush with Charlie peeping from under a table, to pose next to Charlie in my own bowler’s hat, to sit on the jail bench next to him, to be swallowed by the giant machine from Modern Times. Mercifully, my camera behaved throughout the studio visit and I took many keepsake pictures. After a stroll through the beautiful grounds, I picked up some books, including Chaplin’s autobiography, and other memorabilia. I started reading the autobiography shortly after my visit and it reaffirmed my views about Charlie.
During my visit and afterwards, I got a lot of time to reflect upon how Chaplin’s films were deeply concerned with the human condition, with all the miseries and challenges brought upon it by events that the common man has no control over. Chaplin’s work includes The Gold Rush (1925), which drew from real-life events such as the Klondike Gold Rush and the Donner Party, and The Great Dictator(1940), a satire on Adolf Hitler. Limelight (1952), which depicted the frustration of a has-been comedian, can be classified as auto-fiction, as can The Kid (1921), while Modern Times has been hailed as an astute commentary on industrialisation. Levity was Chaplin’s forte, but all his films were deeply rooted in his political and social consciousness. More often than not, he had to pay a heavy price for sticking to his beliefs.
Recollecting the making of The Great Dictator, Charles says in his autobiography, “Halfway through, I began receiving alarming messages from United Artists … But I was determined to go ahead, for Hitler must be laughed at. Had I known of the actual horrors of the German concentration camps, I could not have made The Great Dictator; I could not have made fun of the homicidal insanity of the Nazis.”
Chaplin was a genius who understood the power of the audio-visual medium. Since pantomime was his greatest strength, having performed bit roles in theatres during his childhood days of great hardship and penury, he used this technique to convey pathos through humour. Although he was earning quite well as a comedian-writer-director in Hollywood, by 1919, he was so frustrated with the studio system, which did not give him a free hand to write his own scripts, that he co-founded United Artists along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D.W. Griffith.
His first major hit under his own banner was The Kid, which drew from his childhood experiences. So strong were his convictions about the silent film that he swam against the tide and released City Lights in 1931, well after talkies had completely taken over Hollywood. Slowly, he started warming up to the possibilities of sound in film. He used sound effects in Modern Times but no spoken dialogue. He composed and sang a charming ditty in gibberish, ‘Titine’,with some random words in French, Italian and English thrown in, for Modern Times which never fails to bring a smile to the face, even eighty-seven years after its release
Whether it was silent films or talkies, Chaplin continued to tell his stories of universal values, of hope amidst great suffering. As an artist, he never shied away from speaking truth to power. Like most great artists, he did not accept manmade boundaries. Although he was English by birth, he was criticised for not fighting in World War I. He had long arguments with Winston Churchill about Mahatma Gandhi and the struggle of the Indian people for freedom. In fact, he met Gandhi-ji shortly after meeting Churchill, during a trip to London, and questioned him at length about his abhorrence for machinery. He returned from the meeting with great admiration for Gandhi-ji’s strategies for achieving independence and his principles of non-violence and truth. His conversation with Gandhi-ji influenced his writing of Modern Times, especially the Gandhian theory about modernisation and rapid industrialisation being the cause of unemployment and rising inequality. The fearless artist once made an uncharitable remark about the English royalty, telling Churchill, “I thought socialists were opposed to a monarchy”, to which Winston Churchill replied, with a laugh, “If you were in England, we’d cut your head off for that remark.”
Being wary of the ways of Hollywood where an artist was judged by his or her success at the box office, he made few friends in the film industry. Chaplin was happy spending time visiting his childhood haunts on his trips to London, and also enjoyed wining and dining with film stars, princes and princesses, prime ministers and presidents, scientists, philosophers, poets and writers. He was friends with Mary and Douglas Fairbanks, Albert Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells, Harold Laski, Aldous Huxley, Theodore Dreiser, et al. He went to Lucerne in Switzerland to meet India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, expressing his surprise at finding him “a small man like myself”. Chaplin invited Pt Nehru to his estate in Vevey for a meal. They had a long chat on the way, which left Chaplin impressed with the “…man of moods, austere and sensitive, with an exceedingly alert and appraising mind”.
Chaplin was a pacifist and a philosopher, and was derided for his views in America – not just mocked, but harassed by the FBI under its founding director, J. Edgar Hoover. In 1952, the country which has historically been considered the land of free speech hounded Charlie out of its borders under the mistaken impression that he was an avowed communist, and told him to never come back. Chaplin even narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in Japan.
Chaplin’s autobiography ends in 1964, on a poignant yet hopeful note, just like Charlie’s films, with Chaplin expressing his sadness at having to leave America, but also describing his happy days in Switzerland, where he befriended several artists who lived in the area. Eight years later, in 1972, Charles Spencer Chaplin was called back to America by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences to receive an Honorary Oscar. After initial hesitation, Chaplin decided to attend the ceremony, which would end his twenty-year exile from America. He went on to receive an unprecedented standing ovation lasting twelve minutes. Cries of “Bravo!” filled the auditorium and Chaplin was clearly overwhelmed. It was an emotional homecoming for the man who had left Los Angeles in extremely unpleasant circumstances in 1952.
Chaplin was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1975, but by then he was frail and had to accept the honour in a wheelchair. He passed away in 1977, but his legacy lives on. I hope cine buffs like me keep rediscovering him, for The Tramp is timeless.
(The photographs have been provided by the author, except for the book cover)
Nirupama Kotru is an officer of the Indian Revenue Service,1992 batch. Ms.Kotru has served in the Income Tax Department at Mumbai, Chennai, Delhi and Pune. On deputation, she served as Director (e Governance) in Ministry of Corporate Affairs and as Director (Films) in M/o Information & Broadcasting, where she looked after policy issues such as censorship, India’s participation in film festivals abroad, archiving, film schools and production of films.
As Joint Secretary in Ministry of Culture she has looked after prestigious national akademis such as Sahitya Akademi and National School of Drama, and national museums such as Indian Museum and Victoria Memorial Hall &Museum. She is presently posted as Joint Secretary& Financial Advisor, Ministries of Coal, Mines & Minority Affairs. She has released an album of bhajans called Upasana. She has also written around thirty articles on cinema and other topics such as parenting. She is currently co-authoring an anthology on Hindi cinema of the 1970s.
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