I guess this title sounds like this is a story about Gandhi. It is not.
Mahatma is not a name, but a word. It is a title, that I feel carries great honor. It is a title I wish to bestow upon several people. This is just the story of one of them.
Before I do so, I want to define the term a little bit better. It is a term we pull from an old language known as Sanskrit. It is a language still used in religious contexts and is apparently the subject of an attempted “revival,” but that’s not really the point. The point is that it is an old word from a place that is known for its sacred(it is where that Julia Roberts in that movie went to learn how to pray). There is mysticism to prayer that is rarely captured in man. Mahatma is a title that captures that mysticism.
Mahatma is the word in Sanskrit that means “Great Soul.” Let that sink in. There is a language that needed a word for that. There is a people who understood greatness and man well enough to need that word. Certainly it is “easy” to see why that title was bestowed upon Mohandas K Gandhi, but it was so supremely applied to him that most people forget he had another name.
If you’ve never seen the film where a British knight portrays the little man who pulled the final lynch pin from British Imperialism, I highly recommend it. Certainly there is plenty more to read of Gandhi, but the film does much to capture many facets and Sir Ben Kingsley is truly a phenomenal actor. To summarize, Gandhi led non-violent protests against British rule and then called for a halt to the revolution because Britain was at war with true evil. He resumed the non-violent protests and brought the English empire to a place where it could not continue to claim any right to lands that were not theirs. He was murdered by a devotee of his own religion for trying to maintain peace with devotees of another religion. He was murdered for seeking peace. His greatest friend and his sons fought against the execution of the man who shot Gandhi 3 times in the chest at a religious function, because Gandhi himself would have been shamed by the execution of anyone in his name.
I got sidetracked, back to the point.
I would elevate him and hold that Charlie Chaplin be addressed as Mahatma as well.
There are a great many stories of Charlie Chaplin, but let us start with the popular ones. He was a founding member of the United Artists distribution company which was brought into being by a group of actors and actresses to free them from the whim and power of the major studios. It allowed artists a huge amount of control and autonomy over their work and yielded films that were so far outside the scope of traditional cinema, that many were abject failures, but it was also the source of great gems of film history. So much so that Chaplin returned to the US in 1972 to receive an Academy award for “the incalculable effect he has had in making motion pictures the art form of this century” and a 12 minute standing ovation. He hadn’t been to the United States since he was denied re-entry in 1952. Yes, he was barred from entering onto US soil, in large part for making fun of Adolf Hitler.
In 1939 he released his first film with speech. It was called “The Great Dictator.” Although he said the Little Tramp would not be in the film, the protagonist was so close that the Tramp’s reputation was on the line. He also wrote, directed, produced and scored the movie. He also funded the movie with his own $1,500,000.00 dollars. Adjusted for inflation, that is $25,151,330.94 in ‘2013’ dollars. Years later he apologized for the humor as more of the atrocities were revealed, but in reality it is what the world needed then as it is what the world needs now. It is not an insult to the Jews, but a call to action. If you cannot recite at least two lines from the final speech, you need to watch it or watch it again.
In addition to this direct and political statement, there is the entirety of his life. He was a force for film. United Artists was a force for freedom. Some movies are terrible and meaningless, but so is some art. Some claim art cannot be humor. Some claim art cannot be photographs. Some claim art cannot be film. Art is a selective reproduction of reality that reveals a deeper truth that the artist wishes to share. There are some great truths in Chaplin’s work. There is a magic and a joy that comes through even though he puts his characters in terrible situations. There is an optimism that cannot be conveyed by words. All comedy aside there are lessons here.
In many ways he was a real life “Patch Adams.” He made silent uplifting films from the time the First World War began until he saw the beginning of the 2nd World War. He broke the silence to tell us of discrimination and dictators. He raised his voice to scream for democracy and participation and the duty to one’s self that is a duty to everyone. He brought humor to it with a purpose. A man lived to see both world wars and his gift to us was a warning and a cry for peace. When you remember the most famous silent actor, remember his cry for peace. He paid for his soapbox after building an industry to the point that it had THE soapbox of the world. Whatever his goals were when he built the film industry, this is what he chose to do with it in the end.
If ever there was a signature of a great soul, this is it. This is the same cry of Mohandas K. Gandhi. This is the cry that was then echoed by Nelson Mandela and eventually Martin Luther King Jr. Each of those men spent their lives building a soapbox and risked or sacrificed everything to cry out for peace. Charlie Chaplin is no less. He is in fact, the first to get to the point where he had the position, power and character to scream. Gandhi was the first to start and in many ways his fight was harder and even more successful, but they are both Great Souls.
So, the next time you hear of or see “The Little Tramp,” remember also “That strange little brown man Gandhi” as he was referred to in books written during his lifetime. A Great Soul transcends such little things as race and size and time.. A Great Soul is universal and important. A Great Soul is immortal and timeless.