What a nice day today is! Lara Dutta was born, that’s nice enough, but Charlie Chaplin! Who wasn’t an Indian artist in that he never made a film in India, but his influence on Indian film was so vast, he definitely belongs here.
Charlie Chaplin! Not a great guy, but not terrible. He started as a music hall performer, then got a movie contract with Essanay studios in Chicago where he developed his Tramp character, his film vision, and gathered together a group of regular players. And then he illegally broke the contract and moved everything out to Hollywood because he hated the Chicago winters (wimp!). We all know what happened after that, he created the Little Tramp character and revolutionized film both in front of and behind the cameras.
In the 1920s and 30s when Chaplin was king, India was colonized by the British, and by Hollywood. The local film industries struggled to get films made and then released while the British encouraged outside products in their theaters and import laws. Chaplin was as well known and popular in India as anywhere else. And his genius heavily influenced early Indian film. Raj Kapoor took that tramp character and added a bite and an anger to it in Awara and Shree 420. Chaplin’s Great Dictator persona does a little cameo in Sholay courtesy of Asrani’s jailer. Arguably no other Hollywood artist has had as much influence on Hindi film as Chaplin, as he inspired Raj Kapoor, who inspired everything else.
Charlie the person was a bit of a mixed bag. He was what today would be labeled a pedophile. But then things were different then. Yes, he was attracted to teenage girls, but without the social stigma that brings today, it is hard to tell how much he was attracted to them. Was it because they were young and pretty and available and easy? Or was it an attraction that would have been so strong it would overcome all barriers of law and society (as it would have to to exist today)?
He married his first wife (a bit player at the Hollywood studios) Mildred when she was 17 and he was 29, because she thought she was pregnant. But she wasn’t. They got divorced after a few years and two children. Second wife Lita Grey is the really scandalous one, they got married when he was 35 and she was 15 because she was pregnant and he wanted to avoid going to jail. Also, he had known her since she was 8, and first cast her as an adult woman in a film when she was 13. Hmm. Third wife Paulette Goddard, they moved in together when she was 22 and already divorced (she had married someone else at 17 and then divorced him), and Chaplin was 43. No children, no pregnancy, were happily together for 10 years, and then had a cheerful friendly divorce.
Fourth wife Oona Chaplin, the one that stuck. She was far younger than Chaplin’s own children, 17 when they met to his 53. She was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill, and one of the three most popular debutantes in America at the time (along with her best friends Gloria Vanderbilt and Carol Marcus, who went on to marry Walter Matheu, isn’t that interesting?). She and Chaplin fell in love hard and fast, and married one month after her 18th birthday against the wishes of her parents. They remained married until he died, and had 8 children together.
My favorite Chaplin story comes from Oona. Years after he died, she was on a plane with a friend and another passenger came up to her and asked if she was Chaplin’s widow, she said yes. And then the passenger asked “by the way, I always wondered, was he Jewish?” and she said “yes”. The passenger left and her friend turned to Oona and said “But, Charlie wasn’t Jewish, was he?” And Oona said “No, but he told me to always tell people yes if they asked.” Isn’t that an interesting celebrity decision? Instead of saying “no, not that there’s anything wrong with that” to say “yes” even if it is a lie? I wonder how many celebrities today would be brave enough to imitate him when asked if they were gay, or Muslim, or whatever else is currently demonized?
I only know Hindi film history and I am sure I am missing things. What Chaplin touches have you seen in Hindi films? Or in films from other languages?