As part of this year’s Being Human humanities festival, academics from the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) and the University of Bristol, have joined forces to form the Archive to Blockbuster four (A2BFour). During an evening event at Senate House on 21 November, the team will pitch four ideas for films in an attempt to show their audience how the stories they’ve unearthed during their research could form the basis of four powerful blockbuster movies and help create a more diverse film industry. Below, Dr Sumita Mukherjee discusses her pitch on Indian poet and politician Sarojini Naidu.
Bollywood, the Mumbai-based film industry, is the world’s largest and most prolific cinema factory. With 1,000 films produced annually, the genre of films produced range from action, comedy, farce, drama to historical. No Indian-born actor or actress has been nominated for an Academy Award. A handful of Indian films have been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film, but none have been nominated for Best Picture. The successes of recent films set in India such as Slumdog Millionaire or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel show that there is worldwide interest in Indian stories. There is scope for more films based on Indian historical subjects too.
The most famous, internationally-known, film with an Indian historical subject is Gandhi, directed by Richard Attenborough. In 1983, it was nominated for 11 Oscars, and won eight. Ben Kingsley, whose father is of Gujarati Indian descent, won an Oscar for his portrayal of Gandhi. Indian actress Tarla Mehta had the small role of playing Sarojini Naidu in Gandhi, but I believe she should have had a larger role.
Sarojini Naidu was a close political ally of Gandhi’s. They first met in London in 1914, following which Naidu, a Cambridge graduate and poet, became a vocal Indian nationalist. She was the first Indian woman to preside over the Indian National Congress (in 1925), accompanied Gandhi on his infamous salt march in 1930, and was arrested in 1930 and 1942 for her participation in nationalist activities.
Naidu was also an active campaigner for Indian female suffrage. She attended International Women’s Suffrage Alliance conferences in Geneva and Berlin, petitioned British MPs in London, and toured the United States, all to gather international support for Indian suffragists who were campaigning for the vote in the 1920s and 1930s. Her activities, alongside other Indian women, are a powerful corrective to the notion that the fight for female suffrage was a purely western phenomenon.
She was known as the Nightingale of India because of her lyrical expertise, and has had stamps issued with her image in India. In 2014 Google India produced a Google doodle of her image to celebrate what would have been her 135th birthday. She died in 1949.
The time is ripe for a biopic of Sarojini Naidu. Her varied life from young Cambridge student, to published poet, to ardent suffragist and nationalist while raising five children, should be celebrated more widely on screen. She was internationally connected, met with various world leaders and political activists, and was a famed orator. She has a rich personal archive. Her letters to her children and Gandhi offer a fascinating insight into Indian politics and international affairs of the time (a selection of her letters have been published, edited by Makarand Paranjape), she published three books of poetry, and delivered a wealth of speeches.
Although the film would start with a short prologue depicting Naidu as that young poet studying in Britain, the story would start in earnest in 1925 when she presided over Congress. Over the next ten years she was to travel the world, be imprisoned, and work tirelessly for Indian independence and Indian women’s rights. Of course Naidu did not work alone to achieve female suffrage or Indian independence. Any film would need to humanise her, to examine her foibles and acknowledge her compatriots.
In 1935, Indian women were awarded suffrage rights on the same terms as men. Men and women who owned certain property rights were allowed to vote. As so few Indian women owned property, the franchise was extended to the wives and widows of existing male voters, and literacy qualifications were introduced. Though Indian men and women would have to wait until 1949 to receive full adult suffrage, following Indian independence in 1947, Nightingale of India would finish with that remarkable victory in 1935.
Dr Sumita Mukherjee is a lecturer in the history of migration at the University of Bristol. She is the author of Nationalism, Education and Migrant Identities: The England-Returned (Routledge, 2010). Her book on Indian Suffragettes (with research funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) will be published in 2018.
TAGGED WITH: film, colonial history, history, Sarojini Naidu, India, women, suffrage, nationalism