BR Ambedkar Death Anniversary: When Baba Saheb Gave the 'Take Clap' for His Friend's Film on Phule in 1954

As we approach the solemn occasion of his death anniversary on 6th December, it's fitting to reflect on a lesser-known yet poignant chapter in his life. Beyond his pivotal role in shaping the Indian Constitution and championing the cause of social justice, there exists a heartfelt moment when Baba Saheb bestowed his applause on a cinematic tribute to his revered mentor, Mahatma Phule.
From the set-Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil, Babasahab Ambedkar, Mai Ambedkar, Baburao Pendharkar (as Jyotirao Phule) . Prahalad Keshav Atre (Standing)
From the set-Karmaveer Bhaurao Patil, Babasahab Ambedkar, Mai Ambedkar, Baburao Pendharkar (as Jyotirao Phule) . Prahalad Keshav Atre (Standing)

Mumbai- The film titled "Mahatma Phule" had its Mahurat or inauguration on 4th January 1954 in Bombay, with Baba Pundarkar in the lead role. It was produced and directed by Acharya Prahlad Keshav Atre, a filmmaker and a friend of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The titular role of "Mahatma Jyotiba Rao Phule" was played by Baburao Phendharkar, a veteran Marathi actor, while Sulochana played the role of his wife Savitri Bai Phule.

However, the film could not be released but managed to win the prestigious President’s Silver Medal for Best Feature Film (Marathi) at the 2nd National Film Awards. Speaking to the Mooknayak, Pravin Tayade, filmmaker, and producer of "Satyashodhak," another Marathi film produced on the life of Mahatma Jyotiba Rao Phule, says, "The film had good art, direction, music, costumes, and good acting by the actors; it was a national award-winning film. Somehow the film could not be released, and the prints of the film are with Doordarshan and the National Film Archives Museum, Pune."

A Marathi director, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said, "It is believed that there was a lot of pressure on the film as it had an anti-Brahmin element." The film also featured Sant Gadge Maharaj and is probably the only video featuring the great social reformer. Other luminaries who appeared in the film were Prabodhankar Thackeray, father of Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray, and grandfather of former Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray. Karamvir Bhaurao Patil, an educationist and social reformer, also makes an appearance and narrates the film.

Dr Ambedkar wrote a letter to his friend and  film maker praising the movie.
Dr Ambedkar wrote a letter to his friend and film maker praising the movie.

Ambedkar and Cinema: Little that is known

Dr. Savita Ambedkar, who was invited for the screening of the film along with Ambedkar, notes in 'Baba Saheb: My Life with Dr. Ambedkar,' "Once the film was ready, Atre also invited us for its premiere. Saheb was completely overwhelmed when he saw the movie. As he saw it, he remembered Mahatma Phule’s work and sacrifice and wept. After the movie was over, he patted Pendharkar on the back for his excellent performance and congratulated Atre too. Not satisfied with this, he wrote a letter to Atre, lavishing praises on him and wishing the movie success."

The letter he wrote, as mentioned by Savita Ambedkar, read: "I have had the pleasure of seeing 'Jyotiba Fule.' I must say it is an excellent film, both from the point of view of the subject matter and its display."

A still from the film
A still from the film

However, not much is known about Ambedkar’s views on cinema. The contemporary cinema of his time was at a nascent stage, and people then were more inclined to spend time reading books, especially people like Ambedkar, who had other priorities. Nevertheless, his writings have passing references to films. For example, he has lambasted the portrayal of Sant Eknath as a Mahatma in "A Reply to Mahatma," a text added to Appendix II of his bestselling book "Annihilation of Caste." He writes, "...even the saint Eknath who now figures in the film 'Dharmatma' as a hero for having shown courage to touch the untouchables and dine with them, did so not because he was opposed to Caste and Untouchability but because he felt that the pollution caused thereby could be washed away by a bath in the sacred waters of the river Ganges."

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