"Traitor!" - What One of Nehru's Biographers Said about Dr. Ambedkar to Kenneth Griffith, the First Documentarian on Baba Saheb

Dalit History Month: While Ava Duverney’s film ' Origin' came at a time when Ambedkar had been exalted as the top political figure; "The Untouchable - The Life of Babasaheb Ambedkar" was made in 1996, at a time when Bahujan politics was evolving and Ambedkar was barely known outside the small Bahujan circle and intelligentsia, despite being awarded the Bharat Ratna posthumously in 1990.
A video still featuring Kenneth Griffith in the documentary- The Untouchable - The Life of Babasaheb.
A video still featuring Kenneth Griffith in the documentary- The Untouchable - The Life of Babasaheb.

In 1996, amidst a time when the legacy of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar was yet to fully permeate global consciousness, Kenneth Griffith, a distinguished actor and documentary filmmaker, embarked on a groundbreaking journey.

His endeavor resulted in "The Untouchable - The Life of Babasaheb," a seminal documentary shedding light on the extraordinary life of the man hailed as the architect of the Indian Constitution.

While contemporary Hollywood productions like Ava DuVernay's "Origin" have recently brought Ambedkar to the international stage, Griffith's documentary stands as a pioneering work that delves into the profound impact of Ambedkar's struggles against caste discrimination and his pivotal role in shaping India's social and political landscape.

FABO, UK had helped Kenneth in the making of the film. Arun Kumar, who engaged with Griffith while making the film told The Mooknayak.

Griffith's narrative unfolds against the backdrop of archival footage and poignant re-enactments, capturing pivotal moments from Ambedkar's life journey. From his relentless advocacy for the rights of the marginalized to his clashes with Mahatma Gandhi over issues of social justice, the documentary offers a comprehensive exploration of Ambedkar's multifaceted legacy.

However, the path to bringing this visionary project to fruition was fraught with challenges. Overcoming bureaucratic hurdles and political sensitivities, Griffith's unwavering determination and collaboration with organizations like FABO, UK, ultimately paved the way for the documentary's realization.

As we revisit this landmark production, we not only celebrate Griffith's cinematic tribute to Ambedkar but also recognize the enduring relevance of his message in championing equality and social justice across the globe.

Making Of The Film: 'The Untouchable - The Life of Babasaheb Ambedkar

Kenneth Griffith was a renowned actor who acted in 80 films and also a world-class documentary filmmaker. He also dabbled in activism and protested against the wrongs done by nations, society, corporations, etc. This interest impelled him to make documentaries on subjects which were contentious.

The circumstances through which Kenneth came to know about Ambedkar were quite serendipitous and ironical. He was invited by Mrs Indira Gandhi to make a film on India’s first Prime Minister, Jawahar Lal Nehru. Unfortunately, she was assassinated.

After some time, Rajiv Gandhi asked him to make a film on Nehru to coincide with his birth centenary in 1989. Kenneth made a documentary film ‘But I have Promises to Keep’ on the life of Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru.

He spent two and a half years in India making the film. It was during that period that he found the statue of Dr Ambedkar mostly in or near the localities of Dalits. “Whose statue is this?” asked a curious Kenneth. ‘Dr Ambedkar,’ came the answer from somebody in the audience; while, One of the biographers of Pandit Nehru who accompanied him said he was a ‘traitor.’ “A traitor! and he is so venerated by the people,” wondered the filmmaker. ”

This incident aroused a curiosity to know more about Ambedkar. He was also intrigued to see the statues of Dr Ambedkar dotting villages and urban areas dominated by the marginalized people. He was intrigued by the love and devotion shown to him by the poorest of the poor people.

After reading about the life and struggles of Ambedkar, he was convinced that his life story should be told to the people of the World. David Elstein of Thames Television suggested that, drawing upon his time and experience in India, Griffith makes a film about the Untouchables.”

This film received support in India from many sources. The script was written, studio and crew engaged, but after weeks of dithering, on 25 January 1989. Kenneth Griffith was told he would not get a visa to return to India to make this second film.

It is worth noting that one needs government permission to make a film in India. Indian intellectuals were shocked but powerless. The Thames TV withdrew the investment and the project was shelved.

It was during this period that Kenneth came into contact with FABO, UK during this period when a meeting was called in London to discuss the modalities of the Ambedkar Centenary celebrations.

Arun Kumar of the FABO, UK told the Mooknayak “This meeting was attended by late Mr. Bhagwan Dass, Richard Houser, Kenneth Griffith, Dr. William Stone, many dignitaries and numerous followers of Ambedkarites from all over the UK. Arun recalls Bhagwan Dass suggesting setting up some sort of institute to research on Dr Ambedkar, arrange lectures and seminars so that people in the Western World were able to get familiar with the philosophy and struggle of Ambedkar and also the plight of his people. Everybody accepted his idea and International Ambedkar Institute was set up and Kenneth Griffiths became a member and served as a Chair later.”

To continue to complete his dream project on Ambedkar, Kenneth asked FABO members if they could be helpful. On 5 June 1989, the Ambedkar Centenary Celebration committee, UK (ACCUK) set up by the FABO UK passed a resolution in its General Body meeting appreciating Kenneth Griffith’s initiative to make a film on Dr Ambedkar and requested the Government of India to give a visa to the film crew.

For this purpose, FABO, UK took a deputation to the Indian High Commission (IHC) in London. Keeping in view the objections raised by the Indian Film Producers Association, IHC told that the government of India had decided that no foreigner would be allowed to make a film in India on any Indian subject.

Thames TV withdrew money allocated and the project was shelved. But Kenneth was so passionate about this film that he pledged to complete it before he died.

Arun Kumar recalls “Kuldip Nayyar was appointed as a new Indian High Commissioner. FABO, UK again met the High Commissioner. He was sympathetic but he also showed his inability as the subject was too sensitive. He suggested changing a subject matter a little here and there and get a visa.”

Kumar adds “BBC agreed to finance the film but not on that scale as offered by Thames TV.

On April 1995, the BBC crew went to India to film the unveiling of Ambedkar statue at Valod, District Surat in Gujarat State by the then Vice President of India, K.R. Narayanan.

Two FABO UK members Sohan Lal Gindha and C. Gautam accompanied the BBC team. They provided them with logistical support and ensured that they access to the sites, where they want to produce the film.

‘The Untouchable’ was finally shown on BBC 2 which was widely appreciated.

As the nation celebrate the 133rd birth anniversary of Baba Saheb Bhim Rao Ambedkar, this April, the first film that took Ambedkar to international audience is a must-watch.

Kenneth devises a unique narrative style to tell the life story of Ambedkar and ends up making the film a mix of docu-drama and a documentary with Kenneth himself acting out the parts.
Kenneth devises a unique narrative style to tell the life story of Ambedkar and ends up making the film a mix of docu-drama and a documentary with Kenneth himself acting out the parts.

Crafting the Narrative: Kenneth Griffith's Approach to Portraying Dr. Ambedkar

The 51-minute duration documentary opens with former President K.R. Narayanan (then vice-president) unveiling a memorial in the name of Dr Ambedkar in the presence of Griffith himself.

Kenneth devises a unique narrative style to tell the life story of Ambedkar and ends up making the film a mix of docu-drama and a documentary with Kenneth himself acting out the parts.

Most of the film has Griffith’s narration in the background of archived black and white and color footage. Kenneth, who also distinguished himself as an actor in British movies, makes his appearance throughout the documentary acting as and invoking Ambedkar on the screen.

Griffith films crucial places where Ambedkar spent his significant days and waged battle against the caste system, be it the Damodar hall, where Ambedkar started the Marathi weekly Bahishkrit Bharat, or Mahad water tank in Pune, where he launched satyagraha against the denial of water drinking rights to untouchables in that era.

“If you say that your Hindu religion is our religion, then your rights and ours must be equal,” says Kenneth quoting Ambedkar while himself standing at the Mahad Chowdar Tank. A striking irony to be noticed in the documentary is that Kenneth Griffith, a westerner himself, wears Indian clothes, whereas Ambedkar had a penchant for western clothes despite being an Indian.

The film traverses through Ambedkar’s struggle against the caste system - from the evidence to the Simon Commission to his direct conflict with Gandhi at the historic Round Table Conference.

Griffith steers clear of indicting Gandhi for his opposition to Separate Electorate. “It was not that Gandhi had no sympathy for the untouchables; he had even deep sympathy, but he was putting the independence of India from Britain before everything else,” says the actor-director quoting Gandhi, where he declared that he will fight for the right of untouchables after the British have left.

Griffith adroitly documents the Round Table Conference of 1932 and the subsequent confrontation between Gandhi and Ambedkar over the communal award of Separate electorate to the untouchable community, which the latter managed to exact from the Britishers. In this electorate, only people from a particular community can participate in an election.

Griffith's demeanor is that of a fervid storyteller who acts out all the parts himself. He tries to conjure up the emotions of the figures he is acting out, reflecting the experience in theatre that he had in his initial acting career. “The positive danger of being called the killer of Gandhi and the inevitable killings of untouchables that would ensue, Dr Ambedkar capitulated and renounced the greatest possible achievement of his life’s work,” sums up the narration about signing of the Poona Pact by Ambedkar yielding to Gandhi’s demand of giving up a separate electorate.

Navigating through Ambedkar’s subsequent journey, the documentary credits Gandhi for recommending Ambedkar as the Chairperson of the drafting committee - a disputed fact contested by many of his followers. The documentary also explores Ambedkar’s confrontation with Congress on the Hindu Code Bill and his conversion to Buddhism.

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