Exchanging Notes

A documentary made by two Russian filmmakers on the interactions between Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi was screened at the BRICS Film Festival.

Written by Pooja Khati | Updated: October 11, 2016 12:01 am
documentary, russian documentary, russian filmmakers, Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi leo tolstoy. BRICS, BRICS film festival, indian express talk Anna (left) and Galina Evtushenko

Before he passed away in 1910, literary legend Leo Tolestoy began correspondence through letters with a young Indian lawyer in 1909, who was fighting against apartheid in South Africa. In this almost year-long correspondence, Tolstoy managed to have a great impact on the political and philosophical ideology of this Indian youth named Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.

The interaction between the two, which included exchanging ideas on philosophy, religion and politics, is the point of focus of the documentary Leo Tolstoy and Mahatma Gandhi-A Double Portrait in the Interior of the Age made by Russian documentary filmmaker pair Anna and Galina Evtushenko. The film was screened at BRICS Film Festival, which concluded last month in Delhi.

The 54-minute documentary, which has archival footage of Tolstoy with his family at Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy’s family home), shows Gandhi interacting with his followers and pre-independent India, in turn weaving a narrative around the two stalwarts. It follows the idea that in spite of never meeting and living in two different geographical areas, Tolstoy and Gandhi were united in their belief that independence can be gained only through non-violent and peaceful resistance.

“There are some places connected with Mahatma Gandhi in Moscow. He is a popular figure in our country and the new generation has to know what is the philosophy of Gandhi, what he struggled for and what is non-violence. Of course, we have a strong educational message too,” says 50-year-old Galina, who has made three documentaries on Tolstoy before this with Anna. The Moscow-based filmmaker is the member of Russian Filmmaker’s Union and International Association for Cinema Educators.

Tolstoy had his first encounter with the Indian philosophy of ahimsa at 19. He had hurt himself when he was in college and his hospital bed was next to that of a Buddhist lama, who told Tolstoy about Buddha’s philosophy of non-violence. Years later when he was serving in the Russian army during the Crimean war, he saw Indian soldiers who were fighting for the British. He was appalled at the way they were being treated by their English commanders. And in 1908 he wrote a letter titled “A Letter to a Hindu” to Indian scholar Tarak Nath Das, testimony of the fact that he firmly believed in the philosophy of non-violence, which was published in the newspaper Free Hindustan. It was this letter that prompted Mahatma Gandhi in 1909 to write to Tolstoy for permission to reprint it in Indian Opinion, a newspaper owned by him in South Africa. “A Letter to a Hindu” was instrumental in shaping Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha.

Though Tolstoy used the power of pen to bring reforms in his country, and Gandhi was at the forefront of the Indian independence, the former’s actions were often subconsciously replicated by the latter as he strived for peace and independence. Tolstoy’s act of writing a letter to Pyotr Stolypin, the then Prime Minister of Russia, criticising his style of working, was something which Gandhi emulated when he sent a letter to Adolf Hitler asking him to prevent the Second World War.

“This film gave us an opportunity to know who Gandhi was and what he wanted. And it was a way to make everyone think. Right now there is blood and war everywhere. Gandhi told us about peace and did a lot for it. People also want peace, not wars. The meaning of this film is very important,” says Galina, whose next film will be on Russian poet Alexander Sergeyevich Pushkin.