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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

The Tramp’s spirit is immortal

The Tramp, who is turning 100 years old in a few days, is surely the most universally loved character in the history of modern culture

When I returned home on Tuesday afternoon from a 10-day foreign trip and switched on the TV, I was met with the extraordinary spectacle of a chief minister inciting a mob to break down police barricades at the geographical heart of India’s administrative system. In the days I had spent abroad, I was totally unaware of what was going on in the home country; in fact I had chosen to stay that way—I wanted to travel light. But now I was back, and all hell was as usual breaking loose, this time with the supposed aam aadmi on the rampage.

There’s enough debate on mainstream and social media going on about the rights, wrongs and repercussions of Arvind Kejriwal’s anarchist politics, and I believe that as someone who came in so late in the drama, I shouldn’t blather about it. So what follows will be dubbed by many of you as irrelevant, or at the very least escapist. I humbly accept those allegations in advance. I had, after all, escaped for 10 days.

On 7 February 1914, almost exactly 100 years ago, the most iconic aam aadmi in history made his debut on cinema screens. On that day, Kid Auto Races at Venice, a six-minute short, was released, featuring an unknown British comedian dressed in an undersized hat and jacket, oversized shoes and trousers. Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp.

Kid Auto Races (available on YouTube) is hardly funny. It has a single gag—the Tramp getting in the way of a camera crew trying to shoot a children’s toy car race in Venice, California—which is repeated over and over again. But, watching it today, one is struck by the basic premise. The Tramp insists on blocking the camera crew’s view of the races, even though he is cajoled, argued with, pushed away, kicked to the ground. Periodically, he cocks his eyebrows at the real camera (the one shooting Chaplin’s film) to indicate his satisfaction at having been able to subvert a fun event for rich families. The camera crew—his target—thinks he is just a supremely irritating idiot, but are flummoxed at how best to deal with this nuisance. Because every time he is shoved or kicked away, he comes back, insouciantly dignified, scratching a matchstick alight on the bum of his trousers and lighting a cigarette.

The Tramp is surely the most universally loved character in the history of modern culture. He is down and out at the bottom of the food chain, but his spirit is never bowed, or his pride sullied. He is cunning and often unscrupulous (In The Kid, he makes a living by getting the kid to smash windows and then turning up immediately afterwards as a window repair man), he is resourceful (the films are replete with instances of the Tramp using the means at hand to extricate himself from tricky situations), and he has the kindest heart, always ready to help the underdog, though he is often in no better situation than the person he fights for. In short, he is a noble man, always displaying immense grace under pressure—and the streetsmarts essential for his survival. Chaplin himself put it this way: “The whole point of the Little Fellow is that no matter how down on his ass he is, no matter how well the jackals succeed in tearing him apart, he’s still a man of dignity."

In his magisterial biography Chaplin: His Life and Art, by David Robinson described the Tramp as “everyman turned heroic saviour". A more interesting—and in today’s age, entirely politically incorrect—analysis came in 1917 from a young man called Ben Hecht, who would go on to become one of the greatest Hollywood screenwriters ever (quoted by Robinson): “He walks along carelessly, quietly, with an infinite philosophy!... He is absurd, unmanly, tawdry, cheap, artificial. And yet behind his crudities, his obscenities, his inartistic and outrageous contortions his ‘divinity’ shines. He is the Mob God. He is a child and a clown. He is a gutter snipe and an artist. He is the incarnation of the latent, imperfect and childlike genius that lies buried under the fibre-less flesh of his worshippers...He is the mob on two legs."

Hecht’s view may be seen today as condemnably elitist, but it cannot be just shrugged away with a sneer. The Tramp always manages to beat the odds and walks away into a glorious sunset at the end of the film, filling the hearts of his audience with cheer and optimism. But by the time he has succeeded in doing so, he has also channelled a great deal of anger in those same hearts through his antics and his upstaging of the rich and powerful. As Chaplin explained, “It is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule. Ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance; we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature–or go insane." Albert Camus echoed that tenet, more succinctly: “There is no fate on earth that is not insurmountable through scorn." The Tramp provided barrelfuls of scorn to the underdogs of the world—and nearly all of us are underdogs, in some way or the other. That, fundamentally, was the core of Chaplin’s genius and extraordinary appeal.

The Tramp, everyone’s everyman, will be 100 years old in a few days. And I can’t find any way other than to end with a cliché: his spirit is immortal.

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