HIS TRIUMPH CHANGED THE WORLD FOREVER.
Richard Attenborough knows his epics and I bet he’s watched Lawrence of Arabia (1962) more than once. In similar fashion, this film opens with Mahatma Gandhi’s untimely death in 1948 and then goes on to tell his story from the beginning – not his birth but the moment when his journey to greatness started. What follows is a grandly shot three-hour long experience that would make David Lean proud. After the premiere of the film, Attenborough would be better known as a filmmaker than an actor.
We first meet Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) on the day of his assassination. As he’s hit by several bullets he utters the words “Oh, God”. His funeral is attended by dignitaries from all over the world, including Britain, the country he spent so much time fighting. We are subsequently transported to 1893 when the young Gandhi, then an attorney working in South Africa, is thrown off a train for refusing to remove himself from the first-class compartment. He has a ticket, but not the right skin color. The incident infuriates the well-educated, soft-spoken Indian who begins a non-violent campaign for the rights of Indians in South Africa. He is beaten and arrested on several occasions. However, the crux of his resistance, to let the police be responsible for any violence, is beginning to have an effect and the South African government eventually grants Indians their rights.
Gandhi returns to India in 1915 and is persuaded to try the same strategy on the British rulers. At first, they dismiss him but are stunned to see Gandhi and his new-found allies in the country build an effective and sensible opposition, with one major priority: Liberate India from colonial rule.
An explosive breakthrough
The second half of the film follows a similar path to Lawrence of Arabia; the protagonist is horrified to watch the masses turn on each other, igniting violence between Muslims and Hindus. Unlike the case with Lawrence, Attenborough and writer John Briley have a hard time finding controversy in Gandhi’s life (perhaps his views tend to dominate the lives of his loved ones too much, but that’s it), but the man’s achievements and the success of his philosophy are overwhelming. However, Briley emphasizes the many disastrous, arrogant mistakes of the British leadership that made Gandhi’s victory inevitable, such as the horrible 1919 Amritsar Massacre.
Kingsley delivers a performance that became an explosive breakthrough; his appearance is almost eerie due to the physical similarity to Gandhi. Attenborough has gathered an impressive supporting cast, but the focus lies entirely on the protagonist; everyone else gets a few scenes with Kingsley, but no one is allowed to steal scenes. The filmmakers make the most out of the Indian locations, with beautiful views of the country accompanied by Ravi Shankar’s music.
Authenticity is an important part of the film; the story stays largely true to Gandhi’s life. But it is clear that Attenborough also wanted to deliver a film that would remind audiences of the old-fashioned epics of yesteryear. This is a spectacle meant to enthrall viewers for an entire evening; there’s even an intermission.
What lies at the heart of Gandhi, except for Kingsley’s performance, is the humanity of Richard Attenborough. He addressed racism in Cry Freedom (1987), but it’s easy to forget that Gandhi itself was also an attack on the South African apartheid regime. Some might say that Attenborough was far too conventional a filmmaker… but his passion shone through.
Gandhi 1982-Britain-India. 188 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by Richard Attenborough. Screenplay: John Briley. Cinematography: Billy Williams, Ronnie Taylor. Editing: John Bloom. Music: George Fenton, Ravi Shankar. Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mohandas K. Gandhi), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills… Martin Sheen, Nigel Hawthorne, Om Puri, Daniel Day-Lewis.
Trivia: Alec Guinness, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins were allegedly considered for the part of Gandhi.
Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor (Kingsley), Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design. BAFTA: Best Film, Direction, Actor (Kingsley), Supporting Actress (Rohini Hattangadi). Golden Globes: Best Foreign Film, Director, Actor (Kingsley), Screenplay.
Last word: “I don’t like the technical advances in cinema. I always find that with CGI there’s something lacking because the eye actually takes in the repetition. The truth of the fact is that we used 400,000 people in [the funeral scene], and I do think it had an extraordinary impact on the screen. I don’t enjoy people saying to me, ‘Oh you can now do it this way now’. I want it to be real. […] I was brought up in the David Lean era. I haven’t altered my style over the years. I haven’t moved greatly forward with the impact of television editing and such. Perhaps I should have. Composition is very important to me. Time spent on a piece of composition, as it was with David Lean, is one of the things that gives me joy.” (Attenborough, Time Out)