A critical masterpiece, Gandhi is an intriguing story about activism, politics, religious tolerance and freedom. But at the center of it all is an extraordinary man who fought for a nonviolent, peaceful existence, and set an entire nation free. Winner of 8 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Richard Attenborough) and Best Actor (Sir Ben Kingsley), Gandhi’s highly acclaimed cast also includes Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, Sir John Gielgud, Roshan Seth and Martin Sheen.
eyelights: Ben Kingsley. the adaptation. the cinematography.
eyesores: its daunting length.
“When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always.”
‘Gandhi’ is a 1982 motion picture based on the life of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the Indian lawyer and political leader who led his country to independence through groundbreaking non-violent uncooperation against the British. The film was a massive critical success, being nominated for and earning a large number of awards (including eight statuettes out of eleven at the 55th Academy Awards).
I was first exposed to ‘Gandhi’ at the time, at the age of ten, but could not really grasp its significance back then. In fact, its daunting length (it’s a three-hour picture!) was more than I could handle and I never made it through the whole thing. But I knew that I would have to see it in full someday – it’s one of those films that is essential viewing for a variety of reasons.
Frankly, there is no way that I can do justice to this movie, let alone to this man’s life. It would be foolish to even try: aside for a general understanding of Mohandas Gandhi’s place in history, I had no knowledge of the finer points until now, having never explored his life in any way before (it’s nothing against Gandhi – I am simply not a history buff). I can’t discuss the content in any credible way.
The filmmakers themselves understood how impossible it was to even try to capture a whole man’s life in a few hours, especially that of a man who was as active as Gandhi was and who has had such a profound effect. They began the picture with a short disclaimer to that effect, telling its audience that there was no way to “give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime.”
And yet, amazingly enough, Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ manages to appear balanced and even. Unlike ‘Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom‘, at no point do we get the impression that huge chunks were taken out of his life story – even though we skip years at a time in many instances. Somehow, the filmmakers managed to make the 50 years’ worth of events flow in such a way that the story never faltered.
It begins with Gandhi’s assassination, on January 30, 1948, recreating his funeral in such detail that one can’t help but be awe-struck by the work that must have been put into coordinating hundreds of thousands of people – this was made before CGI, after all. There were seas of people amassed for these sequences: the long shots are filled with crowds. It truly is an impressive sight to behold. And it’s merely a recreation.
Then the picture takes us back to South Africa, in 1893, at an event that changed Gandhi’s life: being subjected to racism by a train conductor and some passengers and getting thrown off the train – despite having a first class ticket and being a recognized solicitor. This is shown to be the catalyst for a change in his world view, after which he would risk his life to defend Indian rights.
It’s from this moment that he developed passive resistance, starting with opposing South African laws which required non-Caucasians to carry papers. He would go on to put together a community in which everyone would participate in each task, eschewing his former wealth and status for a more humble way of life. He began to attract attention outside of South Africa, adding pressure on its government.
He was jailed, but he eventually won concessions from the government. I was impressed by the fact that he gathered support from outside the country, from people of all races and creeds; his principles and approach drew similar-minded folks to him. I was also pleasantly surprised that he embraced various religions, that he didn’t seem to put one above another – this open-mindedness is all too rare.
He eventually went back to India and decided to reacquaint himself with the country before gradually expanding his political activism there. Over the course of thirty years, he did all he could to ease poverty for Indians, end discrimination on many levels and build bridges between peoples before eventually leading the country to self-rule. Through his non-violent protests, he was able to drive the British out of India.
A friend of mine is of Indian origin and understandably idolizes Gandhi and the values that he upheld. She has seen ‘Gandhi’ on multiple occasions, but has always decried the use of a Caucasian actor in the lead. In fact, it is was our many discussions on the subject that has lead me to re-watch the picture (along with ‘The Millionairess‘, ‘The Party‘ and ‘A Passage to India‘). I wanted some perspective on the matter.
It is true that there could have been an Indian actor to play the part. However, Kingsley acquits himself so well as the titular hero that it’s hard to argue the casting decision – he might very well be the best actor to have auditioned for the part. And, truth be told, Kingsley is of Indian heritage and was actually born Krishna Pandit Bhanji. So, although he is (ironically) British, he may have been the perfect choice.
His performance is outstanding. Although I naturally can’t speak to the accuracy of his portrayal, he was superb as playing the various nuances of Gandhi’s personality and was entirely able to transition the character from an eager 24-year-old to a wizened 79-year-old. It’s not just a question of make-up, either – his whole body language was adapted to represent the various stages of Gandhi’s life.
It obviously helps that Kingsley looked the part: he didn’t need much assistance from make-up or prosthetics to morph into the man. But it required some serious acting skills to disappear in the part and convey it with dignity and accuracy. It could easily have turned out as in the Mandela movie, where the performance was superb, but at no time were we convinced that we were seeing the man as he was then.
The performances in ‘Gandhi’ are terrific all around: frankly, I think that the casting director(s) should have been recognized for the work on this picture – they surrounded Kingsley with equally capable actors. Heck, even the less stellar actors (like Martin Sheen, who’s congenial, but a bit soft) and the bit parts support the material well enough. And with the size of this cast, it’s amazing that no weak links were inadvertently introduced.
I’m also wholly impressed with the quality of the picture: Attenborough had only made a handful of films by then, and the sheer scope of this ambitious project would have felled many other filmmakers. In fact, a motion picture based on Gandhi’s life had been attempted or considered by many others (including none other than David Lean) through the years, but it never managed to get made; something always stalled the projects.
Attenborough not only managed to put it together (it took many years, however: he reportedly began in the late sixties!), but he made an articulate, beautiful film out of it. Admittedly, India is an incredibly photogenic country, but Attenborough made even the most impoverish areas eye-catching, and coordinated throngs of people to (seemingly) accurately recreate events that hadn’t been seen in decades.
The fact that these filmmakers were able to condense Gandhi’s life into three faithful and intelligible hours is impressive enough, but to have executed it so brilliantly is really something – everything came together so perfectly, something that not all bio-dramas can boast. I can’t say that I will feel compelled to watch this epic on a regular basis, but it’s a noteworthy picture and it truly deserves to be seen.
Much like Gandhi deserves to be remembered.
Date of viewing: August 4, 2014