Richard Attenborough’s 1982 biopic of Mahatma Gandhi is an epic in the true sense; over three hours in length, filled with stunning location photography of the Indian landscape, a stellar cast and crowd scenes that use hundreds of thousands of extras, the film reaped a suitably epic harvest of 8 Academy awards including Best Actor (Ben Kingsley) and Best Director (Richard Attenborough). The film covers Gandhi’s life from his arrival in South Africa in 1893, through to his assassination in Delhi in 1948, and in telling the Mahatma’s own story, it tells the tale of India’s struggle for freedom from colonial rule from 1915 onward.
The story is told by expanding on a selection of key events in his life, a series of individual tableaux spread over 55 years. The first part of the film examines Gandhi’s long struggle to force the South African government to end discrimination against Asians. In the early scenes, the young lawyer Mohandas K Gandhi seems naive, apparently surprised to discover that he and other non-whites are treated as second class citizens, something which seems to him at odds with his perception of the British Empire as a source of enlightenment in the world.
The struggle that follows sees Gandhi and his fellow dissenters develop formidable notions of civil disobedience and non-violent resistance against a regime that seems more than happy to resort to brutality or incarceration to maintain the social order. The second, much longer section begins in 1915 with Gandhi’s return to India – by then an unfamiliar country to him after 20 years abroad. As he is driven through the back streets of Bombay soon after arrival, he is deeply affected by the scenes of poverty he witnesses. At a later garden party, he is introduced to other major characters around whom the film – and the independence movement – revolve;
Pandit Nehru, Sardar Patel and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. The film picks up on the seminal moments in the independence struggle, one of the most shocking perhaps being the Amritsar massacre of 1919, in which the cold blooded – and apparently unhinged – General Reginald Dyer (chillingly portrayed by Edward Fox) ordered his troops to fire on a meeting of unarmed civilians at Jallianwalla Bagh, an enclosed courtyard close to the Golden temple in the Old City, resulting in 400 deaths and 1500 injured. The event is depicted as the point at which the Colonial rulers lost any perceived right to claim moral advantage.
After Jallianwalla Bagh the pace of the film picks up, with the march toward partition and independence an apparently back to back sequence of events such as the Dandi salt march, and political movements such as “homespun”; Gandhi’s exhortation for Indians to weave their own cloth, rather than buy that woven in British mills. Events are interspersed by various periods of imprisonment at the hands of the British, and the introduction of other characters such as the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who in real life provided some of the most memorable images of Gandhi.
The actual achievement of Independence itself is almost a footnote in the film, smeared as it is with the blood and violence of partition, on which Attenborough spends a good deal of time, with memorable scenes of lines of refugees fleeing in opposing directions across the new borders between India and Pakistan. The movie ends where it begins; with Gandhi’s assassination and the extraordinary funeral procession on Rajpath. Mahatma Gandhi is undoubtedly a legend; a towering moral force and one of those very few figures of the 20th century whose universal message and contribution to humanity transcends the events that made him famous.
U. S. Secretary of State George C. Marshall said of him, “Mahatma Gandhi has become the spokesman for the conscience of all mankind. He was a man who made humility and simple truth more powerful than Empires. ” In revisiting the lives of such figures, actors and directors walk on eggshells, yet Ben Kingsley seems entirely successful in negotiating a potential minefield with his superb portrayal of Gandhi, and it is this that really brings the film to life.
While the physical resemblance is remarkable, it is the characterisation, with its attention to detail and mannerism, which make Kingsley seem so believable in the role. In producing films that cover such a long period of history, it is hard to put events in their proper context and proportion, and if the film has a major flaw it is perhaps that there is little real sense of the passage of time, or of the true historical juxtaposition of events, with incidents that actually took place years apart shown as almost back to back.
Gandhi’s insistence on wearing traditional Indian dress and shaving his head made this all the harder, leaving the make up people little option to age Kingsley but a greying moustache, a few wrinkles and a walking stick. The supporting cast reads like a who’s who of the top rank the early 80’s film industry; Sir John Geilgud, Saeed Jaffrey, Candice Bergen, Roshan Seth, Martin Sheen, Sir John Mills and a host of other well known faces.
Attenborough secured what must be almost unprecedented cooperation from the Government of India, and this allowed what for me must be one of the most memorable recreations ever filmed. Gandhi’s funeral procession on Rajpath in New Delhi is simply stunning, using as it did 300,000 extras, 200,000 of whom were volunteers. Some aerial shots show the full length of Rajpath filled with humanity back as far as the secretariat, with various closer shots of the funeral procession and the immense crowds in a truly moving and emotional scene.
It’s a shame only two minutes of this made it into the final movie. The real uncredited star of the film is India itself. From the street scenes of the Bombay slums to the arid landscapes of Gujarat, the film’s superb photography and direction conjure up a realistic and majestic India that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has visited the country, largely avoiding the stereotypical and romanticised confections so beloved of Hollywood or Bollywood. Whatever the may film lack in historical accuracy it makes up for in overall sentiment.
Attenborough has crafted a work of both epic scale and great detail that offers a sympathetic, convincing and accessible version of Gandhi as both man and myth, while telling one of the great stories of a nation’s emancipation from tyranny. A truly great movie, and a must watch for anyone visiting India. Woody, February 2006.