The story is one that every school child should know to some degree; the life story (or at least the latter half) of Mohandas Gandhi, now known to the world as Mahatma Gandhi, Mahatma meaning 'Great Soul'. The story essentially starts in 1893 when Gandhi is working in South Africa where he's ejected from a train for travelling in the first class compartment even though he has a ticket allowing him to be there. Coloured people at that time, and indeed up until very recently in fact, had no choice but to sit in third class. This seems to stir him onwards, realising the injustice in society, he swears to do his best to change it. In some small fashion he does so and then returns to his native India.
On returning there he is welcomed as a hero and it is not long before the powers who wish for an independent India try to coerce him to their way of thinking. After journeying through his country he comes to the conclusion that the British Raj are responsible for the squalor and inhumanity in which his fellow people live. Paralleling his period in South Africa, he vows to do something to change this situation. What he had not expected though was that during such a transformation the Muslim and Hindu religious factions would wage war upon their own countrymen.
It has been said that Gandhi like any other historical feature does not accurately portray the life and times of this little bald man. To a degree this is true, however it's almost impossible to cover every aspect of a life story in such a short period of time. As Attenborough himself states at the opening of his feature...
"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling... least of all Gandhi's, whose passage through life was so entwined with his nation's struggle for freedom. There is no way to give each event its allotted weight, to recount the deeds and sacrifices of all the great men and women to whom he and India owe such immense debts. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record of his journey, and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man..."
This can be said of any movie based on a person's life, some accurately portray the events in question more than others; the issue is, as always, how much has been changed or what indeed has been left out? Critics of the facts often mention that the film does not cover Gandhi's early life when he fought for the British in the Boer war. They also complain that Gandhi is never shown for the somewhat tyrannical man that at times he certainly was. They indicate that because of these omissions the film has no real merit; how can it when it fails to show a so called man of peace fighting in a war? In this regard I feel they have missed the point somewhat, as it's more than apparent that Gandhi learned from his experiences, was never stagnant and always evolving. Yes he fought against what he thought was injustice at that time, but later in his life he concentrated on using his skills to fight in other, more peaceful, ways. These very same people do however have a point in the omission of part of Gandhi's nature. Of course he wasn't an angel in all areas of his life, who is? But in the areas which count this film, I believe, covers all of the bases more than adequately.
The movie details the essential elements which defined Gandhi's period on this return home to India; the solicitations of India's current home grown political parties, his refusal to cooperate with what he feels are unjust laws, persuading his fellow nationals to buy Indian and not import their cloth from England, the massacre of Indians at Amritsar, finally receiving independence and how that new found freedom never resolved all of India's problems. Gandhi always stated he was both Muslim and Hindu, Christian and Jew; he wanted his countrymen of all faiths to live in harmony with each other and the film tries desperately to promote that idea. It does so adequately although it also manages to show that no matter the stance or beliefs of one man, the power hungry will still wrestle to have their own way no matter what.
In 1982 this film took eight Academy Awards and for once the Academy were right on all counts, so let's examine a few. Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor took away the Oscar for Best Cinematography for a piece of work which David Lean would have been proud of. Earlier productions of Dr Zivago of Laurence of Arabia allowed the viewer to see wide open, sprawling landscapes bathed in incredible light. Both Williams and Taylor had some previous success on earlier features, Women in Love and Tommy respectively, but neither really had gone this far in external landscape cinematography. To say they excelled themselves in this department is a little of an understatement with some beautiful vistas of India's countryside gloriously propelled onto the big screen. John Mollo, as well as being a historical advisor for Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, worked on as costume designer on the earlier Star Wars franchise as well as Alien and Outland. So it was perhaps an odd choice for Attenborough to take this futuristic designer and allow him to dictate the nature of the costumes for a period setting piece. Again though it seems to have been the correct choice as Mollo and fellow designer Bhanu Athaiya walked away that year with their own gongs for their efforts. Athaiya of course was then the first Indian ever to receive this accolade. Writer John Briely was honoured for his screenplay and art direction fell firmly to Stuart Craig, Robert Laing and Michael Sirton. Most of these dedicated people, including John Bloom for his editing, were born in good old Blighty and it was in that year that Hollywood did in fact wonder if this was the second coming of the British. This and Chariots of Fire before it probably mark the end of an era in British film making. It has continued to some degree with the likes of the independent Channel 4 and Working Title productions but that's about it; never since have we seen anything from these shores on this grand a scale. The British film industry, however, has always had a reputation for having some of the finest technical minds and artistic creative forces available and Gandhi only cemented that belief, not only here but across the pond as well.
Attenborough of course is more noted for his acting than his directorial skills, and his career in that field has produced some decent works, A Matter of Life and Death, Brighton Rock and of course that all time Christmas favourite The Great Escape, but his directorial career is a little fainter with his best works coming within the 10 year period after this, his most remembered of films. A Chorus Line is best not thought about, but he can certainly be applauded for Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Shadowlands. After that though he took a back seat, only directing on a handful of occasions and none really of any merit whatsoever. Now though whenever people remember Gandhi it is not necessarily because of the director; usually when people mention this film you immediately think of Sir Ben Kingsley.
Prior to 1982 Sir Ben was a television actor appearing in a number of productions all varied in nature; even in the late sixties appearing in a few episodes of that stalwart of British television, Coronation Street. It was a monumental undertaking to go from there to star as an historical figure, a part which would be analysed and studied, a part which 1,000 million Indians would either rejoice in or clamour for your head. Gandhi is recognised as the father of modern India, his birthday is celebrated every year, he is revered and honoured as the man responsible for taking India from ruled state to independence. Kingsley though excelled at this role, not only did he have some resemblance to the historical man, his mannerisms, stance, speech and general demeanour all took Kingsley from lightweight television actor to stardom. He commands and dominates all of the scenes he is in even if he is there in the background just listening. This is quite a feat for a character who was by very nature somewhat softly spoken (at times anyway). There are scenes where he needs to show his contained wrath at events and you can see the disgust building within Kingsley like a volcano ready to explode; that explosion though rarely happens, it's his words which sprout forth showing the true nature of the crimes he is fighting against. From an acting point of view this is certainly one performance which has to be studied. The acting does not start and finish with Kingsley though; there is a wealth of talent in this film, from John Gielgud, Edward Fox, John Mills, Martin Sheen and Alyque Padamsee to name but a brief few. All of these people, and more, contributed to the overriding success of this feature, and all can be comended for how they played their individual characters.
Gandhi is a joy to watch for a number of reasons, the acting, the technical achievements, cinematography and a brief look into part of India's history. I believe that Lord Attenborough and Sir Ben Kingsley did the best they could in bringing this to our screens and both should be, and of course were, rewarded for their efforts and in my opinion this film deserves to be in anyone's collection.
Our Review Ethos
To comment on what you've read here, click the Discussion tab and post a reply.