Richard Attenborough’s powerful account of the saintly Indian leader picked up eight Oscars and drew breathless praise from critics, partly for Ben Kingsley’s quietly charismatic and thoughtful portrayal of the Mahatma (Kingsley is actually half-Indian – his birth name was Krishna Bhanji – and is from the same village where Gandhi was born), and partly for Attenborough’s painstaking yet grand direction.
It is a film that combines eye-popping spectacle and idealism to distil the essence of a complex figure from a less chaotic and more sober era while remaining relevant to the concerns of today.
The story begins in January 1948, in New Delhi, when an assassin’s bullet ends the life of a man who changed the course of world history. The movie then works its way back to 1893, when Mohandas Gandhi was a young, British-trained attorney sent to South Africa to defend Indian immigrants against tyranny and injustice under England’s domination.
Without seeking conflict or inviting trouble, he began his odyssey for human rights by seeking equality for Hindus with the philosophy, “Even if you are a minority of one, truth is truth.”
Fined, imprisoned, harassed and beaten, Gandhi was physically and financially humiliated, but no one could destroy his dignity or self-respect. “They can have my dead body but not my obedience”, he declared, and millions took notice.
Back in Bombay in 1915, he began to dedicate his life to one goal – uniting all of India, with its filthy, illiterate, overpopulated, sprawling, primitive, poverty-stricken chaos – and giving each person a sense of national pride.
Miraculously, he became the first Indian in two hundred years to gain concessions from the British, and eventually, through peaceful, non-violent refusal to cooperate with the rulers, he forced them to grant India independence and freedom.
Stopping revolutions through fasting almost to the point of death, then getting arrested all over again by the very British demagogues he had protected from bloodshed, he remained undaunted.
If this movie seems now to lack the flair of, say, Schindler’s List (1993) or Michael Collins (1996), it’s probably fair to say that it influenced both.
Ben Kingsley dedicated himself to the role, shedding weight, taking up yoga, learning to spin cotton, and making a brave attempt to live life by Gandhi’s example.
Over 300,000 extras appeared in the movie’s funeral scene. For this scene, 11 camera crews shot 20,000 feet of film (more than the total footage of the completed film). The edited funeral scene ran for only 125 seconds of screen time.
The story that Richard Attenborough demanded a second take on the funeral scene with the words “Once more poppets, with a little more grief”, is unfortunately false.
Günther Maria Halmer
Sir George Hodge