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Gandhi (1982)

Director: Richard Attenborough

Writer: John Briley

Starring: Ben Kingsley (Gandhi), Roshan Seth (Nehru), Edward Fox (General Dyer), Alyque Padamsee (Mohammad Ali Jinnah), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Martin Sheen (Walker)

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In the autumn of 1963, Richard Attenborough approached Indian’s then Prime Minister Pandit Nehru about making a film. This film was to be decades in the making and was to document the life of the Mahatma. Mohandas K Gandhi.

Giving his blessing, Nehru issued a stark warning to Attenborough: ‘Whatever you do, do not deify him, that is what we have done in India and he was too great a man to be deified.’

And so the film was written, the actors cast, the stages set. And the result was a truly beautiful film.

The scenes were beautifully shot and the performance by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi ‘luminous’. It carried to the camera a history most people in the Western world are on the whole unfamiliar with. The devastatingly affecting scene of the ‘harrowing recreation’ of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, alongside other epic scenes including the salt march, Gandhi’s assassination and his funeral procession all carry to the audience an overwhelming and undeniable emotional power.

So it is such a beautifully shot and directed film, that it seems almost churlish to be critical of it.

Not much can be criticized of the actually making of the film, nor indeed of Kingsley tremendous portrayal of the Mahatma, in which he won the Academy award for Best Actor in 1982 for his meticulous and quietly compelling performance.

But it is rather the full truth of the history behind the film. It seems of close inspection of the film and with research into India’s history that Attenborough did not fully heed Nehru’s warning. Whilst careful not to deify Gandhi, he did portray him as a sort of quintessentially perfect man. And the film seems more of a work of worship than of art. ‘A portrait of a saint so uniformly worthy’.

As a human, Gandhi had faults, self-professed faults. He was a difficult and demanding man. Only one scene, near the beginning, when he shouts at his wife, shows his somewhat tyrannical nature. He was also subject to long bouts of depression.

Furthermore, I don’t believe he intended to become such a political leader as he became, but was caught up more in his personal struggle to liberate himself from worldly desires, and healing India’s growing immorality and deep divisions through simple, clean living and prayer. It took him many years to really show his political face in Congress and even then shied away from political life to life peacefully and spread his message of simplicity and liberation from his Ashram. While hinted at in the film, this is not particularly clear.

Other aspects of history are excluded from the film altogether, or other scenes are added to the film, presumably to emotional power. From the off, whilst Gandhi was ejected from a first-class lounge of a train, he was not beaten and the South African authorities never laid a hand on him.

The film is understandably very popular in India, where virtually all of India’s faults are blamed on the British rulers. For example Hindu-Muslim tensions were solely blamed on the colonial policy of Divide and Rule and the genuine fears of Muslim minority are not really represented.

The other characters within the film that Gandhi meets and interacts with are generally doltish Britons portrayed as buffoons and bigots; the other Indian leaders of the Independent movement such as Patel, Azad etc. are reduced to mere walk on parts to be dazzled, amused, intrigued and bewildered in turn by Gandhi. And the leader of the Muslim League and the founder of Pakistan Jinnah is portrayed as a languid and malevolent fop, standing in the shadow of the Mahatma, waiting to say his lines. Missing is the reality that Jinnah’s vision for a Muslim country, Pakistan, separate from India, which only manifested itself towards the end of British rule over India. Up to this point, Jinnah was an advocated of a united India, with more Muslim concerns and majorities being given political credence. But in the film he seems to be ready to create a new country, and only comes into the fore when Gandhi’s Independence movement gets underway, and when Gandhi is jailed this gives Jinnah the opportunity to whip up Muslim support for carving up the country.

There is also very little mention – if at all – of the wartime blunders of the Congress. Real progress was being made for Home Rule before the outbreak of the Second World War, but it was put on the so called back burner until war was over. This blunder prevented the very possible realisation of Indian independence a decade before it was achieved.

Even with all the historical inaccuracies mentioned and with Attenborough’s portrayal of Gandhi as more than the simple man he was, the film is still stunning.  The script is well written and the scenes and the stages breath-taking, not to mention Ben Kingsley’s unforgettable portrayal of the man himself. And it opens the eyes of Western audiences to a part of India’s history.

A special mention must be given to Richard Attenborough for the stunning portrayal of Mohandas K Gandhi, and extra mention must be made of the fact that true history is never straight forward, it always carries for more information and events that can be put in a film. The film itself with a running time of 191 minutes, was already long enough. And luckily for audiences like us, Attenborough painstakingly put the film together after a decade of planning, and made it what it was. A true and sublime epic.

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Quotes taken from Gandhi by Geoffrey C. Ward in Pat Imperfect: History According to the Movies, Edited by Mark C. Carnes, Henry Holt and Co; New York; 1995

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One comment on “Gandhi (1982)

  1. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed this film when it was released; now it’s going on my Netflx list. And thank you for the details about the historical (in)accuracies. I can only imagine how difficult it must be to decide what should and should not be covered when writing a screenplay or producing a film about such an important historic figure.

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