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Gandhi

Directed by Richard Attenborough with Ben Kingsley, Trevor Howard, John Gielgud, Edward Fox, Candice Bergen, John Mills and Martin Sheen, 188 minutes, 1982

By Carter B. Horsley

This is a straight-forward, no-frills biography of Gandhi, one of the greatest political leaders and thinkers of the 20th Century, that compresses a half-century or so into a mere three hours with great dignity, a magnificent panoramic sweep, fabulous acting and overall excellence in production.

With great locations and thousands of extras and superb photography, this epic is powerful, dramatic and quite authentic.

In his screen debut, Ben Kingsley is incredible as Gandhi, not only because with make-up he greatly resembles the "passive resistance" leader, but also because he has managed to portray with great sensitivity the agonies and traumas and frustrations of political leadership that transform a private person into a public persona.

Given the many decades that the film covers, it does not belabor itself with sentimentality, flashbacks or minor details and essentially highlights Gandhi's work in South Africa in the early part of the 20th Century in which he effectively frustrated and thwarted the English in many of their discriminatory policies of governance, and then his part in the long crusade for independence in India.

The film has been criticized in some quarters for minimizing the important role played by Mohammed Ali Jinnah, who would become the "father" of Pakistan, but Jenna is portrayed by Alyque Padamsee as a man of intelligence and dignity. While it is true that even more time perhaps should have been to the pre-Gandhi involvement in the move for Indian independence and to the breakdown of relations between the Hindus and the Moslems in the wake of independence, these are understandable given the confines of such a movie epic and do not detract from its memorable impact. Gandhi does come off a bit deified and very saintly but such reverence was an accurate reflection of the way he was regarded by most of his contemporaries and, for that matter, by most historians and his influence on the world was enormous as the major leader of the concept of passive resistance, a concept that was influential elsewhere, such as the civil rights movement in the United States, even if it has not been universally adopted.

Gandhi's great achievement was that he successfully implemented his theories on a grand scale making him not a small-, but a very large-scale hero.

The film, to its credit, has some superb scenes that concentrate on small-scale heroes such as the patient Hindus who followed Gandhi's march to the sea to produce salt in which English soldiers beat up those in the march only to be confronted by the next rank and the next rank, all of whom were brutally beaten.

It could be argued that the film's depiction of the English rulers and minions is overly harsh and neglectful of some of the colonists' contributions to India. Edward Fox, for example, plays a military commander, General Dyer, who cold-bloodedly shoots down about 1,500 Hindus peaceably attending a rally in Armritsar, ignoring a soldier's suggestion that he at least give them a warning. The massacre and Fox's intransigence is truly frightening and horrifying. The true incident only further fueled the drive for independence and gave the movement more, real "ammunition" in their war for independence. Similarly, John Gielguld portrays an English government official, Lord Irwin, with the pompous buffoonery of an arrogant aristocrat who assuredly deserves comeuppance.

The final days of independence while Lord Mountbatten is viceroy and has ordered a one-year transition is rather too briefly told although the mayhem that ensues in the crazed outbreaks of violence between Hindus and Muslims in the immediate aftermath of revolution is shown in graphic and very dramatic detail that would lead to the partition of Indian and the creation of a East Pakistan and a West Pakistan.

The film opens with beautiful scenes of the Indian countryside and the funeral scene of Gandhi is shown with hundreds of thousands Indians, estimated in one report at 300,000, and was shot on an anniversary of his assassination by a Hindu who felt Gandhi was giving away too much to the Muslims.

The problem confronting director Attenborough was how to make a film appealing to viewers almost all of whom knew the outcome - Gandhi's assassination just a few days after ending one of his famous fasts that finally ended a very bloody period between the Hindus and the Muslims after partition.

Attenborough correctly realized that most people were not as aware of Gandhi's early activities in South Africa nor the very long road to Indian independence and his concentration on these arduous, tortuous and important campaigns is extremely well-done. Trevor Howard, one of the great English actors, for example, has a very small role as an English magistrate, Judge Broomfield, in South Africa and he imbues his role with impressive buffery and basic English respect for the importance of law and justice. Old and a bit bloated, his gazes at Gandhi in the courtroom are electric, full of tension, commiseration, and the weight of history.

It will be hard for anyone to surpass Kingsley's performance as the incarnation of a famous person. He deservedly won as Oscar for his performance as did the picture as best picture.

For Western audiences, this film is more of a history lesson than an epic, and it does gloss over the Japanese invasion of China, the revolutionary war in China and most of World War II. Its sweep, however, is fine and Gandhi truly was a significant leader. For Americans, the Indian struggle for independence was tangential to its Depression and World War II and nowhere near as political important as the Chinese Revolution under Mao Tse-Tung, which culminated not long after Gandhi's assassination in 1948, a time when the Cold War was already beginning.

The role of Nehru, Indian's first prime minister, is played with great compassion by Roshan Seth. and the West would soon look to him after the assassination for stability and had high hopes that India would become the world's largest democracy and become a major bastion against Communism in the east. When it finally came, Indian independence came almost too fast and the English transition left the many princely states in Indian largely intact and did little to prevent the terrible strife that developed between the Hindus and the Muslims. India, which had been the crown jewel of England's colonial empire, would become a nation of immense population and immense problems and half a century after its independence from England it continues to struggle to improve conditions for its peoples and to find peace with Pakistan.

The legacy of Gandhi, on the other hand, remains one of the most powerful forces for peace in the world, and this film is a superb tribute to it.

"Gandhi" works cinematically as a fine documentary drama full of color and suspense and action and as a grand spectacle of the struggle of men to improve their lives and those of others. It is no mere inspirational paean to a great and fascinating person, but a very intelligent overview of great, worldly problems. As such, it is a great accomplishment that sets extremely high cinematic standards for such works.

Many other famous epics involve more dramatic heroics and are highlighted by spectacular grandeur. Other films have focused more intensely on the personalities of their heroes, but those heroes have not had the peculiar and important attributes of Gandhi.

Gandhi was shot at a triumphant moment in his long career. What more might he have been able to accomplish? He was deeply saddened by his country's religious problems and by its widespread poverty. This superb film makes the viewer sensitive to those problems and to the fact that unconventional leaders can emerge and make a difference. In his way, Gandhi was a difficult man and life is difficult and leadership is difficult and complex.

The movie's import is that viewers must not alienate themselves from the realities of the world and complexities of mankind. It optimistically engages the viewer to struggle with different cultures, attitudes, beliefs and to find ways to accommodate them and appreciate the importance an individual can make.

One could perhaps have tolerated an even longer film that lingered a bit more on India's poor, but then many Western audiences were familiar with Satyajit Ray's numerous films on the subject from the 1950s.

The film ranked 199th in the Top 250 list of the Internet Movie Data Base on December 27, 2000.

This film ranks 60th in Carter B. Horsley's Top 500 Sound Films

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