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
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
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
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
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.