By John H. Foote
Much was made of Sir Richard Attenborough and his twenty-year battle to bring the turbulent life of Gandhi to the screen. The three-hour film finally flickered onto screens in late 1982 and film critics wrote extensively about both the film and the account of bringing the work to the screen. What was forgotten is that before Attenborough began the battle to bring the life of the Mahatma to the screen, Oscar winning legend David Lean had attempted to do so with no luck. Lean made it clear chameleonic actor Alec Guinness would play the part which enraged the Indian community. When Attenborough finally raised the money to make the epic film, Lean had let it go, wishing the younger director the best of luck.
Attenborough was never much of a filmmaker, never a strong director or storyteller. Nothing he had made before Gandhi or after said he was a fine director. He knew where to put the camera, he understood the master shot and everything that came after, but he lacked the natural artistry of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. If he did anything absolutely right in making Gandhi it was in casting Ben Kingsley in the title role. Half Indian, half English, Kingsley was a perfect choice, and brilliant in the role, but sadly he was playing less a human being than an entity.
The movie played out like Gandhi’s Greatest Hits, and I knew no more about Gandhi by the end than I did going in. Ideally a biography should both educate and entertain, have the courage to look at the subject warts and all because the flaws are what make them human. We as people are all flawed, and hiding those flaws only serve to elevate the subject above us, above the characters within the film.
While historically it is very clear Gandhi played a huge role in India gaining their freedom from British rule through non-cooperation rather than violence, the man was hardly the saint he is portrayed as being in the film. Every line feels like a platitude, sounds as though it has been taken from a plaque or stone, it brings to the film a profound sense of falseness. So rather than celebrating the fine performance of Kingsley, instead we watch a virtual saint do everything but walk on water.
What is absent from the biography?
Gandhi slept between two teenage girls to test his celibacy.
Gandhi despises blacks from South Africa.
Gandhi believed Hitler was a good man.
Gandhi refused to allow his dying wife to be treated with life saving medication.
This was a flawed man, but a deeply human man.
He believed Great Britain should give up its rule of India, and peacefully fought for it through use of non-violence. Recognized by Indians as the father of the nation, he desired no public office, he just wanted India under Indian rule. Nominated five times for the Nobel Peace Prize, that he never won was called a terrible omission by those who give the awards.
Eventually, but not without terrible cost, India wins their independence, but just a few years later after another long imprisonment, Gandhi was assassinated in 1948.
Ben Kingsley gives a fine performance enacting out the Gandhi he was given from John Briley’s overly reverential Screenplay. As he walked towards the crashing waves of the ocean, one expects him to be able to walk on water. That is how Attenborough paints Gandhi, as a saint, as someone other worldly as opposed to just an exceptional man. If you google Gandhi quotes, you will find most of them in the film, as it seems Gandhi must speak in always quotable phrases. That said Kingsley gives a warm, inviting performance. We like him, we cannot help it, he is quite likeable. However as fine, as gentle, as strong a performance as it is, how can anyone consider it accurate when so much is left out?
It seems to me that Attenborough was so impressed with Gandhi and his accomplishments, he made his film about the great things the man did, not his actions as a human being. Show us his weaknesses, then we have a film. As good as Kingsley might be, he is portraying an it, not a man. As impressed with Gandhi as Attenborough might have been, the Academy went crazy for the film, nominating it in eleven categories and come Oscar night it won eight. Among the films Gandhi bested were Steven Spielberg’s E.T. the Extraterrestrial (1982) and Tootsie (1982), both superior films, both American masterpieces. Even Attenborough, on the way to the stage to collect his Oscar for Best Director, stopped to speak with Spielberg acknowledging the younger man was the better choice.
Ben Kingsley inexplicably won Best Actor, besting one of the greatest performances in film history, Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie.
There were a couple in interesting supporting roles from Martin Sheen as a reporter and Candace Bergen as a photographer for Life Magazine, but no one else makes an impression.
India is beautifully filmed, like a travelogue, the breathtaking cinematography exceptional, but not the years best.
All and all the film felt old fashioned on opening day, it always has. It is the type of biography Hollywood had been making for years, focusing only on the good to great accomplishments, nothing negative. The film felt as though it had been made in the late fifties or early sixties, certainly not an eighties film.
In all the film won eight Academy Awards for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Screenplay, Cinematography, Art Direction, Film Editing and Costume Design, stunning the film community. Within months members of the Academy went on the record saying they had screwed up, this creaky, old fashioned biography was no where near the years best film …
… but the Academy chose to honour as Attenborough did … the accomplishments of Gandhi, not the film.
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”