By John H. Foote
Sitting shocked and livid with anger, I watched as Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi (1982) the “biography” of the man who fought for the independence of India from British rule collected eight Academy Awards, including Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Director (Attenborough) and Best Picture. 1982 was a very strong year at the movies, especially for great films that are still explored and discussed today, films for the ages. Nominated alongside Gandhi for Best Picture were E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Sidney Lumet’s courtroom drama The Verdict, and the superb American comedy Tootsie. Among the deserving films NOT nominated were Alan J. Pakula’s haunting, mesmerizing Sophie’s Choice; the superb Blake Edwards musical Victor, Victoria; the haunting science fiction thriller Blade Runner, possibly the greatest film ever made about the nightmare of divorce, Shoot the Moon; the German submarine film, Das Boot; and the lovely nostalgic film Diner. Of all the films named, nominated and not, Gandhi remains the weakest of the lot, and it remains a puzzle to me how and why the Academy chose to honour the film as Best Picture.
In the end it was likely that they chose to honour the accomplishments of the man who used peaceful means to protest and overturn a colonial system. Of course, eventually Britain withdrew, making Gandhi a national hero. Where I struggle with the film is its format as an old-fashioned biography, sort of a Gandhi Tribute, rather than an honest story of his life. Compare it to Malcolm X (1992) and Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995), each startling in their honesty of their subject. In these biographies, no punches were pulled, no character flaws were glossed over. In Gandhi, I expected at any moment for him to walk on water or ascend to the heavens after his assassination. Beyond reverential, it was just blatantly false in its depiction of the man. No doubt he was the catalyst of an evolution in India, but a great deal was kept silent about Gandhi and particularly some of his early statements as well as his peculiar, unacceptable ways.
Including them would have made the film at least honest and given actor Ben Kingsley something to play rather than spouting platitudes the entire film. Was this guy a quote machine? Did he ever enter a situation that could not be diffused with a wise quote? But the issues run far deeper within the picture than what Gandhi is saying.
It is easy to argue that our #MeToo lens of today is quite different than it was in 1982. But the fact remains, even then, we had access to Gandhi’s writing and speeches and there is little doubt: the man was racist, spouting offensive racist slurs against the Black race. Other disturbing reports indicate he was known to sleep with virgins to test his celibacy and was often cruel to his wife and family. New details are surfacing now, including a book written by Gandhi’s grandson, all revealing similar themes that would have been equally abhorrent even in 1982, if the producers had cared to tell an accurate story.
He was a racist, and this was well known. He once spoke about native South Africans, calling them “kaffirs”, an extremely offensive, derogatory term, and attacked them for being only hunters and lazy. Spend a day hunting sir, see if you call them lazy afterwards. And that meat you ate in South Africa during your visit, likely acquired through hunting. We also have (and had) access to surprisingly pleasant letters exchanged between Gandhi and Hitler.
None of these things is in the film, written by John Briley and directed by Attenborough. For 20 years, the director fought to get the funding to make his movie, his passion project, after David Lean gave up on the project. Initially Alec Guinness was to play Gandhi, but as the years passed, they realized that would be ridiculous. Dustin Hoffman wanted the part but was turned down. Finally, a young Indian actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company in England, by the name of Ben Kingsley, auditioned and landed the role.
The film traces Gandhi’s work against British rule from a very young age, through to his assassination in 1948. Watching the film, I found I liked Kingsley’s performance, in spite of the script’s penchant for platitudes. It seems that God spoke through Gandhi, and everything he said could have been carved in tablets and handed to him to read. I mean seriously?
The film plays like a travelogue of India, but tells the story of Britain leaving India eventually, just as Gandhi predicts. There is much death along the way, and a great deal of violence, which Gandhi abhors, but the Brits do indeed just pack and leave.
Why work for 20 years to get the money to make the film, then not tell the full story, ignoring the ample research? Why not reveal the human? Throughout the movie, Gandhi is portrayed as a demigod, always elevated over us. As a biographical work, it really is a travesty of a film, coming not even close to capturing the essence of Gandhi. What I will never understand is the praise for the film in 1982, the falling over themselves looking for superlatives to describe the film by the critics. All except Pauline Kael, who got it, felling the same way I did coming out of the cinema–bamboozled. She felt betrayed, as though the filmmakers had just lied to her. Well, she was right.
Did the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences feel good about themselves nominating Gandhi for 11 Academy Awards? Did the Directors Guild of America pat themselves on the back for awarding Attenborough their Best Director of the year prize? On Oscar night, upon winning Best Director, Attenborough stopped at Steven Spielberg and shook the younger man’s hand telling him “This really should be yours, my friend.” He was right; it should have been.
Spielberg should have won a litany of awards for his masterpiece E.T. the Extraterrestrial, which rivals Schindler’s List (1993) as his greatest achievement. He won awards from both the Los Angeles Film Critics Association and the National Society of Film Critics for Best director and Best Film. Even the goofy Golden Globes got it right handing both director and film their top awards.
One year after Gandhi won those eight Oscars, there was an essay in a leading film magazine stating why this voting member felt they had voted for Gandhi. As expected, the membership felt that if they awarded the film eight Oscars, they were in some small way honouring the man. Is that really why the Oscars are given? Sorry, but I thought they were all about honouring the best in cinematic arts and sciences each year. If that was the case, Gandhi would have won nothing because E.T. and Spielberg would have taken the Oscars for Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Score, Cinematography, Sound, editing and Visual Effects. Ben Kingsley’s Best Actor Oscar would surely have gone to Dustin Hoffman for his transformational performance in Tootsie.
Justice would be done.
At this moment in history the film Gandhi is forgotten while all the other nominees and non-nominees live on, delighting audiences around the globe. Does anyone even watch Gandhi anymore?
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.