The life of Mahatma Gandhi is inspirationally
depicted in this three hour plus biography,
which won an incredible eight Academy Awards.
Ben Kingsley was plucked from obscurity by
director Richard Attenborough to play the
legendary spiritual leader, a proponent of
Indian independence, religious harmony, and
The film takes place over a half century,
with Gandhi's aging made fully credible by
outstanding makeup and costumes. The story
begins with Gandhi as a young lawyer in
South Africa, where his status as an Indian
makes him subject to Apartheid laws. Gandhi
develops his philosophy of nonviolent
resistance to authority, which makes him
a hero in the cause of Indian independence
Most of the many characters in this lengthy
epic can be put into four different categories.
There are the segregationalist Western
politicians, alternately smug and despairing.
There are the pro-independence Hindu activists
and politicians, who must be taught nonviolence
by Gandhi. There are Western press and
clergy who are sympathetic to Gandhi's cause.
And there are Gandhi's devoted followers, most
notably his wife (Rohini Hattangady) and
adopted daughter (Geraldine James). Ironically,
in a film whose theme is that everyone is equal,
the famous actors of European descent with small
roles are given top billing over Indian actors
with larger parts.
The problem with making a film about heroes
is the difficulty in presenting them as human
beings, complete with flaws. Any eccentricities
that they have must be lovable, such as Gandhi's
insistence upon adopting the dress and lifestyle
of an Indian peasant. Attenborough attempts to
humanize Gandhi by presenting a heated argument
with his wife, in which he orders her to leave
the commune because she won't clean toilets.
But the spat is immediately settled, the wife
happily reconciled and relenting, and the behavior
of both is saintly thereafter.
There is also a natural tendency to portray
the British as arrogant snobs. This is often
avoided by Attenborough, but he sometimes
slips: John Gielgud is a sneering blueblood,
and a needless scene is inserted with preppy
cricket players. But the religious hatred
between Hindus and Moslems is realistically
presented, with the resulting sorrow of the
aging Indian independence leaders effective
In a film with a running time of 188 minutes,
there are bound to be some slow moments. Gandhi
and wife repeat their wedding ceremony for a
reporter, and the wife's death is drawn out.
On the other hand, the scenes with Gandhi
fasting are well done.
Richard Attenborough was most famous as an
actor prior to making "Gandhi", a project
which he had been pushing for years prior
to production. He directed "Cry Freedom"
a few years later, a film with similar themes
involving South African civil rights activist
and martyr Steven Biko. Attenborough has
also continued his acting career, including
a memorable character in "Jurassic Park".
Perhaps due more to its values than its actual
quality, "Gandhi" won a mountain of Academy Awards,
including Best Picture, Best Director, Best
Actor (Kingsley), Best Original Screeplay
(John Briley), Best Cinematography (Billy Williams
and Ronnie Taylor), Best Editing (John Bloom),
Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
Copyright © 1995 Brian Koller