Gandhi: Ben Kingsley breathes life into Richard Attenborough’s cinematic monument to the saint of non-violence

2nd October 2020 marked Mahatma Gandhi’s 151st birth anniversary. So it’s a good time to look back on Sir Richard Attenborough’s monumental 1982 motion picture, in which Ben Kingsley gave an astonishing performance as Gandhi.

It took me 20 years to get the money to get that movie made. I remember my pitch to 20th Century Fox. The guy said: ‘Dickie, it’s sweet of you to come here. You’re obviously obsessed. But who the f—ing hell will be interested in a little brown man wrapped in a sheet carrying a beanpole?’ I would have loved to have met that guy after the Oscars and told him to f— off.”

Richard Attenborough  on the travails of making the film “Gandhi”


“He may torture my body

He may break my bones

He may even kill me

Then, he will have my dead body

But not my Obedience”

That’s Mahatma Gandhi espousing his ideology: Non-cooperation and civil disobedience rooted in Non-violence as a weapon to combat the tyranny and oppression unleashed by imperial Britain. Gandhi, as played by Ben Kingsley, in Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film is addressing his fellow Indians in South Africa, who have been subjected to various forms of discrimination. The clarity, precision and economy in which the Gandhian philosophy is conveyed above extends to the whole film.  It is impossible to convey the lifetime of  an extraordinary man as Gandhi in just three hours. So the director and his writers has taken an episodic approach; by tying together a series of vignettes drawn in broad brush strokes to convey the life and times of Gandhi. Classical, traditional, Old-fashioned, broad, stately, hagiography,.. you can throw all these words at this film , but there is no denying the sheer scope and scale of it; not just physical, which obviously is gigantic, with the recreation of the period to its minutest detail as well a cast of (literally) thousands, but the emotional scale  as well, and in the end, the filmmakers are successful in conveying the essence of the great man and the the tumultuous times he lived in. The film is a throwback to the the great ‘intimate’ epics of David Lean – unarguably the master of epic cinema-  like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago that was made in the sixties. Lean himself had attempted to tell the story of Gandhi in the fifties, but he abandoned the project after he realized that it was unworkable. But his fellow Brit, Richard Attenborough picked up the gauntlet. For Sir Richard, making a film on Gandhi was not just another movie project, it was a life’s mission , to the point that if one goes through the trials and tribulations in getting this picture made, then one would be forced to think that he was put on this earth for  the sole purpose of making a film on Gandhi. When the idea of making a film on Gandhi struck Attenborough, he was not even a film director. He was just a successful stage and screen actor who was very happy in his life and career. But all that changed after he read a biography of Gandhi by Louis Fischer. Making a film on Gandhi became his obsession. It took him more than twenty years  to accomplish his mission. He tried to raise money for his dream project, first all by himself – sinking much of his personal fortune into the development of the project –  and then by trying to interest major Hollywood studios. But no Studio was willing to fund a movie that was almost Cecil B. Demillian in scale, but artistically resembled a Satyajit Ray film.  Finally, he had to get help from the Indian Government, who put up one third of the 22 million dollar budget, which meant that the film cannot be anything more than a hallowed hagiography. There was no way the Indian government would have allowed any sort of criticism on the father of the nation. But even if Attenborough had full creative control over the film, i seriously doubt he would had made a no holds barred look at Gandhi’s life. He believes so totally in the philosophy of Gandhi; in his spiritual strength and purity; and his moral righteousness, that it would have been impossible for him to make a Lawrence of Arabia(1962) or Patton(1970) kind of polemical biopic on the great man. 

Attenborough sticks very close to the narrative template set by David Lean, mainly in Lawrence of Arabia, to tell the story of Gandhi: begin with the death of the lead protagonist, then flashback. Accordingly, the film begins with the death of Gandhi, gunned down by a religious extremist named Nathuram Godse on January 30 1948; then the film flashbacks to June 7, 1893, South Africa, where we see the birth of Gandhi the leader and his philosophy of ‘Satyagraha’, in what has come to be known as “the Pietermaritzburg railway station incident“: Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, a freshly minted lawyer, has come to South Africa to fight a case for one of the Immigrant Indian businessman, and as he is travelling by train, Gandhi is thrown out of the first class compartment (despite having a valid ticket) at the behest of his fellow ‘white’ travelers, who refuse to share the compartment with him. He stayed at the station that night shivering in cold. A humiliated and enraged Gandhi decides to fight back against this racial discrimination; he organizes his fellow Indian immigrants in an agitation against the British administration .and the doctrine he adopted for the agitation was ‘Satyagraha’. The term ‘Satyagraha’ is derived from ‘satya’ (truth) and ‘agraha’ (insistence or truth-force) with its practitioners being called Satyagrahis. Under this doctrine, Gandhi and other satyagrahis went on peaceful marches and presented themselves for arrest against unjust laws. This became one of the great political tools of the 20th century , particularly influencing civil rights movement in the United States under Martin Luther King Jr. In the film, two of Gandhi’s most important agitations in South Africa are depicted. First: on August 16, 1908, Gandhi encouraged people to burn their identity documents. More than 2,000 documents were burned outside the Hamidia Mosque in Jennings Street, Fordsburg. Second: in 1913, Gandhi led an agitation to protest against a £3 tax imposed on ex-indentured Indians as the state had declared Hindu and Muslim marriages invalid. Through these early experiences in South Africa, he comes into contact with Reverend Andrews (Ian Charleson) and American journalist Vince Walker (Martin Sheen).

During the course of these agitations, Gandhi’s stature rises, both nationally and internationally, and he is invited back to India, in 1915, by the Indian National Congress party to take part in their freedom struggle against Britain. Though Gandhi does return to India, he does not get involved in the independence movement immediately, He first want to learn more about his own country. To this end, he undertakes an epic journey from north to south and east to west of India by train. and adopts frugal clothing and habits in solidarity with the poor of the country. He meets other Congress activists including Nehru (Roshan Seth), Sardar Patel (Saeed Jaffrey) and Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee), and in the 1916 Congress convention , he puts forward his vision for a non-violent, non-cooperation campaign to oust the British from the country. Gandhi’s popularity among the masses keeps increasing and he manages to mount agitations of unprecedented scale one after another. Though he is imprisoned several times, and in several instances his campaigns do turn violent, and independence does take a long time in coming, it does finally arrive, as India becomes independent on August 15, 1947. But the victory is bittersweet, as India is divided into two nations based on religion: the Muslim Pakistan and the predominantly Hindu India. Though independence is achieved with minimum of violence and almost no shedding of British blood, the aftermath of the independence and partition witness communal violence of horrific proportion as Indians killed fellow Indians to the tune of more than a million in communal riots that ripped apart the country. Gandhi does his best to  bring sanity to the situation, but he is mostly impotent in containing the communal violence. Its very late in the day when his efforts bear fruit; after he goes on a lengthy fast, the warring communities throw down the arms and peace is restored. But by then his support of Muslims have earned him the wrath of some extremists in the Hindu community, who now look upon him as a traitor. They conspire to kill him, and finally on January 30, 1948, Gandhi is gunned down while on his way to a prayer meeting. The film ends with Gandhi’s ashes being scattered in the Holy Ganges river.

When Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India and Gandhi’s favorite protégée, discussed the idea of a film on Gandhi with Sir Richard Attenborough in 1962, he had just one advice: no matter what, do not deify Gandhi, present him honestly , warts and all. Alas, that’s the last thing  the film has on its mind. In the film, Gandhi is portrayed as a sort of saintly superhero, who , as one scene in the film describes him, dressed in only loin cloth and armed with just a bamboo pole, kicked the British out of India. In reality, Gandhi was an extremely complex man, who was both blindly deified and vehemently criticized during his lifetime and beyond. Though canonized as the father of the nation, he was a very bad father to his sons in real life, and by all accounts, a very bad husband too.  Apart from being  a strong opponent of modernization and  industrialization, he was known to being  very stubborn, capricious and egomaniacal in several of his views  and actions – there are several theories as to how India would have achieved independence maybe 2 decades before it actually did if it wasn’t for Gandhi’s stubbornness, maybe there still would have been an undivided India, which would have been one of the most powerful nations in the world, instead of being just two or rather three (including Bangladesh now) constantly bickering third world countries, where the gulf between the haves and have-nots just keep increasing day by day.  Even his doctrine of Satyagraha, rooted in non-violence, appears impractical and almost utopian , especially in a modern world; in his own time , it had lost his relevance, when taking into account the violence that occurred during the partition of India. His ideology hardly ever seeped into the masses of the country ; they looking upon the doctrine as something to be practiced only by the likes of holy men like Gandhi and not for ordinary folks like them. Even his attempts at emerging as a pan Indian, pan religious leader ended up in ruins: the Muslims always looked at him as a leader of Hindus, while he was disowned by the Hindus for being soft on Muslims, and in the end, was killed by one of them. I don’t say all this to belittle Gandhi (or this film, which is quite great in its own right), who was undoubtedly an extraordinary man possessed with extraordinary virtues. I am just pointing out the shades of Gandhi’s character that the film missed in portraying that would have made it an extremely richer and rewarding experience. The virtues of a man is given context only when shown in the light of his character flaws; that’s what make  films like Lawrence of Arabia or Patton so much more interesting experiences. It’s not that these films do not indulge in fictionalizing their subject matter, of course in art form like cinema, which is primarily meant to entertain the audience, the makers are bound to create drama and for that revising or fictionalizing history is a tool that they all use, the only problem here is that the film plays out as a collection of Gandhi’s greatest hits completely ignoring his flops.

Apart from all this,  Gandhi hated cinema, considering it a waste of resources and time; Gandhi’s famous meeting with Charlie Chaplin (whom Gandhi referred to as “a buffoon”) – The two met on September 22, 1931 during Gandhi’s visit to England for the Round Table Conference –  took place only after considerable  persuasion from Kingsley Hall Community Centre manager Muriel Lester, who described the legendary movie star as somebody whose art was “rooted in the life of working people” ; which is to say that Gandhi would have been quite flabbergasted to see someone blowing up 22 million Dollars (in 1982, today it would be at least 5 times that much) to immortalize a flattering version of him on the silver screen. Though one thing he would have definitely connected with and maybe even found it quite ironic: a single minded obsession of a an Englishman to bring his life to screen. Sir Richard Attenborough’s obsession to bring Gandhi’s life to film almost matches Gandhi’s obsession with being a Satyagrahi. And it is this obsession, the stubbornness, the utter conviction that Attenborough  has in Gandhi’s goodness and greatness that saves the film from being just a boring, Wikipedia biopic. Though he may not be successful in translating Gandhi, the man, in all his multifaceted hues, he succeeds spectacularly in conveying the spiritual force that was Gandhi. Gandhi’s spirit, which as depicted in the film, is intrinsically tied in with the spirit of Indian nation and further deeply into Hindu religion. And Attenborough’s filmmaking style complements the simplicity and spiritualism of the lead protagonist. The film epitomizes the classical style of filmmaking at its very best: which means no ostentatiousness, no showy camera work or jump cut editing ; scenes are allowed to play at a stately, serene pace, in long takes, in long or medium shots with close ups of actors being very judiciously used. On the other hand, There are some truly ‘big’ scenes in the film, like Gandhi’s funeral: truly one of the greatest scenes in cinematic history. Attenborough managed to recreate Gandhi’s funeral on January 31st, 1981, the 33rd anniversary of the actual funeral. It is estimated that nearly 400,000 people were involved in filming the scene. The other great scenes being the recreation of Jallianwala Bagh massacre –  that took place on 13 April 1919, when Acting Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered troops of the British Indian Army to fire their rifles into a crowd of unarmed Indian civilians in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar, Punjab, killing at least 379 people;  Gandhi’s salt satyagraha, as well as the images of partition showing the mass exodus of people from India to Pakistan and vice versa. This film, obviously, made before the advent of CGI (computer generated images),is one of the last true epics where all those ‘big’ scenes was practically achieved. The cinematography is outstanding; the film was shot completely on location in India, which was necessary because India is very much another character in the film. This film is as much about India itself as it is about Gandhi. Attenborough shows the audience the people of India from its countryside to the vast cities of Calcutta and Delhi, and in the epic train journey undertaken by Gandhi – most probably inspired from a similar scenario in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago – the film acquires the traits of a Cinerama travelogue; where Gandhi experiencing his own country becomes a window for the rest of the world to experience and understand India. Obviously, this is a westerner’s point of view, Attenborough is making this film as an outsider looking in and he is unabashed and unpretentious about it; this is undoubtedly a film made about India by a westerner for a western audience, and hence his main concentration in the film is on that thing that attracts him most as a westerner: the spiritual aspect of Gandhi and India. It is also reflected in the cavalcade of famous British and American stars who make cameo appearances throughout the film. We get Candice Bergen (as Margaret Bourke-white of all people), Martin Sheen (as a journalist based on Wendy Miller), John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Edward Fox, John Mills, etc. They are necessary in selling the film to a western audience whose knowledge of Gandhi may be scant to nil. Though the film is very much a labor of love for Attenborough, he is realistic enough to understand that his financial backers have made a substantial investment in the film and he needs to make the money back (which it did to the tune of 120 million dollars worldwide). But it is the Indian actors who get the meaty roles; Roshan Seth as Jawaharlal Nehru and Saeed Jaffrey as Sardar Patel gets the most screen time, and they are wonderful in their roles, which unfortunately like Gandhi’s is rather one-dimensional. The weakest aspect of the film is the characterization of Jinnah, the Muslim league leader who worked as the main force behind partitioning India, he is set up as a cardboard villain, with Alyque Padamsee’s robotic performance doing further injustice tot he role.

In the end, none of this matters, because the film belongs to Sir Ben Kingsley, who gives a performance that is nothing short of miraculous. He is playing a role that in its nobility, humanity and (yes) in divinity, is just one step away from Jesus Christ – only thing Gandhi doesn’t do in this film is walk on water, and to make the audience connect with him for almost 190 minutes of  the film’s running time, in which the character ages from 23 to 79 is a herculean task, not to mention, overcoming the pressure of portraying such a famous, revered figure, who died just  3 decades before the film was made, and whose physicality and voice is very familiar to  the world. What Sir Ben does in this role is hard to explain: he hardly indulges in heavy theatrics or histrionics, he hardly screams or shouts, always talking in a measured tone of voice, most of his magic as an actor lies in his beautiful eyes and his face, it is just incredible how much he manages to convey with very subtle modulations in his facial expressions and body language. He brings an extraordinary amount of stillness, serenity and grace, enabling him to convey the spiritual core of Gandhi. In its serene gracefulness, I was reminded of a similar performance by Max Von Sydow as Jesus Christ in George Stevens’ The Greatest Story ever told(1965), Sydow is the only actor, in my opinion, who successfully played Christ. And in many ways, the film “Gandhi” is to Mahatma Gandhi what The Greatest story ever told or King of Kings is to Jesus Christ. Ben Kingsley was born Krishna Bhamji –  who is Indian on his father’s side and British on his mother’s side. In a strange coincidence, his paternal forefathers hail from the same village in Gujarat as Gandhi’s forefathers. So perhaps it was his Karma that he was chosen to play Gandhi. Attenborough had tested a slew of great actors for the role: everyone from Alec Guinness to Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt  (and rather bizarrely) Marlon Brando and Dustin Hoffman was in running for the role. The great Indian actor Naseeruddin Shah came very close to being cast as Gandhi, but in the end the coveted role went to Kingsley who, a veteran of stage by then, had hardly done any film acting.  We can see Attenborough and Kingsley working in tandem as actor and director throughout the movie in exploring the spiritual side of Gandhi, while Attenborough attempts to deify Gandhi at every stage Kingsley does exactly the opposite, he humanizes him with his marvelous performance, he makes Gandhi more or less a living, breathing character, who is capable of performing divine acts, and Gandhi merges as a “Christ” like figure in its best sense: fully human and fully divine.

At the 1983 Academy awards, Gandhi won 8 awards beating out odds-on favorite, Steven Spielberg’s popular blockbuster E.T. for the top prize. There was widespread criticism over this, that the academy had chosen to reward a far inferior effort than Spielberg’s Sci-fi fantasy.  Though i am no fan of E.T., it is more than obvious that Spielberg’s film was the more original, innovative and much better directed film. But Oscars are hardly given  to the best film of the year. Gandhi triumphing E.T. is nor more of a travesty than Rocky winning over Taxi Driver or Kramer Vs. Kramer beating out Apocalypse Now  or Dances with Wolves beating out Goodfellas or The King’s Speech beating out The Social network, not to mention, such great films as Citizen Kane, The Searchers, Vertigo, Raging Bull etc., never winning or even being nominated. In spite of the several misgivings i have about  the film “Gandhi” regarding plot and characterization, it is undoubtedly a magnificent production made with passion and commitment for the cinematic medium and the subject matter it is tackling. And since the film is made in a purely classical style it remains ageless, it doesn’t feel dated even today, compared to a lot of the hip, flashy stylish movies of the 80’s which appear hopelessly dated. There was also some criticism regarding Kingsley winning the best actor Oscar over Paul Newman’s drunken lawyer act in The Verdict and Dustin Hoffman’s cross dressing act in Tootsie. Sidney Lumet, the director of The Verdict went as far as to say that Newman was robbed. Though as brilliant Hoffman and Newman were in their respective roles, and it is a hazardous business to compare performances by actors in widely different roles in widely different genres, i think Kingsley’s performance is nonpareil . Sir Richard Attenborough intended the film to be nothing more than a towering monument to the greatness and the superhuman spiritual strength of Gandhi, which, even without Kingsley’s performance  would have been a handsomely mounted, lovingly crafted motion picture that we may admire for the ages, but Kingsley breathes life into the monument and makes us connect with it and believe in it and makes it much more of a  towering achievement than it is. It is undoubtedly one of the greatest screen performances ever, and worthy of every award it was honored with.

2 thoughts on “Gandhi: Ben Kingsley breathes life into Richard Attenborough’s cinematic monument to the saint of non-violence

  1. Beautiful write up, one of your best in terms of its detailing and the variety of perspectives from which you have analyzed it. For a certain generation (at least coming up to yours and mine), ‘Gandhi’ defined our idea of Gandhi. Living as I do in Mumbai, Mani Bhavan was a picnic stop for my low budget SSC medium school once and there we saw excerpts of this film. I saw the full film years and years later on Star Select HD. As you say, Kingsley’s performance is simply miraculous, to the point that it is very easy to mistake him for the real Gandhi because he makes a mythical, hagiographical impression of Gandhi look very believable and relatable.

    I don’t know if in Naya Hindustan, we will continue to have Independence Day plays in school (or whether the assortment of freedom fighters would continue to include Gandhi or Nehru). But in my time, there HAD to be a play enacting the freedom struggle every I-Day. And contrary to the myths being perpetrated today about those times, no, the teachers of my school weren’t on the Congress’ payroll nor was the school being funded by the Vatican (it wasn’t even one of the many Christian schools you have in Mumbai).

    Anyway, I digress. I didn’t/don’t hold one sided views about Gandhi myself and in college used to crack lewd jokes related to his Father of the Nation status that would be unrepeatable here. And yet, as I observe what now passes for leadership in this country, I am reminded of the closing words of Orwell’s essay on Gandhi, “…but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!”


    1. Thanks Madan. Agree with what you say. Though as flawed a person or politician Gandhi was his virtues are so extraordinary that they will always triumph his flaws, yeah, he would be shocked to see what has happened to India and Indian subcontinent today


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