Retro Film Review: Gandhi (1982)

in film •  12 days ago 

Some films are remembered for the wrong reason. Case in question is Gandhi, 1982 epic by Richard Attenborrough, a movie which slipped from everyone's memory, except for the rabid Spielberg fans, who never forgave Academy's snubbing of E.T. The author of this review, on the other hand, encountered another Gandhi-related outrage. But this time, the man outraged was the old critic who lives in my home town and who was deeply disturbed and saddened by an article written by one of his young hot shot colleagues. According to the article, Gandhi shouldn't have won the Oscars, but, instead of praising E.T. like almost anybody else, the young critic said that Conan the Barbarian, violent fantasy epic by John Millius deserved "Oscars" more than Gandhi. The old critic was shocked to see someone preferring film that praises questionable Nietzschean values instead of epic with the positive message of non-violence and religious tolerance. The author of this review agrees with the young critic; Millius in fact did make better film than Attenborrough. On the other hand, I can sympathise with the old critic, especially after certain unpleasant historical experiences in my part of the world convinced me in the need for more Gandhis in this world. This little anecdote illustrates one of the biggest problems that any critic can find with Gandhi – whether to appraise the movie strictly by artistic standards, or by the messages that it may carry to the audience.

The movie deals with biography of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, one of the greatest and most influential men of the 20th Century. Film follows the most important parts of his biography, beginning with Gandhi as Hindu lawyer in South Africa. After experiencing racism towards Indian immigrants, Gandhi assembles his countrymen and begins fight for equal rights, making that the first non-violent campaign of passive resistance. After his first political victory, Gandhi returns to India where he would lead the peaceful movement to liberate that country from centuries of British rule. Under his leadership, the Indian independence movement would adopt the strategy of non violence that would later prove to be the unsolvable problem to the British. During the course of years, there would be bloodshed and setbacks, but at the end India would acquire the independence. Unfortunately, Gandhi's charisma wasn't strong enough to bridge the widening gaps between India's two main religious communities – majority Hindus and minority Muslims. Gandhi was forced to witness his country partitioning into India and Pakistan, and the indescribable violence that followed. Desperately trying to stop the carnage, Gandhi fell from the hands of a Hindu fanatic.

Richard Attenborrough, British actor and director specialised for biographies of great historical figures or movies about important historical events, prepared more than a two decades for this film. The film is dedicated to the two great historical figures that didn't live to see fulfilment of that dream - Gandhi's comrade and future Indian statesman Jawaharlal Nehru and last British viceroy of India Lord Mountbatten (both of those characters appear in the film). The sheer amount of time and energy invested in this film was enough to brand it "larger than life". These days, that phrase is reserved for the movies that contain big pyrotechnics, special effects and hardly anything else. In good old days, that Gandhi helps to recreate, "larger than life movie" meant the movie that possessed an inner greatness and that engaged viewers' emotions in order to make them sit through the three hour experience. Despite Attenborrough clearly not being able to cover Gandhi's life and personality in its entirety (the fact that the author admitted in the credits), this film achieves that. Through those three hours we are indeed engrossed with the events and feel the strength of Gandhi's character and his ideals.

One of the reasons for that is the main lead. Hardly any actor in the history of the movies managed to achieve such identification with the character, as Ben Kingsley did with Gandhi. That identification was so strong that even the Indian extras during the shooting used to fall on their knees like they were dealing with the real Gandhi instead of the actor. Kingsley was good in that role - he made us feel his triumphs, his doubts and finally his personal tragedy in the end of the film. All other actors were shadowed by him - giants like Trevor Howard or John Gielgud are reduced to wax cameos. On the other hand, some Indian actors had opportunity to excel, because their characters were more developed - Rohini Hattagandy is good as Gandhi's wife Kasturba, Roshan Seth is very believable Nehru, while Saeed Jaffrey even brings some comic relief as Gandhi's comrade Sardar Patel. Unfortunately, Attenborrough was forced to ignore some of the Indian characters in favour of Western ones, mostly in order to bring the character of Gandhi closer to the Western audience. So, some of the very important episodes of the film are seen through the eyes of American reporters - played by Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen.

The other major flaw of this film lies in the fact that the biography of one man, no matter how important and grand, can't substitute the history of a nation. The screenwriter John Briley chose to concentrate on Gandhi solely, so in many instances the complex history of India under British rule was simplified or ignored. Such problems become especially visible in the second part of the film, where the independence struggle suddenly turns into senseless religious slaughter. The film also lacks the proper antagonist, necessary for any drama. British are presented as series of clueless and incompetent bureaucrats; the only exception is Ali Jinnah, Muslim politician who would become the first leader of Pakistan (played by Alyque Padamsee). The film authors implicitly blame him for the partition, and such impression is given by confronting his manners of upper class politician with the simple virtues of Gandhi. Screenplay also failed to address the differences Gandhi and Nehru had in their visions of India's future - the film authors take Gandhi's views about Indian rural utopia for granted. On the other hand, such omissions can be justified; the film is powerful anyway, and making Gandhi's story more complex would just alienate the viewers. And the world, which just marked half a century without Gandhi, really needs this film.
RATING: 8/10 (+++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on January 18st 1999)

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