Despite an intelligent and intriguing performance by Ben Kingsley in the lead role, “Gandhi” is a disappointingly conventional biopic that fails to illuminate the venerable leader or the socio-historical context in which he lived. But Kingsley, then better-known as a stage actor (Royal Shakespeare Company) is always riveting to watch, benefiting from being part Indian; he was born Krishna Banji.
Attenborough aims at presenting a portrait of an extraordinarily complex man who changed history, through not quite as radically as he had hoped. “Gandhi” is produced on an ambitiously panoramic scale, attempting to imitate David Lean’s films (“Lawrence of Arabia”) but without the vision or imagination.
A chronicle of major historical events, people, and dates, “Gandhi” illustrates history in the manner of a well-researched textbook that means exactly what it says, its sincerity uncontaminated by the slightest or messiest hint of history. Kingsley plays Gandhi from his days as a young lawyer to his martyrdom after winning independence for India.
The subject is truly epic and inspiring, but the movie, as the N.Y. Times Vincent Canby noted, “has the air of an important news event, something that is required reading.” Indeed, director Attenborough seems is so enamored of his subject that he’s satisfied to canonize rather than explain or understand Gandhi the man, his philosophy, and his actions. As a result, both Gandhi’s preaching and surrounding Indian political history are trivialized and distorted.
Spanning decades, the film opens in South Africa, where Mohandas Gandhi (Kingsley) is a struggling attorney, victimized by that country’s racial policies. Returning to India, Gandhi develops a new strategy of non-violent civil disobedience that proves more effective than armed struggle in throwing off British imperial rule.
Overly long (three hours) and thus occasionally tedious, the film is nonetheless impressive in its several epic and melodramatic sequences: the Salt March, the post-Patriotic riots, assassination, but as a persona, Gandhi remains a saintly cipher at the end.
The secondary characters are even more sketchily and carelessly drawn, among them Nehru, who appears as a colorless Gandhi disciple; Pakistan founder Jinnah comes off as a Muslim Darth Vader; African playwright Athol Fugard (“Master Harold and the Boys”) appears as General Smuts. And incongruous of all is Candice Bergen in a cameo appearance as American photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who seems to belong to another picture.
The tale begins with Gandhi’s assassination, on January 30, 1948, and his funeral. After a prayer, the elderly Gandhi meets a large number of admirers. One visitor, Nathuram Godse, shoots him in the chest, and Gandhi exclaims, “Oh, God!” before dying. The story then cuts to his funeral, an event attended by dignataries.
The Narrative is told through flashbacks. The first one is set in 1893, when Gandhi, then 24, is thrown off of a South African train for violating the norm–he is an Indian sitting in a first-class compartment. Realizing the laws are biased, he decides to start a non-violent protest campaign for the rights of all Indians in South Africa. After numerous arrests and media attention, the government relents by recognizing some rights for Indians.
The victorious Gandhi is invited to India, where he is declared a national hero, and urged to fight for India’s independence from the British Empire. Gandhi mounts a non-violent non-co-operation campaign, recruiting millions of Indians. There are acts of violence against the protesters and Gandhi is imprisoned.
But the campaign generates attention, and Britain faces public pressure. After WWII, Britain finally grants Indian independence. Indians celebrate the victory, but there are religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims, which erupt into nation-wide violence. Gandhi begins a hunger strike, declaring he will not eat until the fighting stops.
The fighting stops, but the country is divided by religion into two states, India and Pakistan. Gandhi is against the plan, but the partition of India is carried out. He tries to bring about peace between the factions, which creates dissidents on both sides and leads to his assassination.
In the last scene, Gandhi’s ashes are scattered on the holy Ganga, while we hear him state in voiceover: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always.”
Oscar nominations: 11
Picture, produced by Richard Attenborough
Actor: Ben Kingsley
Screenplay (Original): John Briley
Cinematography: Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor
Art direction-set decoration: Stuart Craig and Bob Laing; Michael Seirton
Editing: John Bloom
Costume design: John Mollo and Bhanu Athaiya
Sound: Gerry Humphreys, Robin O’Donoughue, Jonathan Bates, Simon Kaye
Originbnal Score: Ravi Shankar and George Fenton
Makeup: Tom Smith
Oscar awards: 8
All categories, but Sound, Score, and Makeup
Unfortunately, winning the directing Oscar gives the recipient a carte blanche in choosing his next project, and Attenborough, unaware of his limitations, opted for a screen version of the Broadway hit musical, “A Chorus Line,” which turned out to be disastrous choice for him, for the studio, and for the viewers.
Watch out for Daniel day-Lewis as a street punk, who hassles Gandhi during his stay in England. Day-Lewis would play another punk, a gay one in love with a Pakistani, in “My Beautiful Launderette” (1985), his breakthrough film, before winning the Best Actor Oscar four years later, for “My Left Foot.”