Release Date: December 8th, 1982 MPAA Rating: PG
Director: Richard Attenborough Actors: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Ian Charleson, Edward Fox, Candice Bergen, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Saeed Jaffrey, Geraldine James, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth
n New Delhi, India, in January of 1948, Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), escorted by his two daughters, is confronted by an ominous stranger in a garden, where many gather to greet the legendary man. In an instant, Gandhi is shot dead, assassinated for an as-yet-unknown reason. Although the life of Gandhi is a historical one, including his untimely demise, this 1982 biography does what so many films do, quite unnecessarily: it starts at the end. A funeral follows – one of the largest of its kind – but it’s difficult to imagine a worse way (which is surely a spoiler for anyone unaware of Gandhi’s death) to open such an important epic.
Without wealth, land, title, an official office, or scientific or artistic achievements, Gandhi led his country to freedom as a “spokesman for the conscience of all mankind.” But his origins were humbler, beginning in Southern Africa in 1893 as a lawyer, traveling from England to Pretoria for a case. “There are no colored attorneys in South Africa!” insists an unidentified white man, who has Mohandas K. Gandhi promptly thrown off the train at Pietermaritzburg station when he refuses to relinquish his First Class ticket for a lowly seat in the back. Indians – especially Hindus like Gandhi – are considered third-class citizens, despite the country being under “civilized” British rule; his people were brought to harvest crops and work in the mines, which makes them a target for great disregard and contempt by the English occupiers. Indians don’t even walk alongside a Christian on the street – for fear of getting kicked into the gutter. This level of racism is incomprehensible to the barrister, who can’t understand why they put up with it. “We are children of God, like everyone else.”
While aiding the Indian Congress Party of South Africa, Gandhi makes a splash, thanks to the power of the press. Burning his government pass – a symbol of inequality carried only by Indians – is the first step in the peaceful defiance of injustice. It will be a long, arduous task to change minds and to tackle the intolerance of the Empire, particularly as laws are changed to keep the minorities down; but Gandhi quickly discovers that just causes call forth followers. His initial white allies include Charlie Andrews (Ian Charleson), a Christian missionary, and Vince Walker (Martin Sheen) of the New York Times, while his native adherents steadily increase, most notably as his speech skills grow.
Continual hardships, imprisonment, violence (as a result of non-violence), a confused government in upheaval, the spreading of his reputation, and eventual positions of advantage for negotiations persist, spanning decades as Gandhi’s purpose ignites the nation. Despite familial complications, complex politics, and various factions of incongruous protestors, director Richard Attenborough succeeds in crafting a fascinating story (written by John Briley) of an admirable, relatable man, first – and a national hero second. Every action seems calculated to be as wholesome and righteous as possible; he’s flawed (and only human, as his wife must remind him) yet unavoidably good. His character is incomparably brilliant and inspirational – a persona destined for a proper big screen adaptation.
As the picture was obviously designed for theatrical exhibition, there are other protagonists, antagonists, and cinematic conflicts. But Kingsley’s performance is central to the film’s triumph – perhaps surpassing the rest of the technical and artistic values (including the breathtaking photography, the costuming, and the aging makeup and effects) of this sweeping drama. His portrayal is a revelation, displaying an authenticity and a power that feels unrivaled by his peers. In the realm of this historical biopic, Gandhi is akin to a superhero; his importance and significance is virtually preternatural.
From an editing standpoint, the film proceeds with few surprises, touching upon major events with intent, not embellishment. The milestones in India’s fight for freedom (including the devastating Amritsar massacre, in which General Dyer ordered his troops to fire upon unarmed men, women, and children; the gravity of salt production; and the unending consequence of civil disobedience) are potent by themselves. As a brief disclaimer from the start suggests, not everything can be covered, despite the sizable running time, which leaves many notable elements – such as martial law, censorship, women’s rights, untouchables, martyrdom, and the aftermath of Gandhi’s death – to be somewhat neglected. Action-oriented notions like riots tend to garner more screentime, though even highly visual happenings can’t overtake the potency of Gandhi’s quieter accomplishments. His unagitated suffering and patience are, perhaps, more resounding than any of the rambunctious protests.
In the end, India’s long-awaited independence breeds new turmoil, as Hindus and Muslims remain irreparably separated. And, like “The Last Emperor,” “Cleopatra,” “Reds,” and other works that examine striking historical figures, the adherence to facts (mostly) naturally detracts from the overall entertainment value. As the picture circles back around to the opening shots, creating unnecessary repetition (rather than tastefully avoiding closing on his killing by having it shown at the start, the scene is essentially replayed to finish the piece), that narrative fault just isn’t detrimental enough to counter the incredible victories of this utterly enlightening, profound human being, whose journey is undoubtedly worth watching.
– Mike Massie