Jarrod Emerson’s Tribute to Richard Attenborough
Part 6: Gandhi (1982)
The opening scene of Gandhi begins with the civil rights activist’s assassination, before flashing back to a fateful incident aboard a South African train in 1893. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, despite holding a first-class ticket, is booted from the train, leading him to realize the laws are biased against non-whites. This inspires the the young, London-educated attorney to lead a fight for equal rights in South Africa, before taking the cause back to his native India, which was still under the rule of the British Empire. We observe Gandhi and his followers endure incredible hardships over the years. Despite being beaten, arrested, and imprisoned repeatedly, Gandhi chooses to fight back through civil disobedience. Fasting, promoting the boycotting of non-native goods, and inciting peaceful protests were just a few of the ways that Gandhi spread the awareness of the tyranny of the British Empire.
Richard Attenborough’s biographical epic is perhaps his finest hour. Political passion and good storytelling seldom align so effectively as in Gandhi. Together with screenwriter John Briley, Attenborough has woven an intimate portrait of Gandhi’s struggles. The film effectively illustrates the turbulence of Gandhi’s life as he gained both allies and enemies along the way. With echoes of such epic filmmakers as David Lean and William Wyler (Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur), the film depicts many historical and deeply personal moments of Gandhi’s life.
Ben Kingsley is terrific in his Oscar-winning performance as Gandhi. The biggest strength of his approach is in how human he paints Gandhi. Neither Briley’s script nor Kingsley’s portrayal make the mistake of portraying Gandhi as infallible. Instead he is shown as a complex, flawed man. One such moment is when he enters into a quarrel with his wife “Kasturba” (Rohini Hattangadi) over shared chores in his commune. After Kasturba objects to her assigned task, Gandhi momentarily loses his temper, grabbing Kasturba and threatening to cast her out. When the stunned Kasturba protests, Gandhi is overcome with shame and quickly offers a sincere apology. Such raw, emotional moments keep Gandhi from becoming a run-of-the-mill dramatization. Equally effective are the film’s reenactments of important historical events—particularly a frightening sequence depicting a ruthless 1919 Massacre in the Indian City of Amritsar. British Colonel “Reginald Dwyer” (Edward Fox) orders his troops to fire on a large crowd of peaceful Gandhi followers. Dwyer coldly watches, even as the blood of men, women, and children is spilled. Such difficult, powerful scenes perfectly capture the uphill battle Gandhi faced in his struggle. Ian Charleson, Martin Sheen, John Mills, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Ian Bannen, and Candice Bergen are but a few of the many veteran actors to appear as the various characters Gandhi encountered throughout his life.
In filming this important piece of history, Attenborough pulled out all the stops, assembling an impressive pool of talent. Breathtaking locations are beautifully captured by the cinematography of Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor. The audience is further immersed in the world and time period by the collaborative musical efforts of Ravi Shankar and George Fenton. By all accounts, Gandhi was a labor of love for Attenborough, and I think that is plainly obvious on every single frame. He succeeded in bringing the essence of Gandhi’s timeless message to screen for future generations to see.
© Jarrod Emerson (12/10/16) FF2 Media