Ambitious filmization of the life of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi begins with a disclaimer: “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one’s way to the heart of the man….” This (unnecessary) opener is at odds with both the films’ over-three-hour length and its historical achievement-by-achievement approach to Gandhi’s work: covering his adult life (and his major accomplishment of securing India’s independence from Britain) through to his assassination at the age of 78. The film does offer a singular performance by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and a cast-of-thousands epic scale.
The narrative gets under way quickly, without (thankfully) any clunky backstory, beginning with Gandhi’s first nonviolent stand against injustice prompted by the young lawyer’s being thrown off a South African train for being “colored” and sitting in first class. This section unfolds swiftly, and, as an introduction to Gandhi’s motivations, serves the film well. Things slow down when Gandhi returns to India, however. The scenes in which Gandhi explores India do not fulfill their intended purpose. The opening of Gandhi’s eyes to the vast country and peoples of India is told to the audience but not effectively shown (we see Gandhi’s travels, but at a distance), and this is a significant misstep of the film as a whole. The film gets back on track when lead actor Kingsley, now in Indian garb and spinning cotton, convinces the viewer of Gandhi’s connection to the land and conviction to its people.
Kingsley’s Oscar-winning performance is legendary in its replacement of any image one may have had of the actual subject: Kingsley is everyone’s vision of the real Gandhi. Of course, what exists of the real Gandhi is little-seen, verité newsreel footage (in long-shot) and Kingsley’s Gandhi exists in widescreen color close-ups (in a film that swept the Academy Awards). But Kingsley became Gandhi not only because his “look” was right, but so were Gandhi’s words as he spoke them. Yes, one feels, this is Gandhi: how he would have spoken and the way he would have reacted to people around him. An officer threatens to arrest Gandhi and Gandhi merely says “on what charge?” and the man withers. Kingsley offers other credible moments. As Gandhi is beaten, burning the British-issued Indian passes, his shaking hand reaches for a last one to throw in the fire before he passes out. When Gandhi lives like a commoner, and is visited by Nehru (Roshan Seth) and his entourage, he takes them through his chores, feeding his goats. Kingsley, with a distinct duck footed walk, gives the impression of a Gandhi both acclimated to his new surroundings and immersed in his own beliefs.
Ironically, the most memorable parts of GANDHI are the violent ones. The massacre at Amritsar is possibly the film’s most memorable sequence, particularly the image of the piled-up bullet shells. Again this serves an irony and must be chalked up to a certain amount of failure upon the filmmakers. The depiction of “justice” should have been more memorable than that of “injustice” in a film about Gandhi.
A flaw of the film is that it doesn’t flesh out other figures around the central one. Biographical narratives are no different than fictional ones: we see more of the central character through three-dimensional supporting characters. Obviously, the expectation of real-life-based films is that nothing is left out and we get the full “story,” but particularly in light of GANDHI’s opening title card, the film should have bucked the system, shown less history and more characterization. The narrative has a reporter’s eye— there’s an outweighing of what Gandhi did over why he did it.
An illustration of the strength of the supporting characters that does exist appears in the handful of moments with Gandhi’s wife Kasturba (“Ba”), played by Rohini Hattangadi. In an early, very short scene we see her brought into Gandhi’s cause (she is at first shocked that he wishes her to perform the work of “untouchables,” but then sees his reasoning); in a later scene she speaks of her husband to Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) about his thoughts on the injustices to women in society. In between, we see little of her and thereby Gandhi’s sadness at her death offers not much more beyond surface emotions.
Eventually the storyline follows a back-and-forth between Gandhi’s actions and the reaction of an alternating roomful of British officials pondering his latest move. An exemplary cast of Britishers have all-but cameos: including John Mills, Trevor Howard, and John Gielgud (the weight of John Gielgud’s performance does help to illustrate the odds by which Gandhi fought, however). The movie does guide the viewer easily through complex legal, political, and religious issues without appearing to oversimplify history.
GANDHI will probably inspire its viewer to seek to know more about its subject. The film serves as a springboard for further study, if it doesn’t particularly warrant repeat viewings in itself. Gandhi’s words are enough to inspire the viewer into examining injustices in their own life. When minister Charlie Andrews (Ian Charleson) joins Gandhi he asks if Gandhi is surprised by his action, to which Gandhi states: “When you’re fighting in a just cause people seem to pop up, like you, right out of the pavement.”
Perhaps its approach as an epic is the film’s partial undoing: it has an austere quality for such humanistic subject matter. Although, again, Kingsley brings the film back down to earth throughout. It might have benefited by a more intimate approach nonetheless. But as it stands, at the very least, it shines a light on a figure that has seen little treatment on film and deserves much more.
Gandhi (1982): Ambitious film covers several key events in the life of Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi, and if a full-bodied Gandhi does not entirely emerge, a faithful overview of his life is presented with a singular performance by lead Ben Kingsley.