Sunday, July 22, 2012

GANDHI (1982)


In awarding GANDHI best picture, the Academy made an obvious choice:  here was an epic biopic with noble intentions about one of the world's most revered historical figures that was a labor of love for director Richard Attenborough, and that featured an impressive performance from a virtually unknown actor in the lead.   It's grand scale is reminiscent of 1962's Best Picture winner LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, and it rails against injustices like other Best Picture winners such as  1935's MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY and 1937's THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA.  (And also like those two films, the injustices that it rails against are ones that occurred decades before the film was made in other countries, making them safe and noncontroversial choices).  Overall,  I think Attenborough's reverence for his subject occasionally sinks the film into hagiographic territory, but I it's still think it's a  terrific achievement.

The film had been a passion project for director Attenborough since he read Louis Fisher's biography of Mohandas K Gandhi in 1962.  Over the next eighteen years the film bounced from one stage of production to another, with David Lean at one point slated to direct Alec Guiness in the lead role (an intriguing possibility!).  Finally, in 1980 the funding for the film came through, with a combination of both Western and Indian production companies putting up the money, along with Attenborough selling off his share of the long running British play, THE MOUSE TRAP to help raise funds.  For the lead role, little known British TV actor Ben Kingsley was cast, while better known actors like Candice Bergen and John Geilgud were given supporting roles to beef up the film's star power.  Shot almost entirely on location in India, and utilizing literally hundreds of thousands of extras, it's final budget came out to around twenty two million dollars; it would make around fifty seven in the US alone.

The film's story begins in 1948, when the elderly Gandhi is assassinated.  It then flashes back to 1893, when the 24 year old Gandhi, living in South Africa, is thrown out of a first class compartment on a train because he is an Indian.  And so he begins a life long struggle to end English colonial rule of India through nonviolent protest and resistance.  

Ben Kingsley

This was such a  passion project for Attenborough, that his feeling for the material and the character of Gandhi show up in nearly every frame of the film, from its beautiful, sweeping shots of India to its tense action scenes, to the very way that Gandhi practically glows with righteousness.  I find it interesting that it took an Englishman like Attenborough to portray such a negative portrayal of British colonialism and prejudice, and he seems to take a definite pleasure in the way that he punctures the balloon of England's superior nature and sense of entitlement.  Although there is a likable English priest (played by Ian Charleston) who supports and admires Gandhi, the vast majority of Brits in the film are either brutal police and military officers, (like Edward Fox's chillingly vicious General Dyer, who's order to fire upon nonviolent protestors was one of the turning points in the British rule of India),  or they are pompous politicians like John Geilguld's  Lord Irwin, who underestimates our hero's resolve and influence.
John Geilguld

Ben Kingsley won a best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Gandhi, and even some thirty years later it is still seen as his signature role (in 2000, when he played a sadistic criminal in the film SEXY BEAST, many critics couldn't resist saying that Gandhi had gone bad).  And really, it is a great performance, one in which he is on camera almost throughout the film without ever losing the audience's interest.  Kingsley not only captured Gandhi's look (credit must also be given to the makeup department for pulling off an impressive resemblance)  and the cadences of his  speaking style, but, more importantly, both his charisma and his humility.  He rarely raises his voice, even when giving speeches, but he always holds himself with a quiet dignity that commands the attention of those around him.  And he also ages fifty years believably, never losing his sense of purpose, even as an old man. Bottom line, if we don't buy him as a great, influential leader, than the film doesn't work, and Kingsley more than accomplishes that.  That said, I wish John Briley's script gave him more humanizing moments, and didn't treat him with such reverence, which is the film's greatest flaw: early in the film, Briley has Gandhi quote Jesus, making a decidedly unsubtle comparison.  And from then on, Gandhi the man is always portrayed as a noble, brave, man who is a devout Hindu,  but completely open to other religions, and utterly committed to the cause of nonviolence.  The more controversial aspects of Gandhi's life (like his alleged sexual peccadilloes)are ignored in favor of pure fawning.  It is of course, difficult to portray the entire essence of such an influential figure in world history (a fact that the movie acknowledges in an opening credit), but I prefer my biographical films to show their subjects as real humans, warts and all. Perhaps Attenborough felt so strongly about getting this film made, and about the character of Gandhi that it prevented him from making a more honest portrayal.  It is interesting to contrast this film with another epic biographic film that was a passion project: Spike Lee's 1992 film MALCOLM X, which portrayed its hero in a far more real fashion, making it a film that I think surpasses Attenbrough's. 
Furthermore, I think that GANDHI goes on a bit too long,  with some of its impact lost in the second half of the film.  Also, the stars that are cast in supporting roles to beef up the film's box office appeal are a mixed bag; while Geilguld has fun in the mostly comic role of the dim witted Lord Irwin, Martin Sheen's reporter is not really necessary.  Worst of all is Candace Bergan as photographer Margaret Bouke White, who has so little screen time or impact on the story that she just seems like a distraction.  (Amazingly, Bergen got second billing after Kingsley!).  Still, if their casting was necessary to get funding for the film, then such are the realities of big budget filmmaking, and their presence is far from ruinous.  And it should be pointed that the non famous supporting cast are all uniformly excellent (I particularly like Alyque Padamsee as Mohammed Ali Jinah, the future founder of Pakistan).  So, the combined strengths of the film certainly outweigh its weaknesses and given that this film introduced Gandhi the man to a generation who had never heard of him before, it is certainly praiseworthy.


When GANDHI is compared to other good films released in 1982,  the difficulty of rating wildly different films becomes all too clear; how, exactly, does GANDHI compare with Sydney Pollack's wonderful comedy TOOTSIE?  Or Ridley Scott's influential BLADERUNNER?  Or my personal favorite, Steven Spielberg's enormously popular ET-THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL?  It's never easy to say, but given how long it took Attenborough to get the film made, and how fine a film it is on the whole, I won't carp about the Academy's choice.