“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….”
So begins Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi.
In spite of this acknowledgement of its inevitable shortcomings, which displays a respect for events which has gone out of fashion in Hollywood biopics, Gandhi is actually among the most painstakingly constructed examples of the genre ever made. It takes the view that the best way to make things look real is to do them for real. As such, every scene, no matter how brief, takes place in impeccable surroundings.
In one early scene in South Africa, for example, Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) converses with a journalist about his activity there, but while this could have easily taken place on a small set, it follows the characters as they walk around a village being built by the local Indians. With huge, real crowd scenes the film boasts the most extras ever used, presumably at least in part thanks to the low cost of labour in India.
The film’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: its reverence for its subject. I have no doubt that this is what motivated so many individuals to put so much into this, but it also means that Gandhi is shown to be near-perfect. It’s true that a lot of the criticisms of Gandhi; like that fact his agricultural policies would have been destructive if practiced on a large scale or his universal commitment to passive resistance which would not, in fact, work in all places and all times; are hardly relevant to the role he played in Indian independence. Indeed, the accomplishment of peacefully overthrowing colonial rulers while also maintaining good relations with them can hardly be over-stated.
But so reverential is the film that it declines serious comment in other areas. Gandhi’s troubled relationship with his wife, for example, is briefly addressed in an early scene, but from that point she is shown as perfectly content to walk in his shadow and do his bidding.
And at the core of this is Ben Kingsley, who gives a career-defining performance across a huge range of ages. There are very few moments of human warmth to come from Gandhi. He’s totally on message in any given situation, albeit with occasional shades of good-natured humour. He never appears to have any self-doubt in what he’s doing, or feel the pressure of expectations from hundreds of millions of people. I don’t know how accurate this is to real life, but Kingsley nonetheless manages to make the character likeable, in spite of his apparent lack of human flaws.
The film is very much about Britain and India’s shared history, and the British-Indian Kingsley is the perfect choice for the lead role. Indeed, Gandhi himself was a product of both India and a British education, and welcomes Western reporters and supporters with open arms. The message is clear: this is not about race or nationalism, it’s about peacefully ending rule by one group of people over another.
One of the most remarkable films ever made, Gandhi does justice to one of the most remarkable figures of the 20th Century.