Gandhi: One Man’s Life Beautifully Told

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi tells the story of the great Mahatma Gandhi, a true champion of the people. I’ll be honest here, my knowledge of Gandhi before watching this movie was limited. It’s glanced over in most of my history books growing up, which means that I forget about his impact. Except that I shouldn’t have. His struggle in the face of constant oppression is an incredible story.

The movie starts with Gandhi’s humble beginnings as a lawyer who just arrived in South Africa. He’s kicked off a train for riding in a first class car, an honor that isn’t for folks of his race. From that point forward, over the next three hours, the film intricately portrays the horrible treatment and oppression of Indians, even in their own country.

Through all of this, Gandhi becomes the de-facto leader of the Indians, and he personifies their collective struggle for independence from the British Empire. He talks at length of the unnecessary injustices placed on the people, who the British basically condemned to poverty through their policies.

Gandhi is, at its heart, a story about people and their response to struggle. I couldn’t stop watching, or get enough of, Ben Kingsley (who played Gandhi). He portrays the figurehead in a way that I can only describe as “masterful.” The film excels in all elements and, at one point, I almost cried. By the time it was done, I was crushed due to the plot but thrilled to have seen this movie.

It should be noted that some of the historical parts of this movie are dramatized or misleading. I know that a movie changing history for its own gain comes as a shock to most of you. I’ve never felt as if it’s my job in this blog to grade a movie based on how historically accurate it is. Nor is it up to me to hold a movie accountable for not following a book down to the last period. No, I’m here to judge this particular piece of art on its own merits. I cannot, however, ignore it when a movie does this. I do have to let you, the reader, know about it.

One such instance is early in the movie when Gandhi begins campaigning for racial equality in South Africa. He wants the Indians to be treated on equal footing as the British.

In real life, though Gandhi never wanted equal footing for Indians in South Africa, or at least he did not campaign for it. Rather, Gandhi felt that Indians shouldn’t have to enter buildings through the same segregated doors as native South Africans. He felt it to be below the Indians. He lobbied for, and was granted, a third segregated entrance door for Asian peoples. He was fighting to extend and clarify racial segregation rather than end it, like it’s shown in the movie.

I’ve always felt that a director or Hollywood as a whole do have the right to dramatize parts of their movies. We saw that happen in Argo. But at what cost? Is it worth it to sweep over some things in order for the ideas to fit into a modern mindset? That, I can’t be sure of.

Enough about that; time for the review:

Writing/Dialogue:

John Briley wrote Gandhi and the film won the Academy Award for Best Writing, Screenplay. This movie, much like Argo, is not driven by action, but rather by words. And the only way I can describe the script is “perfect.”

On the whole, Gandhi’s script is very inspiring. It has an impressive number of motivational quotes that we all can apply to real life. These include a well-known saying like, “an eye for an eye only end up making the whole world blind.” But it has more original ones like, “while you’re doing it, cleaning the toilet seems more important than the law,” or “poverty is the greatest form of violence.”

Gandhi’s script works in other ways, too, particularly in the subtext. Gandhi is not only on the forefront of change in his own life, but change on a macro level, too. Britain ruled India from 1858 to 1947, or at least two generations. During meetings between Gandhi and other leaders, the discussions center around self-governance. While it’s not overtly stated, I sensed a great fear among the major players in the room about a possible power vacuum when the British finally do leave. Basically, India could be a disaster from the start. Good movies explains what the characters are feeling, great ones lead you to that conclusion without saying a word. 1.

Directing

Gandhi was Richard Attenborough’s dream movie, using almost two decades to make it. Well, it was worth it.

Creatively speaking, Gandhi was simple, yet effective. But there are some small nuances. At one point, Gandhi travels to see some indigo farmers that have effectively been put out of business. He’s wearing his traditional white tunic and he doesn’t have glasses on. He listens to the farmer’s woes and, before speaking, he takes a moment to put on his famous round glasses. To the audience, he “becomes” Gandhi at that point. When he puts glasses on, you can almost see the world through Gandhi’s eyes.

Attenborough also directs his actors exceptionally well (more on that below) with folks like Kingsley almost glowing. For his efforts, Attenborough received Best Director from the Academy. 1.

Set Design

There are really only two settings in Gandhi: South Africa and India. I will focus on the latter here.

Like Around the World in 80 Days, the physical location of the movie is just as much of a character. Whereas Around the World in 80 Days funneled all Indians into a stereotype and dressed them all more or less the same, Gandhi takes a more traditional approach. There’s a beautiful authenticity within which the characters are placed. This was done intentionally. Almost all the movie was filmed in India, so the places are true to form. The decision to shoot this movie in India game me insight into an utterly beautifully culture. 1.

Cinematography

Ronnie Taylor and Billy Williams both took home the Oscar for Best Cinematography for their work in Gandhi. The movie doesn’t have a lot of really creative shots, but each one is composed perfectly.

As in Around the World in 80 Days, the setting is as much a character in this movie. Between close-up and medium-range shots, there are big and beautiful views of the Indian subcontinent. These shots gleam on the 2.20:1 aspect ratio. These range from city skylines to vast wilderness. These shots forced me to love India as much as Gandhi did.

One of my favorite shots was about two-thirds of the way through the movie. Gandhi has been called to meet with British officials. The establishing shot of this scene is when he’s walking into some large government building, though you don’t know that until later. You see Gandhi’s sandal climb the first step, then the camera pulls out and up, revealing the large building. Gandhi remains in the bottom left corner of the shot. This particular shot took insane skills and incredible patience to pull off. 1.

Sound

Gandhi’s soundtrack was composed by Ravi Shavkar. The score adds to the whole experience and makes this movie feel Indian. But, it’s used sparingly, mainly during transitions.

The sound effects are bold as well. For example, when a scene takes place in a garden. The environment is full of birds chirping or crickets singing. This adds ambience and depth. 1.

Acting

Because Gandhi takes place over many years, there are several actors that come and go. There are very few constants. Since this is essentially a biography about Gandhi, I have to focus on Ben Kingsley.

Simply put, Kingsley’s performance was utterly stunning. He sold me on Gandhi so well that when I find photos of the actual Gandhi, I can hardly believe that it’s the real Gandhi. Kingsley makes it look easy.

He won Best Actor for this role and there’s zero reason to doubt that it was a close race. This was truly Kingsley’s masterpiece; he’s magnetic. He shows great latitude in his performance as well. He takes us through all of Gandhi’s emotions from a charismatic leader of people to a benevolent politician.

Late in the movie, Gandhi’s wife dies of a heart attack while they’re in prison. He waits by her bed day and night. When she does pass, the devastation that Kingsley shows comes straight from his gut. I almost cried during this, even when I watched it the second time. This was an all time performance and I loved every minute of it. 1.

Plot

The basic gist of Gandhi is a seemingly well-worn story of a struggle against tyranny and racism by the ruling class. Don’t get me wrong here, there’s nothing wrong with this, it’s just used a lot. Gandhi does this story line very well because there’s a deeper element at work here: Gandhi must find strength within himself, too. He starts to the movie very timid yet resolute. He, like a solid NFL running back, gets stronger and better as the “game” goes on. He’s constantly tested, doubted, brutalized and thrown into prison. Yet, his idea, the very thing he’s fighting for, never waivers. Gandhi yearns for his people to be just that: their own people. To accomplish this, he must be his own person, first.

But his people change. At the beginning of the movie they begin being very hostile to the British. But through Gandhi’s determination, they slowly accept and adapt his mantra of non-violent non-compliance. It becomes very upsetting when his people turn on his ideas and plunge the country into chaos after their own independence. It’s a betrayal that threatens to overrule Gandhi’s legacy very late in his life. It’s ends up costing him his own, too. 1.

Bonus Points

I’ll give a bonus point to Ben Kingsley. Yes, he was that good. He had to play a Gandhi in all phases of his life, which takes so much talent and focus. I’m also going to give another point to the set design. Gandhi’s funeral procession is at the beginning of the movie and it is beautiful. The flowers, the uniforms and the crowd is very well done. Also, the production used about 300,000 extras for that one scene, and that deserves a point in my book. Finally, I’m giving another point to Richard Attenborough and his directorial effort. All of the above categories fall within the director’s realm and they’re all perfectly done.

Final Score: 10/10

Oscar Facts

Gandhi won the 55th Academy Award for Best Picture on April 11, 1983 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles. Liza Minnelli, Dudley Moore, Richard Pryor and Walter Matthau hosted the ceremony. Gandhi beat out E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie and The Verdict. Carol Burnett presented the award. Overall, Gandhi was nominated 11 times and won eight awards, the most of any other movie that year. It won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing.

Meryl Streep won her first Best Actress award that year for her role in Sophie’s Choice. Louis Gossett Jr. became the first African-American man to win Best Supporting Actor for An Officer and a Gentleman while Jessica Lange won Best Supporting Actress for her work in Tootsie.

Next Week

Next up is John G. Avildsen’s classic movie Rockywhich won the Best Picture in the 1976 season of movies. I’m a gigantic sports fan, but I’ve never seen this movie. I cannot wait to watch this all-time classic movie. After that it’s The Broadway Melody, Kramer vs. Kramer, Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Emperor.

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