Dir. Richard Attenborough
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actor (Ben Kingsley), Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Original Screenplay (John Briley), Best Cinematography (Billy Williams, Ronnie Taylor), Best Art Direction (Stuart Craig, Robert W. Laing, Michael Seirton), Best Costume Design (John Mollo, Bhanu Athaiya), Best Film Editing (John Bloom)
Other nominees: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict
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 to try to find one’s way to the heart of the man…
It is perhaps not surprising that Gandhi begins with the above title crawl, or that it begins with a title crawl at all. It is a thoroughly respectful, tiringly detailed, and handsomely mounted retelling of Gandhi’s adult life, beginning chronologically at one of his first experiences of racism and stretching until his funeral, attended by 300,000 extras, a number which one can presume only suggests the true number of mourners at his death in 1948. The film is terribly respectful, and happily dull.
Strangely enough, Gandhi is not a terribly political movie, though the viewer can gather that John Briley’s Oscar-winning screenplay does respect the man and the causes that he fought for. The film follows Gandhi’s personal life, and exposes the historical situations and events that he met as he saw them, rather than as textbook events. If the film takes any political sides, it is only in favor of nonviolence, which it presents (rightly, I think we can all agree) as the most noble high road available in trying times. The film is over 30 years old at this point, and our understandings of the evils of colonialism have only strengthened in the intervening years, but the film does present a strikingly strong case against the presence of the English in India, one that could even stand up to today’s stringent standards of political correctness. I found the film’s use of “traditional” Indian music and “beautiful” Indian art / landscapes / textiles to leave a slightly sour taste, though, as it showed that the film was clearly made by Western filmmakers for a Western audience.
As Gandhi, Ben Kingley gives a perfectly credible performance, anchoring the film’s moral hold with stubborn certitude and easily passing for a man between the ages of ~30 and 78. I missed a sense of emotional arc in his performance, but perhaps this is because the film depicted so much of his life, and of course, human lifespans do not lend themselves to neat emotional narratives. Regardless, Kingsley’s performance is technically astute and deserving.
The film also boasts a tremendous supporting cast that offers more big names than possibly any other film on this list. Throughout the film, you can spot John Geilgud, Edward Fox, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen, Ian Charleson, Athol Fugard, Geraldine James, Richard Griffiths, Daniel Day-Lewis, Bernard Hill, Trevor Howard, and Nigel Hawthorne. None of them stay along for very long (save Gielgud, Bergen, and Charleson), but their appearances are exciting nonetheless. The most important supporting role is that of Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi). The relationship between the two is the longest relationship in the film, for obvious reasons, and the two grow together beautifully and believably (extra props to the make-up department on this film, who aged these two, and many of the other characters, completely believably and sans CGI).
When Gandhi begins his famous 200 mile march to the ocean, he is questioned about his motives by an American reporter (Sheen) and gives this answer:
The function of a civil resister is to provoke response and we will continue to provoke until they respond or they change the law. They are not in control; we are. That is the strength of civil resistance.
This quote sums up the film completely, and I wonder why they needed well over three hours to tell the story when they’ve done it just as wonderfully in just three sentences.