Gandhi (1982, Richard Attenborough)

RECOMMENDED

This is Social Studies class cinema, not something a lot of people will watch for fun, and in theory it doesn’t have a whole lot going for it: a straightforward if lavish biopic of one of the twentieth century’s most untouchable historical figures, one that sprawls out for more than three hours? Like the man himself, it seems holy, distant, too large in scope and ambition to bear any marks of direct filmmaker-to-audience communication. What’s odd is that these things are all true, and yet the film remains surprisingly illuminating and enjoyable — particularly in its first half, and in the scenes that don’t rely on the inexplicable entrance of white American characters (reporters and a hanger-on) to provide “perspective” of some sort. The film wisely, in cinematic terms, plants itself firmly in Mohandas Gandhi’s immediate surroundings; the changes of the world and swelling of the crowds around him have an appearance of the spontaneous, the natural, the inevitable. No matter how we feel about Mr. Gandhi (and he remains a controversial figure, with good reason), the bare facts of his story are captivating. By only slightly embellishing those facts, we end up with a film that’s surprisingly tasteful and ageless.

Director Richard Attenborough, though an illustrious and important figure in British cinema, is not one of his nation’s most beloved filmmakers in critical terms — Dave Kehr referred to him as David Lean sans personality, and it’s not a difficult jump. Lean already keeps an uncomfortable distance from his subjects and stories, and Attenborough drives this further with a kind of blustering bombast that’s a little too, well, polite. Gandhi isn’t really an exception to this — it frankly lacks a voice behind the camera, but it’s also beautifully made. There’s no use in questioning the motives behind it or its largeness; it’s as plainly a labor of love as any “Big” film ever has been. And when Columbia would ultimately run around every possible country promoting the film — with posters that bore the strikingly self-serious composure of National Geographic adverts — as “A WORLD EVENT,” it seems justified. It’s funny to imagine a time when a major studio would compose itself with such dignity in releasing and plugging a movie.

Attenborough’s well aware of the importance and worldwide relevance of his story, which continues now and as long as peace comes with struggle; he steps aside and gives the floor in large part to a series of collaborators, the first of whom is Gandhi himself, whose evolution in thought and life and sharply phrased wisdom provide all of the thrust the film needs to absorb us in its time and place. To its credit, the movie doesn’t shy away from misjudgments like Gandhi’s absurd remarks about how the Jews could overcome the strife in Nazi Germany, but frankly the film needs largely to be an only gently critical piece, and that’s what it is. It doesn’t fawn — that would be too much after three hours — but it strives for a documentary closeness, and this comes across well.

Secondarily is screenwriter John Briley, whose work moves along at a surprising clip. He skims Gandhi’s major life events from an initial battle during his early career as an attorney over cruel racism in South Africa to his 1948 assassination — approached in the flashback-context mode of Lawrence of Arabia, which is not a great model and quite unnecessary — and comes away with a complete portrait of a world, a man, and his accomplishments, with a climactic split of India and Pakistan the source of a deep and unresolved frustration that Briley exploits intelligently. Few films of this length are so consistently ingratiating and well-paced; Gandhi is never dull for its entire length. A third commendation to the film’s riskiest stroke, the employment of Ravi Shankar as a composer; his steeping of the soundtrack in the traditional sound of India is a radical decision for a Western mainstream biography, even one set in the nation, and his is the singular artistic accomplishment of Gandhi.

That is, unless we count Ben Kingsley, who’s so outstading as the Mahatma it seems difficult to believe he isn’t somehow a living channel. The script is, as in most biopics, finally unable to humanize Gandhi as a full-bodied character rather than just a body in a timeline, so Kingsley is given much of the work. He is up to the task. The rest of the cast, replete with pathetic cameos by Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen, pales next to his portrayal, and one is left to marvel at how much of a chameleon Kingsley has subsequently proven himself. His voice, his movements, his face — much of all this is a testament to his physical resemblance to Gandhi, but his actual performance is nevertheless remarkable. If the film treads and bows upon sainted territory, it’s perhaps not necessarily by Attenborough’s clear intention so much as Kingsley’s weightlessness and disappearance into the role.

Long is long, of course, and Gandhi is far from great cinema, for already outlined reasons; it just finally is too much of a textbook, and too safe. But safe films can please an awfully broad swath of humanity, and it’s quite important that a broad swath of humanity be exposed to this story, so maybe it’s an instance of a film that had to be made. It’s no more than a starting point in a study of Gandhi himself and his actual importance, but there’s strength in its straightforwardness — enough to justify it as essential, if heavy, viewing.

[Expanded from a review posted elsewhere in 2007.]

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