Sunday, February 13, 2011
The Best Picture Countdown #55: Gandhi (1982)
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley
So often biopics tend to fall into one of two traps. Either they play out like a laundry list of events from someone’s life, touching on the moments but not really exploring them; or, they focus intensely on the events but sacrifice the opportunity to really illuminate the essence of the subject at the centre of those events. In a typical film, there’s just too little time to explore both the subject as a human being, and the thing (or things) that made him or her a noteworthy part of history. Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi sidesteps that problem by clocking in at a mammoth 191 minutes and finding a balance between Gandhi the man and Gandhi the icon.
After a brief prologue which shows the assassination and funeral of Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) in 1948, the film flashes back 1893. From there it proceeds chronologically, working its way back to those opening moments. The story proper begins with Gandhi in South Africa, where he rallies other Indians to protest the laws that limit their rights. The group eventually wins the fight (though, it should be noted that they only win on behalf of Indian immigrants; nothing changes for the local black population) and Gandhi is changed by the process. He arrived in South Africa a lawyer accustomed to wearing fine suits and riding first class; he will leave it a thoroughly humbled man who eschews all luxury.
Back in India, where he is welcomed as a hero, Gandhi begins his campaign of non-violent, non-cooperation to break the nation free of the British Empire. He is arrested and imprisoned on multiple occasions and his methods don’t always meet the approval of his some of his allies but with the outbreak of World War II leaving the British too overextended to effectively enforce itself in India, the nation is granted its independence. However, that independence comes with a price as the Muslim minority pushes for its own nation, which will become Pakistan. Gandhi opposes the partition but as violence between Hindus and Muslims sweeps the nation, it becomes apparent that there is little chance of a peaceful resolution. The best that he, or anyone else, can hope for is that the cycle of attack and reprisal will come to a halt as massive numbers of Hindus and Muslims are displaced and the region is forever changed.
The screenplay by John Briley (who won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) covers a great deal of ground but it is very, very focused. Obviously the film isn’t able to explore all the upheavals faced by Gandhi as a man and India as a nation in all their complexities, but it manages to paint a picture in broad enough strokes that the changing political situation can be understood while also giving it enough detail that we’re given a good sense of the ultimate impact of each shift. The most important aspect of the screenplay, though, is that it is able to give a fully fleshed portrait of Gandhi himself. He isn’t depicted as a saintly figure who can do no wrong, but as a man with flaws who changes according to his experiences. The biggest change happens at the beginning, when he decides to exchange comfort for a life of poverty (a change his wife Kasturba, played by Rohini Hattangadi, adapts to far less easily) and the story does an excellent job at conveying to us why he makes this decision without becoming needlessly bogged down in it, and it finds a great balance between the scenes which show the major injustices faced by Indian people courtesy of the British and the smaller, subtler scenes which demonstrate that Gandhi isn’t simply interested in eliminating imperialism but also in eliminating the class system which exists amongst Indian people as well.
This is a big story and there are many characters who drift in and out as Gandhi makes his way from South Africa to his assassination, including a reporter played by Martin Sheen and a photojournalist played by Candace Bergen, but it is always Kingsley at the centre of it all. This was Kingsley’s breakout role and won him the Best Actor Oscar, an award he very richly deserved. He underplays to magnificent effect here, demonstrating in his interactions with each of the individuals that he comes up against just how effective non-cooperation can be. The weight of the story really rests on this performance and Kingsley consistently delivers, helping to make Gandhi as thematically deep as the production is lavish. Though Gandhi is perhaps not as beloved today as some of the films it was up against for Best Picture (ie E.T. and Tootsie), it has aged very well.