• Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. (Columbia Pictures)Source: Columbia Pictures
Questions about the Mahatma's more controversial character and views can't diminish an essential story for any age.
Nick Bhasin

2 Mar 2018 - 3:38 PM  UPDATED 21 Jan 2020 - 11:24 AM

Within the pantheon of worthy Oscar-winning epic/historical dramas, there are a lot of movies you might be hard pressed to revisit today. Especially the ones from the eighties. How much of a hurry are you in to see Out of Africa again? What about Chariots of Fire? The Last Emperor?

Sandwiched between these movies is Gandhi, the 1982 British-Indian epic directed by Richard Attenborough and starring Ben Kingsley in the title role. Running about three hours long, the movie also features a parade of great actors including John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and Daniel Day-Lewis as a South African racist street tough. And it cleaned up at the ‘83 Oscars, winning 8 out of 11 prizes, including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Screenplay.

On the surface, Gandhi seems like homework. A history lesson. And it certainly is that. Directing with a sweeping, David Lean-ish majesty (think Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, A Passage to India), Attenborough plays all the hits of the Gandhi story – getting kicked off a whites-only train carriage in South Africa, marching to the sea to make salt and generally facing down the British Empire – bringing it all home with the now classic non-violent civil resistance message.

But if you’re only vaguely familiar with why Mohandas K Gandhi is celebrated, this is a great place to start. It may not encompass all the complexity of the man, but it does a good job of providing an overview of what is an incredible story.

The film traces Gandhi’s political awakening as a lawyer facing racial injustice in South Africa through to his fighting for the rights of Indians there and then moving back to India to fight against the injustice of British colonisation. On the journey, he dons the wardrobe of the poor, seeking to represent the underclass by living as one of them. Through non-violent means, he shames the British into giving up India after 200 years of rule so the country can forge its own path. A path that would lead to the partition of the country, which Gandhi attempted to prevent.

You might be a devotee of Attenborough’s directorial oeuvre – A Chorus Line (1985), Cry Freedom (1987), Chaplin (1992), Shadowlands (1993) – but the best thing about the movie is Kingsley’s performance. Not only does he closely resemble Gandhi, but he masterfully captures everything he was loved for - wisdom, generosity of spirit, and most importantly, his sense of humour. On an increasingly fragile frame, he carries the fate of a country on his shoulders and never wavers, even in the face of a faltering strategy and years of imprisonment. And through it all, he exudes the inner peace of someone with a divine purpose.

For Indians of a certain generation, Kingsley’s portrayal provided not just a portrayal of the country’s greatest hero, but also a hero in Hollywood, which was hard to come by in 1982 – 14 years after Peter Sellars’ brownface in The Party, two years before the over the top monkey brains eating in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and four years before even more goofy brownface in Short Circuit. And he took it seriously. “I am so deeply proud of that film and that performance…” he said. “I was surrounded by Indians who were passionate that this story should be told correctly and beautifully. It was humbling and an enormous responsibility.”

My father, who was raised in Bombay, has always been fascinated by the stories of people overcoming great odds to achieve great things. He was particularly obsessed with Danny DeVito. “Look at this guy!” he’d say. “Do you think he listened when they told him he couldn’t be a Hollywood star? He was too short. Too ugly. And look at him now. He’s in Ruthless People!”

But there was something more personal in his admiration of Kingsley, whose Wikipedia page he’d already written in his head years before there was such a thing.

His real name is Krishna Pandit Bhanji – born in the UK of a Gujarati father and English mother - but like a lot of people with non-Anglo names at that time, he changed it. The way my father spoke about him was as another sort of hero, who overcome obscurity and minority status to play the most iconic Indian person ever (except maybe the Buddha, now that I think about it).

Kingsley’s performance is even more of a triumph when you consider who almost took the part instead of him. It’s hard to say with any serious accuracy which actors are officially considered for a film, but according to the internet, Dustin Hoffman, Robert De Niro and Richard Burton were up for the role

The role of Gandhi.

And before that, David Lean apparently wanted to make a Gandhi movie with Alec Guinness in the lead role. That’s right. (It wouldn’t be the first time Obi-Wan Kenobi got browned up for a role – he played an Indian scholar in A Passage to India.) Lean even thought Richard Attenborough himself might make a decent Mahatma. Can you imagine the kind of cinematic experience that might have been? (From now on, every time I’m tempted to get furious about white washing or weird racial casting, I am going to remind myself that Robert De Niro almost played Gandhi.)

How resonant Kingsley’s performance is may depend on where you stand on Gandhi’s legacy.

He is the face of civil resistance. The concept’s effectiveness has been debated, but it remains an unbelievable historical phenomenon that helped win India its freedom and inspired the strategy used by the American Civil Rights movement. Gandhi fasted to keep people from killing each other – and it worked. The so-called myth – and the movie – is undoubtedly not 100% accurate, sensationalising some aspects of the story while de-emphasising others in order to paint the picture of a saint.

Since 1982, we’ve learned a lot more about Gandhi’s personal life and gained more perspective on some of his less appealing ideas. Apparently, his major objection to being kicked out of his first class train carriage in South Africa – a big moment in his life and the film – was that he didn’t think Indians should have to share carriages with black people. And he abhorred modern technology, wanting to keep India in a pre-industrialised age. He also may have thought nonviolence would work against fascism, leading him to make some very unwise recommendations to the Allied powers in how to conduct World War II. And it would seem that he performed some unorthodox and inappropriate tests of his own chastity. Oh also, he appears to have been “sex mad”. If you want to experience all this in video form - especially his apparent support for India’s caste system - watch this interview with Indian novelist Arundhati Roy. Spoiler: She is not a fan.

But we no longer watch movies like Gandhi and believe that a man was sitting around 24/7 thinking “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. (He actually didn’t say that at all.) He was a flawed human being like the rest of us. But what the world is left with is the accomplishments and ideals and a movie that commemorates all of that. Even if you find it hard to buy into everything about a “great man” that mainstream history wants you to, it’s movies like this that survive as stirring reminders of what human beings are capable of under extraordinarily difficult circumstances.

It’s an important reminder in a world where the emergence of such a hero appears to be less and less common. Who are the Gandhi’s of today? Who steps forward to lead; to set an example and achieve political dreams by bringing people together? By being on the right side of history with unlimited patience to make real change?

Where are these people? Are there no more mountains to climb? Is it because colonialism is no longer as overtly prevalent a problem globally (though the consequences of colonialism certainly still resonate in places like India)? Is there no one with the bravery to preach love and empathy in the face of an enemy?

There is only one person I can think of:

Donald Trump.

I’m kidding, of course. Mainly because I’m nervous, even terrified of what this essay is forced to become: a plea to consider that we need Gandhi now more than ever because of Trump.

(If you’re rolling your eyes, just think about what it took for me to write it down.)

We live in times when some of our worst inclinations and beliefs are being stoked by people who do not have everyone’s interests at heart. People who seek to divide us. We may be approaching a critical time when someone will have to step up and remind us all of our humanity.

And we’ll have to listen or be torn apart.

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Watch 'Gandhi'

SBS Australia: Saturday 1 February, 10:20pm
SBS On Demand: After broadcast for a limited time 

India, UK, 1982
Genre: Drama, History
Language: English, Hindi
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, Rohini Hattangadi, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, Roshan Seth, Om Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Alyque Padamsee, Amrish Puri, Geraldine James, Daniel Day-Lewis, Athol Fugard, Dalip Tahil