Director Richard Attenborough spent twenty years trying to get this movie made. Looking at the finished film, despite its bevy of Oscars and its box office success, it’s not easy to say it was worth it. It’s not a bad film by any means but while watching it I couldn’t help but think about much better, more electrifying, more inspired films, like Lawrence of Arabia (which feels like a big influence) or Malcolm X (which doesn’t feel influenced specifically by this, but has a lot in common with it.)
Ben Kingsley, of course, plays Gandhi, and plays him across his life, from the young, British-accented suit-and-tie-clad lawyer, to the revered ‘Father of the Nation,’ old and sickly. And he plays him very well, with the quiet strength and intensity that caused millions to follow the man. The film’s direction and screenplay seem to have a hard time deciding on their interpretation of Gandhi — is he a righteous naïf, or is he a canny political strategist? The answer is probably a mixture of both, and I think that’s what they’re going for, but I don’t think the film pulls off that particular triple lutz. Kingsley is better than the script at this, and the way you can see the gears turning in his head during moments in the film, suggesting the deliberation and calculation in Gandhi’s actions, deepen the character than what he is on the page.
But when it comes to making the film flow, there’s little that Kingsley’s performance can do. It’s a long film, over three hours, as it maybe needed to be, but the rhythm between scenes and within scenes is slack. At times it feels more like a pageant than a movie. Scenes end rather than feeling like they flow into the next one. The twenty-one years Gandhi spent in South Africa go by without much of a feeling of years passing. Only during the film’s last act, as Partition threatens to destroy India and turn Hindu against Muslim, does the film gain a sustained sense of urgency. The sequence of Gandhi going on his final hunger strike, nearly killing him, to stop the violence in the streets, is pretty danged effective, and a scene where Gandhi is confronted by a Hindu man who killed a Muslim boy in revenge for the death of his family has a real emotional impact that makes you realize how much of the film lacks that human element.
Films with a more narrow focus, like Selma, are able to have the injustices and oppressions depicted feel more real and more tangible by showing their impact on ordinary people, but Gandhi is lacking in that area. There are some well-done scenes along these lines — the depiction of the horrific Amritsar Massacre, where the British Army slaughtered over a thousand unarmed Indian civilians, is appropriately bone-chilling — but too often Attenborough seems to view the events in question from a distance. Gandhi was imprisoned by the British many times in his life, but none of his prison sentences in this film have even a fraction of the power of the prison scenes in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X.
You don’t feel what it’s like to be a prisoner in this movie, and you don’t even think you might feel what it’s like to be in prison.
It’s tempting to attribute this to the fact that Attenborough is British and white rather than Indian, and thus lacks a personal connection to this story, and there’s probably some truth to that. Still, I think that the film is full of a real admiration for Gandhi’s philosophy from beginning to end, and in that regard he doesn’t feel disconnected — it just mainly feels misdirected (Attenborough’s later bio Chaplin has a lot of the same problems without the obvious handicaps).
The fact that it is a film made by a white British filmmaker, in English, and with a biracial English actor in the title role rather an actor from India, is problematic on its own, though certainly it could have been much worse (Attenborough offered Anthony Hopkins the lead role several years earlier!). Mercifully, the film avoids the common tropes of the White Savior Figure or the White POV Character, but there are maybe one too many sympathetic Westerner supporting characters, even though most of them are well-acted and believable. Those characters are counterbalanced by an assortment of British acting legends — John Gielgud, John Mills, Trevor Howard — playing the representatives of the Raj, and there is a cleverness in seeing Gandhi take on these British establishment icons played by British acting establishment icons.
This is not a Warts-and-All bio, clearly. It was produced with the close collaboration of the Indian government, and its portrayal of Gandhi is saintly and unaffected by darkness. The film leaves out Gandhi’s early anti-black racism and his bizarre, uncomfortable late-in-life behavior with female relatives. I honestly don’t even blame the filmmakers, in a way. I think sometimes hagiography can get a bad rap: the point of a hagiography is not to blow smoke up someone’s ass, it’s to point to a real person as exhibiting certain moral principles that we the audience can look to in our lives to strive to reach, and there’s value in that. Still, I think that the film has a distinct lack of drama when it comes to its central character. I would have liked more dramatic tension to occur because of Gandhi’s still-controversial involvement in the ‘Quit India’ movement during World War II, or to have seen perhaps some of the psychological self-laceration that must have occurred during Gandhi’s transformation from lawyer to Holy Man.
In its final act, the film embraces the drama regarding Gandhi’s philosophy more clearly, as Gandhi’s idealism smacks up against the ugliness of Partition and the struggles of newfound Independence. It’s one thing to get the British out, it’s quite another to have a billion people of different faiths, tongues, and races live side by side in harmony. I think that’s why it’s the best part of the film — it challenges Gandhi’s approach, it certainly doesn’t reject it, but it shows why it’s an approach that can at times feel painful and counterproductive. So at the end, when Gandhi comes out on the other side, and both he and India are stronger, it feels more earned.
In order to keep this post from reaching Attenborough levels of length, I will end by saying that despite a lot of ambition and clear hard work, 1982’s Gandhi feels undercooked and uninspiring.