Sunday, July 02, 2006

Richard Attenborough's Film: Gandhi (1982)


Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Rohini Hattangadi, Charlie Sheen, Candice Bergen

My first thought, after having watched this film the other night, was, “I can’t belieeeeeeeeeve I never saw this movie until now.”

Mohandas Gandhi, a Cambridge, UK educated lawyer, inspired by the prejudice he experienced in South Africa after passing the bar, initiated civil disobedience protests there to win civil rights for Indians. Moved on to his homeland, which he had to learn about since he had been educated abroad. He saw that British subjects of other nationalities on foreign soil (away from Great Britain) were treated like garbage. Given the title “mahatma” meaning “great soul”, he fought for Indian independence from England, using non-violent means. With his wife, Kasturba, by his side speaking for him whenever he was ill or in prison, Gandhi incited the people of India to stand up for unjust British rule using noncooperation.

Born into relative comfort and destined to be a successful lawyer, Gandhi could have been a rich man who accepted his privileged place in society as part of God’s order. But, the prejudices he had experienced inspired him to reject the India’s Hindu caste system, which divided society into four major groups, with the ‘untouchables’ at the bottom. He shed his European clothing and settled for a loincloth made from homespun Indian cotton to protest Britain’s dominance over India’s textiles. He also minimized his worldly possessions.

Gandhi considered himself and everyone else as “children of God,” no religion preferred over another. His believed that Muslim-Hindu unity in India was imperative to India’s success as an independent nation. However, when it became apparent that Muslims would not settle for potential subjugation under a Hindu majority in newly independent India, he agreed to the proposal that a new Islamic nation be created from India’s majority Muslim northwest corner, Pakistan.
When violence possessed Indian rebels to lash out at police and British officers, and when Muslims and Hindus began to turn against each other once India gained independence, Gandhi, considered the father of India at the time, went on dangerous hunger strikes. The people revered him enough to stop for a while so that he would live.

During bloody Muslim-Hindu strife, however, some extremist Hindus considered Gandhi a traitor for agreeing to the Muslims’ demands and called for his death. He was assassinated in 1948.

It is extremely difficult to blog about this movie in the context of a "1980s film" even though I thought was good, i.e. Attenborough did a great job pulling everything together. It is a well-done period piece. Therefore, the film is timeless, on the whole (I’ll get to why not entirely later). It was really long, complete with intermission, and dealt with an historical figure whom we Americans do not know enough about, so it’s hard to compare this portrayal of him because there is little or no point of reference. From what I saw, though, Ben Kingsley did an amazing job. (By the way, I never knew until now that Kingley’s father was from Gujarat, the same state as Gandhi, so he’s half-Indian.)

The sweeping cinematography, with wide shots of the Indian countryside, contributed to the epic feel of the film.

The major beef I have with this film is how it minimizes his the importance of his wife, Kasturba (played by Rohini Hattangadi). So often we get idealized portraits of great men. It would have been nice to see more of his relationship with his wife. It would have humanized him a bit. She was his partner. She 'fought' alongside him. She spoke for him. Her death in the movie, after decades of standing alongside him, gives us a hint of his grief, but then nothing! She is forgotten! But was he really that stoic in real life? In the movie, she obviously loves him, says he’s her best friend, and it's apparent she will do anything for him. They seem to be at ease when they’re together. But he barely reacts with emotion to her. I know he took a celibacy vow, but I thought he seemed a bit cold to her in a couple of scenes. Maybe it's just me.

I imagine that in 1982, her unyielding devotion to her husband seemed quite admirable, but I think if the film were made today we would have seen more of her influence on him. She had to have had some! She was his lifelong partner (they were married at 13). I cringed when she says, “My dignity comes from following my husband.” No, it doesn’t! You have your own dignity, girl!!

I know that a lot of spiritually motivated philanthropic men have had trouble treating those closest to them with the respect they deserve (MLK, Jr, John Lennon, for instance). The have the big picture on their minds and have little time for personal relationships. With Gandhi, the way he probably treated his wife probably reflected that as well as cultural shortcomings. But that doesn't mean she didn't have a profound influence.

Conversely, I think Attenborough was smart to leave out some of the more unsavory details of Gandhi's life. His aim was to show Gandhi not as a funny Hindu man in a loincloth, which is the perception a lot of Americans still have, but to show that he wasn't so different after all. In doing that, although the film did a good job with explaining his general religious/spiritual beliefs, I think it played down the influence Hinduism had on him and left out his advocacy of satyagraha.

Another thing the filmmakers did (the studio?) to sell the film to western audiences is apparent when you watch the trailer AFTER seeing the film. OK, I'll tell you the way it struck me: The Indian actress who played his wife is named LAST, after a bunch of European or American actors, many with smaller parts. Same thing on the cast list on IMDB... she's listed smack in the middle, after all the 'main' actors but before the secondary actors. That probably would have been different now, too.

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