“We must be the change we wish to see.”
It took 20 years for Richard Attenborough’s vision of producing and directing a film on the life of Gandhi to come to fruition. The saga began in 1962 when a staff member of the Indian High Commission in London approached him about such a project. Only in 1980, however, had he managed at last to round up enough money (the project was budgeted at $22 million) to proceed. With 37-year-old British stage actor Ben Kingsley signed to play the title role, shooting began in November 1980 and was completed six months later. Most of the shooting was done on location in India, with the balance in London and at the Pinewood Studios in England.
The completed film premiered in New Delhi and then opened in the U.S. in December 1982. It went on to garner nine Academy Awards for Best Picture, Director, Actor, Screenplay, Cinematography, Editing, Art Direction, Costumes, and Set Decoration.
Columbia has now released Gandhi on DVD in a superb-looking edition.
Gandhi provides a profile of the life of Mohandas Gandhi by focusing on a number of the key events in the great man’s life, including: his rude introduction to apartheid in South Africa, his return to India and dedication to the traditional Indian ways, the first protest against British rule via the burning of ID cards, the massacre led by General Dyer, the Dharasana Saltworks protest, the various fasts and imprisonments, Indian independence, and his eventual assassination.
The key to the success of Gandhi is the casting of Ben Kingsley as the Mahatma (Great Soul). To begin with, one must note that it is rather ironic that a film that details the life of a man dedicated to the removal of British dominance from his homeland turns to a man of that very country to portray him. Whether that was ever an issue during the actual making of the film in India is not mentioned in any of the supplementary material that appears on the DVD, but one can only assume that it was, for at least some individuals. But while it may rankle that Gandhi was not played by an Indian actor, there can be no argument that Kingsley’s portrayal is altogether a sensitive, accurate, and compelling effort. It’s difficult to see how it could be improved upon. Of course, Kingsley had the advantage of starting with a facial structure and body size that could be molded to resemble closely that of Gandhi himself. Kingsley applied himself to a program of weight reduction and gradual tanning that eventually gave him a realistic Gandhi look. His ability as a mimic enabled him to copy Gandhi’s voice intonations virtually perfectly. With an extremely fine script to work from, Kingsley then managed to deliver a convincing and commanding portrayal. The finest acting performance I have ever seen was that of George C. Scott in Patton, but Ben Kingsley’s work in Gandhi is one of a handful of performances that come very close.
Mind you, reading the credits on the back of the DVD, one would think that Gandhi was made only with Western actors. Other than Ben Kingsley, the only others mentioned are a number of guest stars including Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, and Martin Sheen. Although these individuals are all fine in their roles (and, one supposes, necessary to secure the film’s financing, not to mention fun guessing who’s going to pop up next), it means that a number of fine Indian actors are overlooked. Rohini Hattangady, for example, is memorable as Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife, and Roshan Seth gives a superb performance as Pandit Nehru. In fact, all the members of Gandhi’s inner circle are well-portrayed by actors little known in the West (Saeed Jaffrey as Sardar Patel, Alyque Padamsee as Mohamed Ali Jannah, and Amrish Puri as Khan) — with perhaps the exceptions of Seth and Puri.
Gandhi is one of the last of the great film epics with a literal rather than digitally-produced cast of thousands. There are 189 scenes in the shooting script requiring 87 settings. Some of them, including Gandhi’s “He is coming” arrival at the train station and his speech to the masses in the hills are great spectacles, but nothing compares to the reconstruction of the funeral procession with its multitudes of people. The power of the sequence is reflected in Kingsley’s own comments (heard on one of the DVD supplements) on how moved — even shaken — he was being transported amongst the crowd as he lay in state as the dead Gandhi. These scenes are skillfully orchestrated and beautifully framed by director Richard Attenborough. Attenborough’s track record may be a bit spotty (A Chorus Line and to a lesser extent Chaplin didn’t really click, but Shadowlands, Young Winston, and Cry Freedom were winners), but here he’s on top of his game and his Best Director Oscar was well deserved. Backing up Attenborough are all the trappings appropriate to a large-scale epic, from a long yet literate script, to music both majestic and traditional by George Fenton and Ravi Shankar, to expansive cinematography by Billy Williams.
Columbia has delivered a winner of a DVD for Gandhi. The centerpiece is a beautiful 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer of the film. There have been a few rumblings of late about less-than-sterling transfers from Columbia, but that’s not the case here. The image is crystal clear and colours are bright and faithfully rendered. There are essentially no nicks or scratches, and contrast and shadow detail are excellent. Edge enhancement is virtually non-existent.
Turning to the audio, Columbia has provided a Dolby Digital 5.1 English track and 2.0 stereo surround French and Spanish tracks. The 5.1 track does a nice job of delivering Gandhi‘s pleasures. It’s not a particularly enveloping sound, as the surrounds are not used perhaps as much as they might be, but the dialogue is rich and clear and the music is beautifully conveyed. Ravi Shankar’s traditional Indian music fares particularly well. A nice moment occurs at the intermission when the screen goes black and you can just sit back and be drawn into his music for a short interlude. The same is somewhat true during the closing credits.
Although this is a single-disc presentation of a rather long film (190 minutes), Columbia has managed to give us an array of short supplements. In a 2000 interview with Ben Kingsley of 20 minutes duration, we get a nice feel for the manner in which Kingsley approached the role of Gandhi. Kingsley is quite forthright in his comments about his abilities and he also provides interesting insights into working with several of the other principals. A five-minute photo montage on the making of the film follows this. The supplement package then turns to the real Gandhi, first providing a series of quotations from the man himself, and then showing four newsreel segments ranging from one to four minutes in length. These cover a trip to England, Gandhi’s farewell talk in Europe, the beginning of the death fast, and Gandhi’s first talking picture. As one might expect, the image quality is not great and there’s the normal age-related hiss in the narration, but it is fascinating to have these actual scenes of Gandhi available to us. The special features conclude with selected filmographies for the filmmakers (but none of the Indian actors), the theatrical trailer, and some production notes included on the disc insert pamphlet.
I’m very pleased with what we did receive in this DVD package. I must confess though that I was somewhat disappointed not to have an audio commentary from Richard Attenborough or a thorough making-of documentary. It seems to me that Gandhi was a very personal journey for Attenborough and I would have liked to have heard his thoughts in one form or another about the difficulties in getting the film funded and also the logistics of filming in India. Perhaps his age or other commitments precluded this. If so, that’s unfortunate, given that many much-lesser films seem to be accorded such supplements.
It’s also disappointing to look at the real world more than 50 years after Gandhi’s death and think about the divisions that spoiled his dream of a unified India of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians. The same hatreds and prejudices that forced the separate countries of India and Pakistan to be created instead of one single nation continue to create tension in the Indian sub-continent. Similar religious intolerances continue to raise their heads in other locations around the world — Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia, the Middle East. The list seems endless, but more depressing is the fact that the solution seems impossibly distant as long as such intolerances are continually passed down from generation to generation.
Gandhi is a film of the early ’80s that’s one of the last of the big epics. It contains one of finest acting performances on film and backs it with plenty of worthy supporting efforts from actors both familiar and unfamiliar. We get glimpses of a country seldom seen in mainstream British or American films and a history lesson that many have little awareness of. It all adds up to a must-see film for which Columbia has provided a superb DVD presentation (despite the lack of an audio commentary or thorough making-of documentary). Highly recommended.