GANDHI (1982)

Gandhi-posterOur timing for watching this film was really perfect for me. We wrapped the viewing up at the same time as I was going to Washington, DC for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington, an event commemorating Martin Luther King, Junior’s historic civil rights speech. This was also my nephew’s first march. On the way down in the metro my mom, my nephew and I all talked about non-violence – and it was impossible not to bring up the man on whose life this film is based.

The film is ambitious, spanning from 1893 when Gandhi is thrown off a whites-only train in South Africa to his assassination and funeral in 1948. Ben Kingsley, fantastic in the role of Gandhi, exudes calm, conviction and fortitude – you can’t imagine the film with anyone else. Clocking in at over three hours, it definitely took us several slogs to get through and if the miniseries format had been an available delivery mechanism at the time, that might have been preferable.

On the other hand, this movie is epic – perhaps a miniseries would have robbed it of some of its cinematic breadth. It had been Director Richard Attenborough’s dream project, and he had failed twice before trying to make a film about the life of the lauded historical figure and civil rights luminary. In the end, Gandhi won 8 Academy Awards, was nominated for 3 more, and received wide critical acclaim. It’s also of note that according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the funeral scene in this film used the most extras of any film in history – 300,000.

Long, yes, but a beautiful film about the life of a fascinating man. Gandhi reminded me a bit of Lawrence of Arabia. Both are historical epics about single individuals, opening with the subject’s death, then flashing back to a pivotal moment in his life to begin the story. Both movies tell the tale of a figure who played a role in the story of British colonialism, each in his own way. But whereas T. E. Lawrence is known for leading a brutal guerrilla war, Gandhi gained renown for his steadfast, almost fanatical devotion to non-violence- and the results that it achieved.

I’d read about Mohandas Gandhi in school, but watching this made me realize how little I know about the man and the movements he led. As with any historical film, I’m intensely curious about the historicity of the events on screen. I know films like Amadeus, Braveheart and A Beautiful Mind took significant liberties with facts- which is no sin, provided your goal is to tell a compelling story. I get the feeling Gandhi stuck close to the historical record. Either way, I certainly learned a thing or two, not just about historical events like the Jalianwalla Bagh massacre, but also about the wily political strategizing that inevitably exists behind even the most noble of movements. If there is anyone who is very knowledgeable about Gandhi the man, I’d love to hear how right the movie got it.

We quipped when watching this that you never really hear or think much about the “Bride of Gandhi,” or “Wife of Gandhi,” and how rough a life that must have been in many ways, albeit extremely inspiring. There are many beautiful scenes in the film between Gandhi and Kasturba, his wife. The two married at 14, and in one part of the film they re-enact their wedding ceremony. The stress his political fame must have put on her reminded me of that depicted in the movie about Harvey Milk. There were times in the film where the revolution and social justice were put before her needs, but she seems to accept this and indeed becomes a strong activist and public figure on her own. In fact, if anything, this film made me want to know more about her and explore her life more.

In 2000, a British gangster movie was released called Sexy Beast. In America, it made a modest blip on the cultural radar, probably not helped by having the worst title ever. It isn’t a bad heist movie, but what makes it truly worth seeing is Ben Kingsley’s role, what one critic at the time called “the anti-Gandhi”. His portrayal of a violent, manipulative gangster seething with rage is mesmerizing in its own right. But having also seen Kingsley’s award winning portrayal of the supremely gentle Mohandas Gandhi, it becomes interesting on an entirely different level. Check out Sexy Beast, if only for Kingsley’s monologue in the airport scene.

I’ve yet to see Sexy Beast, but I look forward to it based on everything Mouse has told me. Until then, though, I highly recommend seeing Gandhi – especially if you have been in need of a deep spiritual uplift, a jolt of encouragement that social justice work can create change, and a look at what non-violence can – and can’t – accomplish. This truly is a powerful film and it is clear that it was a true labor of love.

I’ve heard a quote that goes something like -and forgive me for not knowing the source- “great men are rarely good men.” Gandhi is the story of a man who lived his life in defiance of this axiom. A man who not only pried the crown jewel from the British Empire in the name of justice, but did so while living his ideals of peace and fairness. I’m wary of unadulterated veneration of human beings. Gandhi was a man, and fallible, as any man is. In the film we have the film’s version of him. It makes no mention, for example, of his estrangement from his eldest son. But 65 years after his assassination, perhaps the idea is just as potent as the man- that the world can indeed be changed, not by ruthlessness, but by genuine compassion.

During the process of watching this film and writing this entry, our nation’s government has been debating taking military action against Syria, ostensibly to protect its people from another nerve gas attack. It’s a sad situation however you view it, with few clearly happy outcomes. Mohandas Gandhi, I’m sure, was not a perfect man. But I am certain that if there were more people like him, our nation wouldn’t have to have this discussion at all.

Next film: OLIVER! (1968)

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