Friday, November 7, 2014

Gandhi (Best Picture 1982)

Gandhi is another one of those films that just feels like it is a Best Picture. It has the scope and the breath of an "epic" as it follows the life of Mohandas Gandhi, the spiritual leader of India.

The film begins in 1948, as Gandhi is shot dead. No, it is not a five minute film. We then flash-back to 1893 South Africa, where Gandhi faces what must have been one of his first instances of institutionalized racism. He is not allowed to ride in a "whites only" train car. When he argues that he bought a First Class ticket just like the white man who objects to him did, he is thrown off the train. This incident leads to him creating an Indian Congress party of South Africa. Their first action is to protest the treatment of Indians working in South Africa in general, and specifically the racist "foreign ID cards" that they are obliged to carry by law. He convinces all of the Indians living in South Africa to burn their ID cards and to do other non-violent civil disobedient actions. This leads to the law being changed.

After his victory in South Africa, Gandhi becomes well-known in India. He returns there, travelling for a time to see the vast country before he decides whether he can help lead it. In 1918 he makes a speech saying that the rich men and the lawyers can not fully represent India. He maintains his fame as he builds a commune in which to live with his political friends. He is asked to visit a poor village, but when he arrives to speak the British (who are ruling India at the time) arrest him on charges of sedition. Gandhi calls for a national day of prayer, and when all Indians stop work on that day the nation is shut down. However, meetings without British permission are illegal, so in a town called Amritsar a British army man orders his troops to fire into a peaceful demonstration "to prove a point," slaughtering 1,516 men, women, and children. At a meeting with top Indian leaders and the British magistrates, Gandhi very calmly says that their goal is to use peaceful, non-violent, non-cooperation with the British rule until they make the British want to simply walk away from India.

Gandhi consistently speaks about equality. He asks for Hindu-Muslim equality, he asks for equality among all castes, and he asks for all people to peacefully fight against the British. He urges people not to buy British cloth, but to buy and proudly wear Indian woven clothes. The movement begins in earnest, but soon turns violent. Gandhi goes on a hunger strike, urging his people to be non-violent. The revolution ends, but then Gandhi is arrested. He goes to jail for six years.

 When he gets out, he plots strategy, eventually deciding to stage a symbolic Walk to the Indian Ocean for salt. Salt was a regulated commodity in India, so this is a symbolic slap in the face for the British rulers. (I'm thinking it's similar to the Boston Tea Party, for all us 'Mericans reading this.) At the Dharasana Salt Mine thousands of men are beaten by guards when they try to protest the British monopoly on salt. This beating begins to sway the world's public opinion against Great Britain. At this time Gandhi and his wife are arrested for speaking out against World War II. They are held in a palatial mansion for several years under house arrest. During this time, Gandhi's beloved wife dies.
Finally, the British agree to leave India. This creates an independent India, with a Hindu majority, and a newly created Pakistan, with a Muslim majority. A civil war breaks out while the two countries are trying to establish their individual independence, as neither group trusts the other. Gandhi goes on another hunger strike until the fighting ends.

And now we are where we come in, as Gandhi is shot and killed in 1948.

Although this is a terrific film, I feel like it could have been even more powerful than it was. For one thing, Gandhi's personal life is almost totally ignored. There are two great scenes with him and his wife: one where they argue about his politics, and one where they re-enact their wedding vows in front of their (presumed) grand-children. Robini Hattangady is wonderful as Kasturba Gandhi. She holds her own with Ben Kingsley, making us believe that these two people were made for each other. However, the film too easily portrays Gandhi as a force, instead of as a man. More scenes with his wife, children, and friends would have been nice.
Also, the film starts and ends with Gandhi's death. Some scenes are exactly the same. In a film of this length, every scene is important. Seeing him shot twice in three hours is not really necessarily. If we are going to have to face the death scenes, could we atleast be given some reason or back-story as to why Gandhi was assassinated? Sure, in the Big Picture it doesn't matter, but in a film about the man, the details count. Who was the killer? Why did he do it? What happened to him...was he beaten to death by the mob? Besides one scene where someone in a mob yells "Death to Gandhi!" during his hunger strike, Gandhi is portrayed as popular. So it would have been interesting to see more of the under-current of how his people thought of him before we see one of them rise up and shoot him. (By the way, is there some unwritten rule that says British biographies have to start with a death? Besides Gandhi both Lawrence of Arabia and Chariots of Fire start this way!)

Likewise, the extended travel scenes early in the film go on a bit too long in my opinion. Every parade, every train ride, every demonstration shows us the vista of India, so these specific scenes where Gandhi sees India for himself seem more like a travelogue than as an important part of the story.  

Still, this is a great film. The scope of the crowd scenes is grand; the scope of the intimate scenes is close. My favorite scenes are the extended Walk to the Indian Ocean, as I can't help but imagine the logistics it took to film those; and a scene near the end, during the Civil War between India and Pakistan. A Hindu man shows up to beg Gandhi to end his fast. He says in passing that he is going to hell, and when questioned, admits to killing a Muslim family after his son was killed in the riots. Gandhi looks up at him and gently explains a way for the man to get out of hell. Gandhi tells the man to find an orphaned boy, approximately the same age as his son, and to raise him as his own....but to raise him as a Muslim. The man breaks down crying, and I'm tearing up just remembering it. These scenes are what make Gandhi such a great film.

Ben Kingsley is in nearly every scene of the film. The weight of the film rests on this little shoulders, and he does a fantastic job. It is not surprise that he won Best Actor for the role. Although I remember wanting Paul Newman to win for The Verdict, as soon as I saw Gandhi I knew Newman didn't stand a chance. After Kingsley shaves his head and put son his small spectacles, we totally believe that he IS Gandhi. It is a wonderful performance. The film is full of other "name" supporting actors, but the only other role I noticed besides Mrs. Gandhi was Roshan Seth as Pandit Nehru. He is excellent in all of his scenes as Gandhi's friend and fellow patriot. It wasn't until the end of the film that I realized that he was the bad guy in The Temple of Doom

Gandhi won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director, Best Screenplay, as well as four other Academy Awards. Before directing this film, director Richard Attenborough was more famous as an actor in The Great Escape or, later, Jurassic Park.

*Academy Award Best Picture of 1982*
Produced & Directed by Richard Attenborough
Screenplay by John Briley

Long, but entertaining...goes for the trailer as well as the film!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial
The Verdict
This was one of the years where, in the absence of an obvious winner like Gandhi, any of these other films might have won. ET is (or was) the most money-making film in history. It's a cute little film, but in my opinion does not stand the test of time. Tootsie is an adorable romantic comedy that explores what it means to be a man or a woman. Dustin Hoffman was fantastic as "Dorothy Michaels." And in The Verdict, Paul Newman gives the performance of a lifetime as a down-on-his-luck lawyer trying to do what is right just one last time. Missing is an art-house film starring Jack Lemmon, about people who go missing in Central America. Its nomination was a nod to Liberal Hollywood.

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