Gandhi’s opening text references the importance of trying to find one’s way to the heart of the man in recounting his life, and unfortunately, though unsurprisingly, you couldn’t say Sir Dickie Attenborough succeeded in his enormous epic, duly crowned with the Best Picture Oscar (and BAFTA) for being an enormous epic. It’s a largely reverent, respectful, uninvolved film that mimics the tools of spectacle and canvas from that master of the enormous epic David Lean (who had planned his own version, with, naturally Alec Guinness in the title role; we saw how well that went down in A Passage to India), but entirely fails to inject the proceedings with his sense of narrative surety and grasp of character.
Gandhi, Sir Dickie’s dream project, decades in the attempted making, comes unstuck first and foremost with its screenplay. Attenborough was a resolutely passionless director (that is, in terms of translating his effusive temperament to the screen), but entirely competent at putting a film together provided it had solid foundations; that’s why A Bridge Too Far stands up (William Goldman’s split narrative complemented by canny star casting). At one point in the film, Gandhi correct another’s statement; “I for one have never advocated passive anything”. Presumably he would have taken issue with his biographer’s passive filmmaking, in that case. One could hew positive; one the one hand, Gandhi largely resists the urge to outright veneration when bearing witness to its protagonist. But, on the other, it’s a plod.
Kingsley is formidable, of course, but there is negligible insight into his character’s foibles and emotion life (his celibacy is mentioned in respectful passing by his wife; going unexamined was his predilection for sleeping in the buff with similarly buff teenage girls, all the better to test his spiritual mettle – but then, what power- or popularity-crazed figure doesn’t have a few sexual peccadillos, right?) Given the way Ghandi revolves exclusively around Mahatma, at the expense of other main players, there’s precious little empathy for what made him tick. Gandhi is an icon before you see the film, and he’s that same icon after you’ve finished watching it. Which means, for all the shades Kingsley attempts to imbue, there’s no real danger of getting under his character’s skin.
At one point, following an argument with his wife (Rohini Hattangadi), Gandhi self-recriminates (“What’s the matter with me?”) and she consoles “You’re human, only human”. Which goes to the real Nehru’s advice to Sir Dickie not to deify him. But that’s evidently easier said than done. Early in his life, when travelling South Africa, Gandhi is outraged to be thrown off a train (“But I always go first class”), admonished that “There are no coloured attorneys in South Africa”.
It’s about the only point – the odd off-guard witticism aside – where we feel a driven, motivated figure, the one who makes dramatic capital from claiming injustices must be fought as “we are all children of God”. Quickly after this, like a master architect of his own iconography, Gandhi has donned the outfit and is espousing the platitudes and insights of a beatific saint, the embodiment of the great soul, because that’s his popular identity.
We see his shrewdness as a planner and motivator not just in his choice of clothing (to symbolise that he lives like the poorest; it isn’t covered that his consequent relationship with his own family was fractious, and that in living the example to others he shunned giving his children love, because he magnanimously saw all the world’s children as his) but also in his legalistic diligence. He does not call for a strike, but rather a national day of prayer and fasting, and his personalised Salt March is astute for the implications it holds regarding British rule rather than what one man is doing (illustrated by John Gielgud’s Lord Irwin backtracking decisively over letting him get on with it; “Thank him for his letter, and put him in jail”).
There are of course, the famous words of wisdom (“An eye for an aye only ends up making the whole world blind”), most powerfully conveyed following the Partition of India. Fasting for an end to violence between Hindus and Muslims, a man comes to Gandhi enraged over what he has been brought to; he killed a Muslim child, in vengeance for his murdered son. With Solomon-esque judgement, Gandhi advises that the way to make amends is to adopt an orphan boy, but he must be a Muslim, and must be raised as a Muslim. Unlike many of the instances in the film, where Gandhi says something sage and we nod inwardly, this one actually has raw impact and power, because it’s all over the face of the father.
Akhil Gupta’s contemporary essay on the politics of the film found problems with pretty much everything Attenborough depicted. I was particularly struck by how, in the last half hour, as the great achievement of Gandhi (Gupta stresses that there was probably a balance of reasons for British withdrawal, rather than simply the most-credited one) gives way to the political turmoil and civic unrest that came with creating Pakistan, we had missed out on a vast swathe of the story that should have been a part of this three-hour-plus Mahatma-fest.
Gupta takes issue with Nehru being presented as a Gandhi-yes man, which may be valid, although Roshan Seth’s performance is one of the few supporting roles that actually seems vital and engaged (it’s perhaps rather instructive, but not in a good way, that I ended up thinking “Oh, he was in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” in reaction to several of the cast members). Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee) is simply a bad guy on the fringes, referenced as fermenting discord between religions and so undermining all Gandhi’s good work. These characters should have been fully integrated into the narrative, particularly given that, as Gupta comments, this is a film about Gandhi the political facilitator, not Gandhi the eccentric personality or Gandhi the spiritual leader (while the latter aspect comes into it, it is essentially, as noted, presented through cherry-on-top wordplay).
Often in these sorts of period pieces, the cavalcade of supporting players makes for agreeable diversion, but here it’s less the case as they’re all such “types”. There’s Ian Charleson, fresh from British are coming Oscar glory in Chariots of Fire, Martin Sheen on the cause trail, doing his bit as an American journalist, and Candice Bergen as another. They’re our western “ins” to a different world, probably, in Dickie’s mind, but they didn’t really need to be there at all (look at the far superior – but much less seen and celebrated – Kundun for the use of technique itself to explore unfamiliar beliefs, customs and territory).
The Imperial cast of Brit stage stalwarts, led by Gielgud, can’t fail to impress, although few of them can claim anything to get their teeth into (Edward Fox, as an unrepentant mass-slaughterer, is a notable exception – the real General Dyer was thanked by the House of Lords for his patriotic act – and Daniel Day Lewis also shows up for about two minutes as a South African racist).
In many respects, Gandhi is simply symptomatic of the greater malaise suffered by the biopic, fenced in by linearity and professed diligence. It’s even more the case here, though, because Attenborough is such a resolutely unimaginative director (he even has Ravi Shankar provide the score) and lacks any kind of incisiveness over his title character’s legacy or willingness to interrogate his saintliness. As long as that widescreen is chock full of spectacle, it’ll do. It’s much the same with the awards such films foster; importance tends to equate with worth, rather than actual quality.
Gandhi is decent, solid, respectable, but mostly flaccid. I don’t think that’s because there’s some kind of preventative in place, that a film about non-violent resistance is inherently antithetical to good drama, which popularly thrives on conflict (although, I’m sure documenting the leader’s erratic espousals on the subject of pacifism would have spiced things up a bit). Rather, it’s that Attenborough never broke his story, how to position this figure in the narrative so it didn’t simply become the unbesmirchable, faintly anodyne portrait it is.