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If there was a singular personal embodiment of the history, the spirit, and struggles of India during her battle for independence from Britain, it was inarguably Mahatma Gandhi. His never-failing commitment to his country's freedom through what he termed Satyagraha, non-violent passive resistance, was worth more than anything to him - including his life, at the hands of a Hindu assassin. In death, he transcended his mortal existence to become a powerfully inspirational symbol for the Indian people, who carried on with his mission for a free India-something they would finally achieve in 1947. Fifteen years later, the dream to bring the story of Gandhi (1982) to film was conceived when actor Richard Attenborough was implored to read a biography of the leader. Attenborough was immediately captivated, but quickly realized such an undertaking would not be simple. Such a hallowed and revered historical figure set against the backdrop of a country of millions would require not only a project of epic proportions but deft counterbalancing to achieve a poignant and intimate portrait of a deeply spiritual individual.
The dream proved extraordinarily difficult, becoming a quest of twenty years for Attenborough just to get the project off the ground as documented in his book In Search of Gandhi. Since this was a personal mission of Attenborough and not a studio-driven project, he was charged with the Herculean task of finding funding for the massive undertaking on his own. In a 1983 interview, he spoke of the subject: "I found it very difficult indeed to persuade those boys that the subject of Mahatma Gandhi had within it such drama, such emotion that it had the chance of being financially viable. In fact, I failed to persuade them. The money for Gandhi was put up, to a certain extent, by people who came into the industry to make that film." Among other sources, Attenborough came up with the necessary capital by selling his stake in the extremely successful play The Mousetrap and agreeing to direct two films for producer Joseph E. Levine - A Bridge Too Far (1977) and the inordinately creepy Magic (1978) starring Anthony Hopkins.
Once the monies were finally in place, earnest efforts to cast Gandhi began. Since Attenborough had been thinking about this project for 20 years, several actors had been considered over the years for various roles. Attenborough worked with a young Candice Bergen in the mid-60's and even back then asked her if she would play the part of photographer Margaret Bourke-White, which she would, fifteen years later. Martin Sheen's impressive performance in Apocalypse Now (1979) earned him his role in Gandhi, as did Ian Charleson's work in Chariots of Fire (1981). As for the lead role, three actors were in main contention: Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, and John Hurt. All three actors eventually agreed the ability of a European actor to convincingly play an Indian was just too great - and then came Ben Kingsley. Attenborough knew of Kingsley from his London stage work and thought highly of his abilities although the only screen work that the actor had done up to that point was a minor television film. One aesthetic advantage with Kingsley was that he was of Indian descent; born Krishna Bhanji, he was actually from the same Indian state as Gandhi himself, Gujarat. But his screen test sealed the deal: Attenborough explains, "He was a miracle. He burst out on the screen with a credibility and with a magnetism that one could scarcely have contemplated. His eyes were mesmeric, and his physical frame - provided he lost some weight was right. He even wore his dhoti as though it was part of his everyday garb. It appeared to all of us that if there was one actor on the earth who could play the part of Gandhiji with conviction, it was Ben."
Kingsley utterly immersed himself in the role during his preparation, devouring practically every book on the leader and visiting all key locations associated with his movement. On a strict vegetarian diet, he lost seventeen pounds and dedicated himself to learning the spinning wheel just as Gandhi knew. Enlarged photos of the man adorned Kingsley's living space so that he could constantly observe the physical characteristics of his study. And in addition to ninety minutes of yoga a day, he slept on a cot in order to more fully relate to the lifestyle of Gandhi. The result was an incredibly inspired performance; cast and crew and later audiences were astounded at the accuracy of his portrayal, with some declaring him "Gandhi's ghost." In fact, the entire production team was very conscientious to treat the project with an extraordinarily high level of reverence and respect for the subject matter, never underestimating the critical devotion and love an entire country felt for the man. Attenborough made frequent visits to the site of his assassination, a memorial place at which he could pay appropriate acknowledgment. He worked very closely with public officials to ensure that all applicable parties were in support of character portrayals and the depictions of historical events. Cast and crew alike were careful to follow the local customs at all times, and a couple - Sheen and English actor Edward Fox--were so inspired by the experience that they ended up donating their salaries for the film to various charitable organizations in India.
The scale of Gandhi was enormous; when an open solicitation for crowd members was made for the funeral scene, an estimated 300,000 extras showed up. The scene, incidentally, was shot on the 33rd anniversary of the event. Mammoth crowds were present at every location, as eager spectators if nothing else. The film suffered a tragedy during one such shoot: a young boy was fatally crushed when the wall he was sitting atop to watch the filming collapsed. Thankfully, no other significant accidents occurred during the rest of the 126-day shooting schedule. The magnanimity of the project did not overpower the poignancy of the subject matter, however, with critics later drawing comparisons between Gandhi and David Lean films Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) for, as Roger Ebert put it, the "ability to paint a strong human story on a very large canvas."
Despite the fact that no one wanted to finance the film for twenty years, distributors scrambled to secure rights for Gandhi once the completed feature was revealed in industry previews. Claiming it to be one of the most important films ever made, Columbia committed to do anything it took to be the distributor - including organizing the biggest worldwide opening schedule for a film ever at that time. Ravi Shankar immediately agreed to score music for the film - resulting in Indian session musicians coming to London to perform. Arriving in January, the studio had to be specially warmed, because their instruments-unused to the cold-were constricting, resulting in inaccurate pitches and notes. No one could dispute the quality of the film once released: critics and audiences alike were amazed and effectively overwhelmed. The New York Times pointed out that perhaps the greatest contribution was "that the film will bring Gandhi to the attention of a lot of people around the world for the first time, not as a saint but as a self-searching, sometimes fallible human being with a sense of humor as well as of history." Gandhi earned eleven nominations with eight of those wins at the Oscars®, including statuettes for Best Picture, Director, and Actor. Despite its many accolades, Gandhi succeeds in its greatest goal, that which India's first prime minister Pandit Nehru asked of Attenborough during a preproduction meeting in Delhi years before: "Whatever you do, do not deify him-that is what we have done in India-and he was too great a man to be deified."
Producer: Richard Attenborough, Rani Dube, Suresh Jindal, Michael Stanley-Evans
Director: Richard Attenborough
Screenplay: John Briley
Cinematography: Ronnie Taylor, Billy Williams
Film Editing: John Bloom
Art Direction: Norman Dorme, Ram Yedekar
Music: Ravi Shankar
Cast: Ben Kingsley (Mohandas Gandhi), Candice Bergen (Margaret Bourke-White), Edward Fox (Gen. Reginald Dyer), John Gielgud (Lord Irwin), Trevor Howard (Judge Broomfield), John Mills (Lord Chelmsford).
by Eleanor Quin