Scorsese Screens - April 2021
In partnership with The Film Foundation, Turner Classic Movies is proud to bring you this exclusive monthly column by iconic film director and classic movie lover Martin Scorsese.
Ghandi (1982) (April 7 at 7:00am ET)
I recently took another look at Gandhi, Sir Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film about one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century. At the time, it was treated as an event, an epic in the vein of David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. It took many years to get a film about Gandhi made (at one point Lean was going to direct). When Attenborough came aboard, he cast a theatrically trained actor of half-Gujarati descent, Ben Kingsley, in the lead. The film was a box-office hit, a multiple-award winner and it justifiably made a star out of Sir Ben, with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working on two pictures.
As it always happens when a film is so successful, there was a backlash: it was conventional and stodgy; it was partially subsidized by the Indian government; it presented a whitewashed portrait of Gandhi, etc. As time goes on, judgments about what’s conventional and what isn’t start to fade away, and you can see very clearly how timebound they are. Attenborough, who started as an actor in the ‘40s and very quickly became one of the most popular actors in British cinema, brought a rare level of emotional intelligence and articulation to the pictures he directed. And by the time he made Gandhi, he already had Young Winston and A Bridge Too Far to his credit, so he’d had experience with large-scale action and masses of people.
The level of craft in Gandhi seems extraordinary today, and so does its spiritual force. Does it “idealize” Gandhi? Probably—look closely enough at anyone and you’ll find their flaws. And if the film had gone into more detail about the human contradictions in Gandhi’s character, what would it have served? Attenborough and Kingsley and John Briley, who wrote the screenplay, wanted to focus on the qualities that inspired people when Gandhi was alive and that went on to inspire Martin Luther King and many, many others. At a certain point, you have to make choices, and the life of the film has to part ways with the life depicted. The question becomes, how much conviction do the filmmakers bring to translating those choices into cinema?
There are many examples of mediocre pictures that take officially sanctioned points of view and just serve them to the audience, and that’s it. Gandhi is very far from that type of cynicism. I could point to many extraordinary moments, but the scene that really struck me this last time and that’s haunted me ever since comes near the end of the picture. A Hindu man confesses to Gandhi that he has killed a Muslim child in anger and wonders how he can live with himself. “I have a way out,” says Gandhi, who instructs the man to find an orphan boy, adopt him…and raise him as a Muslim. Did it really happen that way? I don’t know. But I do know that the force of the scene cuts through hatred, particularly the kind of hatred expressed so freely right now, like a knife.