Barry Norman on Gandhi

RT's film expert on Ben Kingsley's first starring role and Richard Attenborough's finest film

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As the perceptive Hollywood producer said: “Hey, Dickie, who the hell wants to see a movie about a little brown guy in a loincloth carrying a pole?”

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Well, obviously, nobody – except Richard (Dickie) Attenborough who, as is well-known, spent more than 20 years trying to rustle up backing for his film about the little brown guy (aka Mahatma Gandhi). But as it turned out, once the movie was made, quite a lot of other people wanted to see it, too (though probably not the producer with an aversion to little brown guys in loincloths), and the Oscar voters liked it so much that they gave it eight awards, including best picture and the best director prize for Dickie.

Nor was it over-rewarded, for unlike most spectacular epics – and this is very spectacular – it was clearly made with the utmost sincerity and admiration for its central character. Not that it earned universal acclaim. 

A few critics were rather sniffy about what they called the director’s “conventional” approach to the spectacular sequences, including the Amritsar Massacre of 1919 when British troops fired on thousands of unarmed Indians. But it’s hard to see what else they might have wanted, especially as Attenborough was shrewdly aware that all those teeming crowd scenes, vivid and eye-catching though they are, were merely of secondary importance.

For this, essentially, is an intimate story told against an epic background, the story of Gandhi’s life from his time as a young lawyer in South Africa, where he was thrown off a train for being the wrong colour, to India’s independence in 1947 and his death by assassination the following year at the age of 78. 

John Briley’s screenplay does contain a few awkward moments of exposition and explanation but this is unavoidable in a tale that covers some 50 years of turbulent history. That apart, the film, with its remarkable supporting cast including John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills and Martin Sheen, works supremely well.

It is, I think, Attenborough’s greatest achievement and also Ben Kingsley’s. Kingsley made his starring debut as Gandhi and is astonishingly good. He is quietly spoken, wryly humorous, commanding and resolute in his policy of non-violent protest despite the violence offered by India’s British masters. And not only does he carry off the difficult trick of ageing 50 years with total conviction, but also strongly suggests the charisma Gandhi must have had to influence and control so many people. It’s about as close to perfect casting as you can get.

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Incidental Dickie footnote: after the Oscars, Attenborough tried to give his best director gong to Steven Spielberg who had been, as it were, runner-up with ET the Extra-Terrestrial and who, Attenborough thought, deserved the award more. Typical.