Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Gandhi (1982)--the empire within
Attenborough's achievement should not be belittled. Not only the life and personality of an extraordinary individual but half a century of history has been reduced to a crowded canvas of three hours. That this should have been done not by a compatriot but an Englishman perhaps underlies Gandhi's universality and timelessness. I must have seen this film perhaps four or five times, but the present viewing was one of my major cinematic experiences, perhaps because the subject matter has come to mean more to me now. I have heard it said that the historical dramas of Shakespeare ( with all inaccuracies and biases ) came to be the history of England more than the real history. Ironically, an Englishman has captured the essence of the freedom struggle and it's central inspirational figure. It is a more than adequate portrayal and has made this period come vividly alive in my mind. I think it needs to be said that the nationality and passport of the film maker should not be allowed to cloud one's evaluation.
The period from 1850 in India produced a series of moral and intellectual titans, who were clearly able to grasp the oppressive and humiliating nature of the British occupation of India. Even among this constellation of luminaries, Gandhi is a phenomenon extraordinary, who appears almost as though by predestination to open new pathways in human history. What is the essence of the power of love he wields on the common people, or the moral strength which ties up the colonial masters into knots of perplexity and consternation? As he says in the film, " We, not they, are in control." The initiative, if not superior brute force, was with the freedom fighters. They had the upper hand, because justice lay on their side. It is a classic battle of right versus might, of moral spine arrayed against the baton and bayonet.
Shortly before this film, Attenborrough gave a brilliant portrayal as an actor in his role as General Outram, in Ray's Chess Players. He has a truly admirable grasp of the Indo-British inequation and a panoramic view of the history of the period. The Jallianwala Massacre, in it's incredible ferocity, is portrayed to spine chilling dramatic effect. The formative years in South Africa, where the lion jumps into the pit; the transition to leadership in the Indian freedom struggle ; Champaran, Chauri Chaura, the salt march, the confrontation at the salt works, Naokhali and assassination; the events unfold with graphic vividness, and if it is a history lesson you want, it's all there. Gandhi's cheerfulness, wit, legal acumen and power of words is well portrayed. His wife is more like a disciple. The episode of his interaction with the the reporter from Life magazine ( played by Candice Bergen ) where he has her virtually mesmerized with his sheer goodness and nobility is a moment of rare sensitivity.
The acting performances are uniformly solid and convincing. Ben Kingsley's job is of course the toughest and he does it adequately and well, though it may be advisable not to confuse the man with the performance. All the others project the director's vision to give a convincing, enjoyable, immersive experience at the unavoidable cost of simplisticism.
Footage of funeral
Roger Ebert's review