“Gandhi” - Richard Attenborough (1982)

With his epic film Gandhi (1982), Richard Attenborough took on the monumental task of covering one of the most remarkable and difficult to fathom personages in world history, Mahatma Gandhi.  Incredibly, this man of humble origin, with neither significant financial, nor familial, nor institutional backing, managed to unite the vast Indian subcontinent in order to achieve independence from one of the most powerful empires in history. 

Of course, the history (a) of how all this came to pass and (b) of the complex activities surrounding Gandhi during these times, concerning which there are many conflicting opinions, could never be fully covered in any single film.  So Attenborough must have known from the outset of his own 20-year quest to make this film that he would not be able to satisfy all his potential customers [1].  He would have to pick and choose a subset of events from Gandhi’s life that would somehow be representative of the great man’s extraordinary journey and the evolution of his thinking.  Indeed, the filmmakers acknowledge this approach with a textual statement along these lines at the beginning of the film [2].  So it shouldn’t be too surprising that there were some picayune reviews of the film that complained about the absence of some specific elements dear to the particular critics’ hearts [1,3,4].  And I have even come across one lengthy critical essay that degenerates into a vituperative diatribe of denunciation of both the film and the Mahatma [5].  Nevertheless, what Richard Attenborough and scriptwriter John Briley did come up with in the end for this film certainly succeeded in satisfying a lot of people and critics [6,7].  Their film Gandhi was nominated for 11 Oscars (US Academy Awards), winning 8 of them, including: 
  • Best Picture
  • Best Director (Attenborough)
  • Best Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (Briley)
  • Best Actor (Ben Kingsley)
In general, the film’s production values are outstanding, particularly the cinematography (for which Billy Williams and Ronnie Taylor won Oscars) and the film editing (for which John Bloom won an Oscar).  In addition, the acting in the film is gripping throughout, especially, of course, the magnetic performance of Ben Kingsley in the lead role.  They all contribute to making what Gandhi ultimately is – an evocative and colourful pageant that displays the evolution of a remarkable man’s social consciousness and spirituality.

Wrapped inside brief scenes covering the death of Gandhi that open and close the film, the story of Gandhi is unwound over four main segments.  Over the course of this account, the viewer is shown the evolution of Gandhi’s famous notions of satyagraha (the policy of passionate, non-cooperative social and political resistance) and ahimsa (the principle of noninjury to all sentient beings).  Concerning the tight connection between these two ideas, Gandhi stated [8]:
“It is perhaps clear from the foregoing, that without ahimsa it is not possible to seek and find Truth [Satyagraha]. Ahimsa and Truth are so intertwined that it is practically impossible to disentangle and separate them. They are like the two sides of a coin, or rather of a smooth unstamped metallic disk. Nevertheless, ahimsa is the means; Truth is the end. Means to be means must always be within our reach, and so ahimsa is our supreme duty.”
The four main segments of the film’s narrative are as follows.

1.  Gandhi in South Africa
Initially, we see Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (he would later, on his return to India, be given the honorific title ‘Mahatma’, which means “Great Soul” in Sanskrit) in 1893 as a 23-year-old London-educated lawyer who had recently arrived in South Africa and is riding in a first-class compartment on a train in South Africa.  Judging by his clean-shaven and Western-groomed appearance, it appears that Gandhi has absorbed many of the ideas and customs associated with British culture.  However, he is soon confronted by a racist passenger and a similarly-minded train conductor who inform him that “coloured people” (Indians and native blacks) are not allowed to ride first-class in South Africa.  When Gandhi protests that he has legally purchased a first-class train ticket, he is rudely thrown off the train.  This is Gandhi’s personal confrontation with the fact that the English rule-of-law that he had learned in his legal studies did not apply equally to all residents of South Africa.   

As a result, Gandhi launches a principled and extended campaign of nonviolent political protest for Indian rights in South Africa.  During this time, Gandhi is befriended and supported by an idealistic Anglican priest, Charles Freer Andrews (played by Ian Charleson).  Gradually their efforts begin to bear fruit.  Compelling scenes in this segment show on one occasion Gandhi arguing for ahimsa to a large gathering of followers, and another time Gandhi leading a group of protesters to lie down in front of a belligerent police cavalry that is confronting them.

Eventually Gandhi is imprisoned for his efforts.  But even though the Indian population in South Africa during this period was probably less than 20,000 [9], Gandhi’s peaceful protests begin to draw international attention, and eventually South African Governor General Jan Smuts (Athol Fugard) is compelled to grant some more rights to Indians.

2.  Gandhi Returns to India
In 1915 Gandhi is invited by his sometime mentor Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Shreeram Lagoo) to return to India, and he is now given a hero’s welcome.  Whereas Gandhi has been shown up to now wearing Western (British) clothing, he is now seen looking more like a working-class Indian and wearing a traditional Hindu turban and tunic.  He soon meets other Indian activists, who are mostly members of the Indian Congress Party:
  • Jawaharlal Nehru (Roshan Seth)
  • Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (Saeed Jaffrey)
  • Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee)
  • Maulana Azad (Virendra Razdan)
And he is also joined by his friend Reverend Charles Andrews, who has come to work in India.

Gokhale now urges Gandhi to reacquaint himself with India by travelling about the country for a number of months, which Gandhi proceeds to do.  As he travels about, Gandhi is troubled to see how impoverished the people have become under British rule.  Upon his return, he agrees to take up the cause of India’s independence (Swaraj), and eventually he becomes the leader of the Congress Party. 

Interestingly, during this early period, Gandhi was willing to help recruit Indian volunteers to help the British effort in World War I.  So his notion of ahimsa was still evolving.  But Gandhi was always against hatred and said you can fight to change things but not to punish.

Soon Gandhi is put in jail again, and when he is visited there by his friend Charles Andrews, he urges the priest to accept an assignment to go to Fiji, because he wants India’s independence movement to be led purely by Indians.

3.  Gandhi Launches His Campaign
Gandhi now launches his nonviolent campaign to achieve Indian independence.  But here it must operate on a much bigger scale than was the case in South Africa.  Instead of about 15,000 South African Indians, he must now try to mobilize the 350 million Indians on the subcontinent. Nevertheless, Gandhi, incessantly keeping to his themes of satyagraha and ahimsa, was extraordinarily successful in achieving a mass following.  There were, however, some painful setbacks along the way.  When Gandhi organized a national strike, he was quickly imprisoned.  And many of his peaceful protests of non-cooperation were met with violence. 

Notably among these violent responses was the notorious Amritsar Massacre in 1919, when General Reginald Dyer (Edward Fox) ordered his troops to open fire on a mass of unarmed Indian protesters, killing hundreds of them and injuring many more.  Dyer’s steadfast cruelty  here is frightening, and this is one of the most disturbing scenes in the film.  The news of this violent treatment leads to bloody riots, which goes against Gandhi’s preaching of ahimsa.  So he goes on a life-threatening fast that he says he will not break until the rioting ceases.  In deference to the people’s faith in their “great soul”, the rioting does come to a halt, and Gandhi’s life is saved.  But as soon as Gandhi’s health is restored, he is imprisoned again.

In 1930 Gandhi launched his protest against the British monopoly on salt production and its associated salt tax by carrying out his famous Salt March.  This highly symbolic action involved Gandhi walking 240 miles in 24 days to reach the coastal town of Dandi, where he demonstrated how the people could make their own salt by evaporation of seawater.  This was a perfect demonstration of Gandhi’s peaceful satyagraha.  Afterwards, Gandhi intended to lead a protest at the nearby Dharasana salt works, but he was quickly arrested before that was scheduled to take place.  A peaceful protest was held there anyway, but it was brutally crushed.

In 1932 Gandhi was invited to visit London in order to take part in a conference dealing with  Britain's possible departure from India.  However, though Gandhi met many famous cultural figures on this trip, the conference did not satisfy his ultimate aims for true Indian independence.  

With the onset of World War II, Gandhi is again arrested and held in the refashioned palace of Agha Khan.  Later he is visited by famous feature photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen), whose photographs of Gandhi that subsequently appeared in Life magazine achieved world renown.  During this time, Gandhi’s beloved wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), passes away in 1944 from a heart attack.  They had been married by arrangement some sixty years earlier, when he was only 13-years-old and she was just 14-years-old, and had been close companions and partners ever since. 

4.  Indian Independence
After the end of World War II, Britain found it impossible to hold on to its vast empire, and it finally decided to grant India independence.  But there were still disputes within the Indian independence movement concerning how this new arrangement should take shape.  Mohammad Jinnah and his followers wanted a separate state for Muslims, while Gandhi and Nehru wanted a united India.  To appease Jinnah’s lust for power, Gandhi even offers to Jinnah the position of Prime Minister of a united India, but to no avail.  Jinnah is adamant about having a separate country for Muslims.  The partition of India into two separate states, India and Pakistan (which will consist of two separate regions, West Pakistan and East Pakistan), is ordered to go ahead in 1947.  

When the partition takes place, millions of Hindus and Muslims, now suddenly finding themselves living in countries where their religion is in the minority, are violently uprooted from their homes and forced to move quickly to the respective country where their own religion predominates.  In the process, at least a million people lose their lives.  As the violent rioting continues, Gandhi is horrified and travels to Calcutta to see what he can do to stem the violence.  Finally Gandhi begins a publicly-announced fast, vowing he will not eat until the violence ceases.  Because the people see the benevolent Gandhi as the father of their new countries, the rioting does die down.  But Gandhi insists that he will continue his fast until the violence stops completely. 

There is a moving scene here which gives a glimpse of Gandhi’s notion of repentance and inclusiveness.  In it, a guilt-consumed Hindu activist, whose own son was killed by Muslims and who thereupon committed the unforgivable sin of killing a Muslim child in revenge, comes to Gandhi and begs him to eat something.  Gandhi tells the man that to repent and put his life in order, he must go out and adopt an infant Muslim orphan boy and raise him as his own son – but importantly, he adds, the man must raise the boy as a Muslim. 

Finally, the communal violence comes to a complete stop, and Gandhi, who is now near death, ends his fast.  Gandhi continues his efforts to bring the opposing sides together, but there are still some people who don’t want that to happen and who oppose his efforts.  The closing scene shows Gandhi going out for his customary evening walk on 30 January 1948 and being fatally shot by a Hindu fanatic. 

So what the viewer has been treated to over the course of this three-hour panoply of splendour is a display of the life of an almost otherworldly saint.  This humble and unshakably principled man managed to inspire an entire national populace to unite with him in joint non-cooperation towards their foreign oppressors and thereby restore their independence and national dignity. 

To have a feeling for the magnitude of what Gandhi accomplished, it is worth considering the political context and effect of Britain’s occupation and domination of India in those days.  Indeed the ultimate effect that Britain had on India’s welfare as a result of their domination is a complex issue, and here are varying views on this matter [10,11,12].  Those who hold that Britain significant positive contributions to Indian life often make mention of the British bequeathing to the Indians (a) a national railway system, (b) a working postal system, and (c) a well-developed legal system.  On the other hand, those who denigrate what Britain did to India have a more telling argument to make and point out the iniquities associated with (a) British divide-and-conquer strategies promoting ethnic communalism and (b) Britain’s devastating exploitation and destruction of India’s economy (destruction of local Indian industries and crafts).  In this latter regard, it is worth quoting the comments of Paramahansa Yogananda [12]:
“The ideal of a well-rounded civilization is not a chimerical one.  For milleniums India was a land of both spiritual light and widespread material prosperity.  The poverty of the last 200 years [the period of British domination] is, in India’s long history, only a passing karmic phase.  A byword in the world, century after century, was ‘the riches of the Indies’. . . “
“The records of history present India, up until the 18th century, as the world’s wealthiest nation. . . .  The Bible refers to the riches of India. . . . Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador (4th century B.C.), has left us a detailed account of India’s prosperity.  Pliny (1st century A.D.) tells us the Romans annually spent fifty million sesterces ($5,000,000) on imports from India, which was then a vast marine power. . . . Chinese travellers wrote vividly of the opulent Indian civilization, its widespread education, and excellent government. . . . Columbus, discovering the New World in the 15th century, was in reality seeking a shorter route to India.  For centuries Europe was eager to possess the Indian exports . . . Portuguese and Italian merchants have recorded their awe at the fabulous magnificence throughout the empire of Vijayanagar (1336-1565). . . .”
I think Yogananda’s perspective is the more comprehensive one, and so I believe that what Gandhi helped accomplish was the opening up of an opportunity for Indians to restore their unparalleled world civilization.  This film attempts to trace the course of that civilizing movement. 

Still, one might wonder if over the course of this evolving cinematic paean about the great soul Gandhi, whether there were there additional issues that could have been given a little more attention.  For example:
  • Caste system
    Although Gandhi championed the idea that the Indian designation of “untouchable”  should be abolished, the more general abuses of the pervasive Indian caste system were not addressed.  Of course there are limits in the degree to which one could overhaul the whole of Indian society, and the injustices associated with untouchables was a good place to start.
  • South African Blacks
    Although Gandhi fought for the rights of South African Indians, he overlooked plight of South African blacks.  Of course Gandhi could address fellow Indians in terms they understood.  The possibility of him organizing a non-cooperation movement among blacks would have been effectively nil.
  • Pacifism
    The issue of Gandhi helping recruit Indian volunteers to support the British effort in World War I could perhaps have been given more attention.  It should be noted, though, that Gandhi did assert that he, himself, would never personally fight in a war. 
  • Gandhi’s political partners
    Gandhi’s partners in the Indian Congress Party, particularly  Nehru, Patel, and Jinnah, played very active and significant roles in India’s fight for independence,, but the viewer only sees brief glimpses of them.  Some commentators have said that they should have been given more attention in order to tell the full story [3].
  • Gandhi’s writing
    Gandhi wrote many articles to support his causes, but these are not really covered in the film.  Of course in film dramas, the spoken word is more compelling than the written word and invariably must take precedence. 
But though these issues might be interesting to pursue, they do not lie at the core of what Gandhi was all about.  Gandhi, we know, was a unique individual of loving compassion.  But the way he connects with us goes beyond just his being an admirable example of unselfishness.  Deep down inside, we can all of us (including the British) respond to Gandhi’s appeal for universal mercy and compassion towards all sentient beings, because we ultimately recognize that there is an element of unselfish compassion and sympathy within each of us.  Gandhi was able to evoke those compassionate feelings that are often lying dormant inside so many people and thereby inspire those people to work together for a noble cause.

Similarly we all have the capacity to respond to the  teachings of Jesus Christ, because there is a Christ-like element inside each of us [13,14].  But there was just more of that Christ-like element inside Gandhi, and that is what this outstanding film reveals to us.  It shows that Gandhi seems to have been a modern-day saint who helped so many people, not only to find their way to work together peacefully, but also to evoke their own true loving nature.  As Albert Einstein remarked of the man –
"Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth." 

  1. Philip French, “Gandhi”, The Observer, (5 December 1982).    
  2. “No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way to the heart of the man . . .”
  3. Darius Cooper, "GANDHI", Film Quarterly, University of California Press, vol. 37:2, pp 46–50, (1 December 1983).    
  4. Susmit Kumar, “Hitler, NOT Gandhi, Should Be Given Credit for the Independence of India in 1947", Modernization of Islam and the Creation of a Multipolar World Order, Booksurge, USA, pp 17-21, (2008).  
  5. Richard Grenier, “The Gandhi Nobody Knows”, Commentary, (March 1983).   
  6. Andrew Robinson, “Bapu”, Sight and Sound, (1 December 1982), pp.64-65.   
  7. Roger Ebert, “Gandhi”, RogerEbert.com, (1 January 1982).    
  8. Mahatma Gandhi, Non-violent Resistance (Satyagraha), Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, (2001).
  9. “Indian South Africans timeline 1654-1899", South African History Online, (15 July 2020).   
  10. William Dalrymple, The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire, Bloomsbury Publishing, (2019).
  11. S. Priyadarshini, “Contribution and Impact of British Rule on India”, History Discussion, (n.d.).   
  12. Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi, Self-Realization Fellowship, (1946/2007), pp. 533-534. 
  13. Leo Tolstoy, The Kingdom of God Is Within You,  CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, (1894).
  14. Paramahansa Yogananda, The Second Coming of Christ: The Resurrection of the Christ Within You – A revelatory commentary on the original teachings of Jesus, Self-Realization Fellowship, (2004).

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