Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) begins with dedications to Motilal Kothari, the Indian man who approached Attenborough about making the film, Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India, and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, and a disclaimer about the inability of any film to capture all of the people, moments, and events in a person’s life. The dedications expose both a key strength and critical weakness of the film — its status as an “official” or “authorized” text — while the disclaimer uncovers the challenge of any biographical picture: namely, how to distill a life into a feature length film, even one that runs for over three hours. The issue is not whether corners will be cut, but which ones and in what manner. Revisiting the film 25 years after its initial release and Oscar triumphs, Gandhi appears notable both for the ways in which it clearly crystallized the current form of the biopic, and how it is different from subsequent films in the genre.
Despite the impossibility of capturing a life in a film, biographical movies still seem to be animated by the desire to do just that. This is one reason why biopics are known for their length. More importantly, it leads to narratives that, while selective, nonetheless span decades (over half of a century in the case of Gandhi). However, whereas many of the films that have followed it reach back to the childhoods of their subjects, Gandhi is firmly focused on its protagonist’s adult life. This choice is notable as much for what it excludes as what it includes.
The increasing fascination with childhood, which can be seen in the recent Kinsey (2004), Ray (2004), and Walk the Line (2005), as well as in earlier films such as Attenborough’s own Chaplin (1992) and Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (1992), is clearly related to the psychologization of biographical subjects. Not content to merely show their protagonists in action, biographical filmmakers seem moved to “account” for their characters, and referencing childhood events, traumas, friendships, as well as sibling and parent relationships, is the universal default explanation for why someone became who they did. The focus on childhood also relates to a heightened interest in the private lives of the leaders, artists, musicians, etc., who are routinely profiled on film. Even works such as The Hurricane (1999) and Ali (2001), which avoid psychological speculation on the significance of childhood, participate in exploring the private travails and flaws of their central characters.
While people often become curious about the private lives and formative years of the those featured in textbooks and on the news, such curiosity is largely rooted in the facts of someone’s public life, and not in the details of what they do in the privacy of their own homes or in the anonymity of their pre-fame existence. To the extent that audiences are interested in Alfred Kinsey’s domestic life, or Johnny Cash’s or Ray Charles’ drug use, or Muhammad Ali’s failed marriages or Malcolm Little’s life of crime, it is because of what they did, and do, for public consumption. The private lives of these figures are no more intrinsically interesting, or worthy of a film, than anyone else’s. And yet details from that side of their identities consistently fill out the running time of biographical films.
In contrast to the examples above, Gandhi steers clear of its subject’s childhood and private life. Attenborough, writer John Briley, and editor John Bloom, seem to appreciate that it is Gandhi’s contributions to Indian, world, and British history — not his private demons or peccadilloes — that make him notable. There is one domestic spat in the entire film, but even it is over an issue where the personal clearly overlaps the political. Is it likely that the only argument that Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) and his wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), ever had was over whether she should be required to “rake the latrine” like everyone else in the ashram (intentional community)? No. Does it matter? Again, no. To be sure, if there were serious contradictions between Gandhi’s public and private lives, then delving into the one in order to explore the meaning of the other would be interesting and perfectly justifiable, perhaps even necessary. This is, arguably, the rationale for the first half of Malcolm X to be devoted to Malcolm Little’s life of crime and debauchery, but that film arguably crosses the line between setting up Malcolm’s conversion, not just to Islam, but to a life of service and activism, and wallowing in the prurient details of his youth.
In much the same way as dwelling on Gandhi’s personal life would have distracted from dramatizing his public persona, pointing to his childhood — “He was bullied in school! He vowed to never let that happen again! But he would not become like his tormentors!” — as an “explanation” of his role in history would have been absurdly reductive and facile. The makers of the film were smart to avoid that path, and one suspects that they were never tempted by it, either. At the same time, it is here that the film’s dedications signify a barrier to imaginatively reconstructing how Gandhi became the leader and political philosopher that he did.
The “25th Anniversary” DVD includes a brief, optional introduction by Richard Attenborough that underscores the extent to which Gandhi was conceived and delivered as a means of honoring the Mahatma. Taking an avowedly reverential approach to its subject clearly opened doors for the filmmakers, and aided in securing cooperation and blessings, particularly, from the Indian government and Gandhi’s family, friends, and associates. It also clearly prevented Attenborough and company from departing too far from the public and official record of Gandhi’s life. The result is a movie edited like a highlight reel of speeches, homilies, and notable events. The film implies, and in some cases explicitly tells the audience, that there were critical moments in Gandhi’s political development, but it does not stop to show and explore those moments.
For example, after spending time in a South African prison, shorn of his Western lawyer’s clothes and signs of his social attainment, incarcerated with Indians of different faiths and classes, he emerges as a more modest, self-effacing figure attired in “traditional” clothing. This is conveyed in an exchange with General Smuts (Athol Fugard) wherein Gandhi refuses food because he, “dined at the prison”, and exits in his prison garb after having, essentially, begged for taxi money. The impression of personal and political change from the prison experience is reinforced as he arrives in India, dressed in simple clothing and humbly greeting an expectant crowd, but failing to deliver the big speech many seem to want. What happened in prison? What were his interactions with others like? Who did he speak to? What did they talk about? The filmmakers offer the barest of imaginings regarding these questions.
The most egregious example of the film’s dramatic failures is in its representation of Gandhi’s tour of India. While many in the Congress Party seem to have expected Gandhi’s arrival to be a momentous event, Gandhi himself, according to the film at least, felt himself too much a stranger in a strange land to immediately assume the mantle of leadership in the struggle for Indian independence. Instead of attending party meetings and strategy sessions, he set out to “discover” India. The filmmakers turn this voyage into a sight-seeing tour, encapsulated as a musical montage of the countryside as seen from a train. This is precisely the way of seeing India — detached, distant, safe — that Gandhi is presented as being critical of and was attempting to get past himself. He comes away from his trip with a profound class consciousness and a belief that the fight for national liberation necessitated a bridging of the social gaps between the urban, educated professionals in the Congress Party and the peasants in the countryside.
Ben Kingsley with Martin Sheen in Gandhi
Once again, the substance of this transformative experience is not dramatized. Even worse, it is turned into an almost purely aesthetic moment. The lowest point in this sequence is reached when the film plays on the fears of its presumptively white audience as Gandhi’s English companion, Reverend Charlie Andrews (Ian Charleson), is invited onto the roof of their train by some “shifty” looking Indians just as they approach a tunnel. Everything works out okay, of course, but not without turning the “shifty” Indians into deferential clowns, appealing to yet another Western stereotype.
The film is similarly clueless when it comes to the internal dynamics of the national liberation movement. Partition becomes not just a tragic, but an irrational event, perhaps only explainable in terms of Mohammed Jinnah’s (Alyque Padamsee) grasping after power. The creation of independent India and Pakistan is rendered as a spectacle of mindless violence. Gandhi may have been committed to a united India, and been deeply dismayed and disillusioned by partition and the violence it sparked, but there is no indication that he would have written off his country’s ethnic, religious, class, and regional fault lines as nothing more than atavistic and reasonless savagery. Even within the confines of the film, he clearly understood these as very real boundaries between people, but boundaries that could be overcome given the opportunity for self-governance. The filmmakers, once again, choose to aestheticize, rather than dramatize, Gandhi’s politics.
In contrast to conventional biopics like Gandhi, works such as Amadeus (1984), Immortal Beloved (1994), and Capote (2004) are exceptional and interesting for the manner in which they jump into their subject’s lives from a single entry point — respectively, Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham), a mysterious love letter, and the writing of In Cold Blood (1966) — rather than with the intent of covering as much as possible in two to three hours. What these films lack in breadth, they gain in depth and imagination. They are concentrated evocations of character.
Standard biographies such as Gandhi are outlines, outlines that ultimately suggest multiple, and potentially more provocative, films. In this case, Gandhi’s time in South Africa, and possibly his prior legal education in England, his journeys in the Indian countryside, the organization of the movement for Indian independence, and the struggle over partition are all rife with cinematic possibility. The fact that the makers of Gandhi are willing to signpost the impossibility of telling the whole story of their title subject can be read as an admirable admission or as a cop out. In either case, consideration of an alternate approach, refusing to carry the burden of complete-ness in the first place, seems like an obvious alternative, albeit not one that appears to have much traction within the Anglo-American movie industry.
One reason for this, no doubt, is how actor-centered the biopic genre has become. Once one person has managed an effective portrayal of a historical or famous figure, it is difficult, even laughable, to imagine another in the same role, particularly if that figure is the central character in a film. Ben Kingsley’s performance in Gandhi was instrumental in turning biographical films into acting showcases. And like Kingsley, more often than not, the men, and it still usually is men who are the central focus, are at least admirable, and sometimes transcendent (Kingsley is remarkable, especially given how physically passive the characterization of Gandhi is in the movie, but for me, it is Denzel Washington in Malcolm X who truly elevates this film beyond its well-meaning, lavishly produced, but deeply flawed nature). One actor, one film. This is the general rule for biographical filmmaking, and one need only look at Infamous (2006), and how it was necessarily marginalized by the mere existence of Capote, to see the exception that proves this rule. If, more likely than not, there is only going to be one shot at a person’s life, it is undoubtedly difficult to turn off the impulse to tell their whole story, let alone secure funding for anything less.
The “25th Anniversary” DVD of Gandhi comes with two discs. Disc 1 has the film, the aforementioned introduction, and a director’s commentary. Disc 2 includes nine “featurettes”; seven about the making of the film and two about Gandhi’s life and politics, three interviews, two stills galleries, an interactive map with important dates and places from Gandhi’s biography, a trailer, and the url for the Wikipedia entry (!?) on “Mahatma Gandhi”.
While Attenborough’s introduction is brief and simple, his commentary track is wide ranging. At turns he provides additional historical detail about Gandhi and the times and places in which he lived, insight into the film’s history and its creative challenges, and thoughts on the actors and other craft elements. Near the end he also reflects on his Oscar experience, a reflection that is strangely fixated on the issue of whether he cried on stage during the ceremonies or not. This oddity aside, the director’s commentary clearly expresses Attenborough’s intelligence and deeply held commitment to the film.
That commitment is also reflected in the best of the extras on disc 2, “In Search of Gandhi”, which chronicles the 20-year process it took to get the film made. Attenborough is an engaging narrator for this story. The other extra features are fine, but it is hard to imagine that there is a demand for this much material about this film (and, really, the Wikipedia url seems like the kind of “extra” that desperate DVD producers slap onto a disc). It is also hard not to be struck by the lack of Indian voices in the additional features. Aside from a few brief appearances from Saeed Jaffrey, who plays Sardar Valabhhai Patel in the film, the interviews and featurettes provide a steady stream of British filmmakers not only recounting how the movie was made, but also expounding on the significance of Gandhi and the film, including what both meant to India.
Gandhi has a reputation as one of the worst, or at least most uninspired, Best Picture winners in the history of the Academy Awards. The film’s length, and its staid and serious tone are no doubt largely responsible for this judgment. Kingsley’s performance notwithstanding, it is also true that Gandhi generally lacks for innovative or challenging filmmaking. It is, however, thoroughly professional and sincerely felt. It is also fair to call it the last grand epic of the “analog” era, and, for better or worse, it has set the form for two plus decades of biographical films in Hollywood. Despite its superficialities, it remains eminently watchable a quarter of a century after its original release. Would that this were true for every movie that earned its place in history with the backing of Oscar.