I've never seen … Gandhi

Richard Attenborough’s epic, starring Ben Kingsley as a speechifying version of the Indian independence hero, takes some breathtaking liberties with history

Which film has the most extras? As a child, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi was just the answer to a trivia question. Growing up in India in the 90s and 00s, we knew the great man’s story inside out. At school, history textbooks waxed poetic about his legend; our parents counselled us to emulate him by practising celibacy and turning the other cheek. Watching the movie, telecast every year punctually on his birthday, was never a priority. It would have been like volunteering to do more homework. 

How things have changed – even before the pandemic. What does Gandhi represent in our post-truth world? His image still stares out at us from Indian rupee bills, but all talk of non-violence is bunkum in an age where the threat of nuclear annihilation is the only deterrent to endless wars. Back home, in Narendra Modi’s India, Hindu supremacists steal his ashes from memorials and shamelessly praise his assassin as a patriot. Those of us who once took his legacy for granted will now do anything to undo our sins. Even if that means watching Sir Ben Kingsley – born Krishna Pandit Bhanji, courtesy of his Kenyan-Indian father – pass himself off as Gujarati.

Attenborough, of course, couldn’t care less about Gandhi’s early years in Gujarat. When the film begins, Gandhi is already old and bald and walking with a stoop – walking, in fact, to the prayer meeting where he will be shot dead. Is the sound of flies hovering in the background meant to suggest we are in India? Soon enough brown men and women are peering out from the sides of the frame, dutifully exchanging salaams and namaskars. 

Watch a trailer for Gandhi

The story swiftly falls into a pattern: mumbling natives, a few good white men. Ben Kingsley never quite disappears into the role. He sticks out in a group of Indian actors with his elaborate pauses, in a way I doubt Gandhi ever did. The film itself is a litany of speeches: the young Gandhi, as a lawyer in South Africa, exhorting his fellow Indian immigrants to burn their passes; then, an hour later, dressed in a loincloth in India, brainstorming about the best way to gain independence. The country’s turbulent struggle for freedom is portrayed as a school elocution contest, with breaks in plush drawing rooms where a select few glumly deliberate on “people out there”. It will be some time before I recover from the scenes of Kingsley addressing Indian villagers in English, his uppity outbursts of “My dear!” and “O Lord!” and “For God’s sake, stop it!”

The list of liberties Attenborough takes with history is long and not always amusing. The Indian Congress party contemplating “terrorism” to achieve home rule? Gandhi organising his famous salt march to provide a visiting New York Times journalist with good copy? Attenborough would have us believe that the British empire became a liability due to a few errant officials: a psychotic General Dyer ordering the brutal Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, an overzealous police inspector quick to arrest Gandhi. What is suppressed, as any schoolboy in India will tell you, is the wilfulness with which the British fomented religious antagonisms in the subcontinent, through their deceitful strategy of divide and rule. The ending of the film makes for unbearable watching, since the imperial culpability in partition is never explored. The violence of those years comes across as an endorsement of the colonial logic that deemed Indians unfit to rule themselves. Jallianwala Bagh, on the other hand, is carefully presented as a wayward brigadier’s lapse, in no way reflective of the Raj.

Through British eyes … Geraldine James, right, as Mirabehn, with Rohini Hattangadi and Ben Kingsley.
Through British eyes … Geraldine James, right, as Mirabehn, with Rohini Hattangadi and Ben Kingsley. Photograph: Allstar/Columbia

What was Gandhi like in his private moments, when he was not reciting his fortune-cookie quotes? What was he like as a father, a husband? Over three hours, we don’t get to find out. A revolutionary like Gandhi is incapable of being the bland saviour Attenborough makes him out to be. The second half moves forward smoothly, but that is because the story is now seen through the eyes of a British woman: Mirabehn, born Madeleine Slade, a disciple of Gandhi. In contrast, the confusion of the first half can be attributed to the absence of a credible outsider (read: white person) who can bear witness to the narrative. To be fair, there is CF Andrews, a priest and close friend of Gandhi’s, and of course Vince Walker, the intrepid New York Times correspondent played by Martin Sheen – and inspired by the real-life journalist Webb Miller – but they both lack the confidence of the disciple who will always assure her guru: “I know that you are right.” 

For an epic movie, Gandhi is redeemed by its cameo performances. Daniel Day-Lewis as a racist teenager! Om Puri as a repenting rioter! But there too, a sense of being cast as extras in one’s own play persists, as we see iconic Indian names – Saeed Jaffrey, Alyque Padamsee, Neena Gupta – relegated to bit-parts when no Indian actor was apparently ever in the running to play Gandhi. And it isn’t just a question of the movie not having aged well. Halfway through one of Gandhi’s speeches in South Africa, a guest whispers to another on stage: “He has become quite good at this.” Except that Kingsley hasn’t. He still looks as awkward as before, mouthing his lines like someone who has practised them one too many times. The glibness is true to type for a film that claims to be something it isn’t.


Abhrajyoti Chakraborty

The GuardianTramp

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