Dir. Richard Attenborough. Starring Ben Kingsley, Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey
Two scenes in Gandhi – a movie which, at just over three hours, is less lengthy than its reputation – have always stood out to me as terribly impressive and, more importantly, as filmic blueprints for fighting back against stronger powers.
One of them is in South Africa, at the outset of Gandhi’s mission for better treatment of Indians in that British colony. Attenborough and his team very wisely begin with Gandhi in South Africa. Not only did the man spend more than twenty years of his life there, which must count for something, but the film wisely understands that Gandhi’s philosophy and administrative skills were given two decades of practice away from his Indian homeland. The film shows him, when he’s thrown off the train for being “at least one colored lawyer in South Africa,” as being largely ignorant of the prejudice which people of color have to deal with. When he leaves, he has become far more worldly, on top of having beaten Jan Smuts (Athol Fugard, which was like having Conrad Veidt play the Nazi bad guy in Casablanca) and at least two governments. Before he does all that, though, Gandhi has put together a meeting in response to a new law which has stripped all Indians of rights of legitimacy and privacy, as well as more firmly requiring them to carry government-issued passes. He whips up the crowd’s passions maybe a touch further than he meant to; in front of a British official and some soldiers, a few of them threaten to kill the first men who dare insult their wives by coming into a house unannounced and without permission. Gandhi is impassive when those men cry out, and when another man, later on, shouts that in prison they torture you. I am, Gandhi says, asking you to fight, and we need all of your devotion. But you will have to take blows, and bear broken bones and great indignities, and it will show the monstrousness of what your opponents have done to everyone, including themselves. (This last bit has never impressed me; maybe it’s the optimism of people who cannot countenance a world war.) He manages to bring the crowd’s support for his point of view to a clapping fever pitch, and then he brings it down again. “God save our gracious king…” he sings, and the rest of the room – British official and soldiers included – stands in reverence for the national anthem and for the monarch. In this gesture is touching honesty and cunning canniness. Gandhi always says in this movie that he petitions for the rights of any other citizen of the Empire, and he must mean it if he’s singing “God Save the King.” But it is devilishly smart to sing the national anthem; it’s much harder to be told you’re seditious when you’ve led a rendition of the national anthem in your political meetings.
The other moment in the film which is just as momentous is the Dharasana Satyagraha, a follow-up to the Salt March. The focal leader in this section is not Gandhi, but Maulana Azad (Virendra Razdan), second only to Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee) among Muslims working for independence. Azad and his comrades, all dressed in white, come up in fours, fives, sixes to the gates of the salt works, and the guards strike them down with their staffs. They are returned to an area where women provide what medical assistance they can for the men. It is a shocking scene, almost as brutal as the sequence depicting the Amritsar Massacre; it lacks the death toll but provides a personal, subjective look at the struggle in a way that is in some ways even worse. This is the most specific evidence of Gandhi’s beliefs; you see the evil of your opponent and make others sickened by him, and thus your victory cannot be far off. It merely takes unbelievable will to win.
To every moment of resistance in the first two hours and change in the movie – fighting against passes in South Africa, joining the Quit India movement, achieving independence – there is the quietly spoken quarrel between Hindus and Muslims. In South Africa, Gandhi’s closest partners are rich Muslims; one of them, Mr. Khan (Amrish Puri, two years before he pulled people’s hearts out of their chests and, presumably, broke Gayatri Spivak’s) helps Gandhi develop as a leader of men. It is not until he returns to India that Gandhi has to really confront religious differences; from his first interactions with the other members of the Indian leadership – Jinnah, Nehru (Seth), Patel (Jaffrey), Azad – there is real suspicion between the Hindu majority and the Muslim minority. Nehru and Patel rarely discuss the issue, which is a mark of the majority’s privilege. Jinnah, as is the minority’s need, can’t stop talking about it, and he is determined to maintain his own principles and style while Gandhi holds thrall over the movement. His speech at the Indian National Congress calls for Muslims to unite with Hindus against the British. His comments in meetings inevitably remind everyone else that Muslims are on the margins in India. Already distinctive because of the silver streak in his hair, he wears beautifully tailored suits while everyone else is trending to homespun; Gandhi goes full metal loincloth and Jinnah continues to wear his British clothes. In real life, Jinnah and Nehru were about the same height, but Pademsee towers over all his peers. Much of the last third of the film is spent on the sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims, especially as India and Pakistan are founded separately; the action moves away from Gandhi as he takes up a hunger strike to end the fighting between the two groups. It does not go smoothly, although the film finds Hindus more guilty. At one point, Gandhi’s Aubrey McFate (Harsh Nayyar) cries out “Death to Gandhi!” as Nehru goes to visit him, and Nehru goes outside his mind looking for him. “Kill me first! Where are you?” he repeats over and over, but Godse says nothing, only looks on with the rest of the Hindu nationalists who will not betray a fellow. It is the final revenge of the now-absent British Empire. Their officials had crowed that such violence was only held up by the power of the British, and it turns out that they were right; even Gandhi can’t make it go away for good.
In terms of scope and subject, the most obvious corollary to Gandhi is Lawrence of Arabia. Both of them set much of their action around the same time, focusing on one man and his triumphs to make a statement about British imperialism and the dismantling of the Empire. (Attenborough even started trying to make Gandhi around the same time as Lawrence of Arabia; we were about this close to Alec Guinness as Gandhi, which is a sign that God does peddle in small miracles.) What Lawrence does well is creating a flawed protagonist, someone who reads himself as messianic or heaven-sent and whom everyone else reads as some mixture of charismatic soldier and snake charmer. He is also forced to compete with individuals who are far savvier politicos than he, and who in the end get the last word over his accomplishments. In Gandhi, we lose much of that dramatic tension because Gandhi is on his own saintly level. His motivations are just about always pure; there’s never any hint that he does what he does for purposes of showmanship or ego. Perhaps there is some shadow of an affair with Mirabehn (Geraldine James), but there is not much evidence for it besides suspicion. Worse still, his adversaries are not clever or dangerous enough to ever be much of a threat. General Dyer (Edward Fox) has a limited role as the butcher of Amritsar; a procession of British lords, culminating with John Gielgud, are alternately bemused and annoyed but never threatening. Gandhi deserves the pedestal, surely, and he towered over his English rivals, but it sure does hamstring the biopic.