During the LS polls’ campaign, Narendra Modi said it was Attenborough’s film that made Mahatma Gandhi globally famous. While that’s far from the truth, here’s what the movie actually achieved.

It was an Indian expatriate, Motilal Kothari, who had approached Richard Attenborough with a proposal to make a film on Mahatma Gandhi as early as 1962. Kothari, a devout follower of Gandhi, had been forced to leave India for his Gandhian activities in British India. Later, having arrived in England to work at the Indian High Commission (he resigned in 1965 so that he could fully dedicate himself to the project), he was convinced that his adopted country was best placed to make the film and embarked on a mission to find a filmmaker who could effectively convey the Gandhi’s message to the world through the medium of cinema.

Earlier, Kothari had discussed the project with Robert Bolt, the two-time Oscar-winning playwright, known for writing the screenplays for Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons, but it fell through. With a runtime exceeding three hours and made on an astounding budget of $22 million, Attenborough’s film Gandhi, made 20 years later in 1982, was a gamble in an era when audiences were accustomed to shorter films, and there were concerns about whether the film would be able to recover the cost of production.

In the 1980s, themes of race and nation dominated both British society and cinema, and there were a few notable films that stood out. Gandhi, like Attenborough’s 1987 film Cry Freedom, shares a thematic link with films like Hugh Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (1981), which portrays ethnic differences in Britain in the 1920s through the story of two British athletes in the 1924 Olympics: Eric Liddell, a Scottish Presbyterian born in China, and Harold Abrahams, an English Jew. The two run to become fully integrated as ‘British.’ Then, there was Stephen Frears’ My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) — with a screenplay by Hanif Kureishi — which explores racial difference through the lens of gender and sexuality.

Interestingly, before Kothari thought of a movie on Gandhi, the British government had got in touch with American director D.W. Griffith (director of films like The Birth of A Nation, Broken Blossoms, Intolerance, Way Down East, and the first in the history of cinema to employ techniques of contemporary filmmaking, like camera pans, fade-outs, close-ups still-shot, subtitles and night photography, etc.) in 1923. The British government wanted to counter Gandhi’s increasing influence and the film was meant to be a piece of propaganda. Griffith, however, could never make that film.

The making of the film on Mahatma

The making of Gandhi — a film that captures the spirit and legacy of one of the most influential figures in modern history, who was already a role model to the leaders of the world (Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, et al) long before the film became a reality — was a journey fraught with challenges, setbacks, and creative clashes. Attenborough had a hard time obtaining a suitable script, finding a perfect actor (Ben Kingsley) to play Gandhi, and — most importantly — securing finance for the film. The very fact that he was a British — and represented the former colonial ruler — went against him. Though, in 1972, Attenborough played General James Outram in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players — admirers of Urdu will remember Tom Alter as Outram’s aide De camp, Captain Weston, who seems every bit a Britisher, but recites Urdu poetry with proper talaffuz/pronunciation — many continued to contest his position.

Attenborough’s difficulties were exacerbated by the contentious nature of the subject, both in India and England, due to differences of opinion on Gandhi’s policies and his role in partition. In India, among those who rallied against Attenborough was Gopal Godse, the brother of Gandhi’s assassin, Nathurum Godse. Gopal Godse and Madanlal Pahwa, another accused in Gandhi’s killing, were offended because he did not consult them, arguing that only they could give “a true account” of the events that led to Gandhi’s murder. His subject had attained the status of ‘a holy figure’ and the filmmaker had to tread cautiously lest he hurt the sentiments of his followers. At some point, the filmmaker was so exasperated by Indians wanting to portray him as a superhuman that he lost his cool: “They’d prefer a blinding white light or a disembodied voice or something. Well, I don’t give a tuppenny bugger for what this lot is about. I’m not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell.”

In Britain, on the other hand, Winston Churchill famously denounced Gandhi by describing that he was ‘revolted’ by the “nauseating and humiliating spectacle of this one-time Inner Temple lawyer, now seditious fakir, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceroy’s palace, there to negotiate and to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, before he died in 1964, wanted Attenborough not to ‘deify’ Gandhi and include moments of the Mahatma’s temper, and instances when he comes across as a lesser mortal, including the time when he berated his wife Kasturba for not doing the work of untouchables.

However, the film ultimately ended up to be overtly hagiographic. It portrays only Gandhi’s saintly side — he emerges as a Christ-like figure. There is not even a passing reference to controversial issues such as Gandhi’s vow of celibacy (Brahmacharya) and his attempts to test it by the daily ritual of lying naked among young girls. There is also no mention of Gandhi’s strained relationship with his sons; the last had a redressal in Feroz Abbas Khan’s 2017 film, Gandhi, My Father, that examines the troubled relationship of world’s best-loved figure with his first son, Harilal. Attenborough became convinced of the film’s potential after he read Louis Fischer’s Life Of Mahatma Gandhi (1950).

However, the project faced several hurdles and hiccups till it saw the light of day. In January 1970, after both Fischer and Kothari died, Attenborough was the movie’s sole motivator, but luckily he found people, including Embassy Picture’s chairman Joseph E. Levine, and American writer John Briley, who wrote the script. Attenborough also secured funding from International Film Investors and Goldcrest Films International, with additional support from the Indian government. The rest is history: the film was a massive (both critical and commercial) success; it earned eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

A critique of colonialism

Since Attenborough had the luxury of the distance from the days of the end of empire, it allowed him to be a bit critical and depict the British predominantly in negative terms. Of course, it came handy in the anti-colonial portrayal of the Raj that his subject had declared disassociation from anything British. Perhaps the only two British figures who are shown in positive light in the film are Judge Broomfield (Trevor Howard) and Louis Mountbatten (Peter Harlowe): The film is dedicated to Mountbatten, Nehru and Kothari. Gandhi offers a subtle critique of colonialism, deconstructing the concept of empire not from the perspective of the coloniser, but through the experiences of the colonised. It achieves this by highlighting the human cost of empire, and promoting a sense of agency among the colonised. Most films depicting empires often portray them from the coloniser’s viewpoint. Grand narratives glorify conquest, showcasing the ‘civilizing mission’ and the supposed benefits brought to the ‘natives.’

Gandhi, in a way, disrupts this narrative by centring the story on the colonised Indian populace. We witness the brutality of British rule first-hand — the salt tax demonstrations, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre — events that expose the violence inherent in maintaining an empire. Jallianwala makes for one of the most poignant scenes which presents the British brutality in stark contrast with Gandhi’s silent condemnation. Gandhi’s despair and anger at General Dyer and his men for shooting at an unarmed crowd is shown through expression and movement — a great use of the ‘silent dialogue’ technique.

The film’s shift in perspective fosters empathy for the colonised and compels us to question the legitimacy of the empire itself. Besides, it also underlines the human cost of the empire. The exploitation of Indian resources and the disregard for Indian culture and traditions paint a stark picture of the empire’s impact on the lives of ordinary people. We see the human cost not just in the physical suffering but also in the erosion of self-respect and dignity.

Perhaps most importantly, Gandhi imbues the colonised with agency. The film portrays the rise of the Indian independence movement not as a passive reaction to British rule, but as a conscious act of resistance. Gandhi’s leadership is crucial (the film lays great emphasis on the fact that it was Gandhi who shamed the British into quitting India), but the film also foreshadows the collective power of the Indian people. We witness the non-violent protests, the boycotts, and the growing sense of national identity. By showcasing the agency of the colonised, the film dismantles the myth of imperial invincibility and suggests the inherent fragility of empires in the face of a unified resistance. In the final analysis, Gandhi deconstructs the concept of empire from the inside out.

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