Richard Attenborough – the man who immortalized Gandhi onscreen

Ben Kingsley as Gandhi in the eponymous film helmed by Richard Attenborough has been shown so often on the Indian national television that for most of us it is the first movie we saw on our ”Father of the Nation’. And Ben Kingsley powerhouse performance meant that the first impression is etched deep in our minds and subsequent imprints are not able to dislodge it.

And it is a fascinating story indeed – Richard Attenborough, a British director, and Ben Kingsley, an English actor, have immortalized Gandhi like no one else. Incidentally not many of us are aware that Kingsley had Indian roots as his father was an Indian and a fellow Gujarati no less. Attenborough pursued the project for 18 years before he could finally convert his vision onto the celluloid.

Both Attenborough and Kingsley had great interest in Gandhi and his teachings and they were able to convey the spirit of the man in their magnum opus. The movie has won 8 Oscars, including Best Film, Best Director and Best Actor.

But all that is academic and its best to just traipse down the memory lane and recall watching the movie as a teenager on our National Network, Doordarshan. In some ways it is a journey we undertake along with the Principal character as he moves across India particularly the countryside.

The movie, to my mind, holds a lot of attraction by presenting Gandhi as a character and showing his multi-faceted personality. There is pain and sadness in the movie but there is also humour and camaraderie that enliven your spirits.Scenes of his early life, his complex relationship with Kasturba and his evolution as a statesman are all shown in a realistic manner and there is no blind idolatry of a national hero.

There have been murmurs that the story is set in a manner wherein the tonality ensures that the British are portrayed favourably and the perceptions are sought to be influenced about the true nature of the British Raj. Such biases are inherent in a creative process and the format of a movie necessarily forces you to pick and choose the aspects of Gandhi’s life that you wish to emphasize.

Nonetheless the research for the movie has been meticulous and the facts seem to have been stated in a fair manner. I particularly enjoyed the scene where a British judge pays his tribute to Gandhi by standing up when Gandhi is being brought to the dock. Gandhi accepts the charges brought against him and demands the severest punishment for his ‘non-cooperation’. The judge ponders and sentences him for 6 years imprisonment but again acknowledges his true emotions by going on to add that he will pleased the most if the term were to be reduced by the Government at a future date. It is one of the most appropriate example of taking on the System by remaining within its boundaries and not trying to topple it by violent means.

And for us the story is one that we have been told innumerable times and so the connect is immediate and permanent. It is not just a movie as it might appear to many others. The relevance of the man and his message resonates across ages and is deeply felt even today.

It was Albert Einstein who famously paid a tribute to the Mahatma by saying,“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.” It can be ascribed as a strength of the film that for many in my generation and for generations to come, Gandhi was uniquely immortalized by Ben Kingsley and the feat cannot be repeated or bested. And while Attenborough and Kingsley have had rich and varied careers in the word of Cinema, for us the instant recall on hearing their names is the film named ‘Gandhi’.

Photographer:Central Press / Stringer Collection:Hulton Archive Credit:Getty Images
Photographer:Central Press / Stringer
Collection:Hulton Archive
Credit:Getty Images

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