“Gandhi” may just be the most resented Best Picture Oscar winner of all time. Which is ironic for a biopic about the iconic advocate of peaceful resistance to oppression. The “little brown man in a loincloth” stole hearts and minds all across the globe, and also the Academy Award from the rightful winner.
At least, that was the standard saw at the time. “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” was (then) the top-grossing movie of all time, beloved by American audiences of all ages, made by the Baby Boomers’ wunderkind filmmaker, Steven Spielberg. “Gandhi,” meanwhile, was very British, very long (3 hours, 11 minutes), and (to many) felt more like a history lesson than a movie.
I don’t think I’d seen the film since it came out 32 years ago. Now having watched it again with the improved perspective that comes with the passage of time, I’ve analyzed my feelings about both movies and come to the considered conclusion that … “E.T.” really did get hosed.
Which isn’t to say that “Gandhi” isn’t a good film. Actually, it’s very good. The acting is splendid, anchored by a then-unknown Ben Kingsley in the title role. It’s beautiful to look at and epic in scope, with director Richard Attenborough’s camera sweeping across landscapes and seas of people, and then settling in close for intimate moments with Gandhi puttering around his ashram, dispensing wisdom in between spinnings of looms and milkings of goats.
I don’t mind lengthy pictures that fill that time with important and engaging events, but you could easily lop a half-hour out of “Gandhi” without losing much of the narrative momentum. For me, the first half is best, as we watch young lawyer Mohandas Gandhi agitating for the rights of Indian immigrants in South Africa, and later returning to his homeland as a middle-aged man and spending a year or two assimilating himself back into his native culture before taking a stand on independence for India.
It’s a period of self-discovery, as Gandhi morphs from a standard-issue activist to quasi-holy man.
The second half becomes a bit repetitive, as Gandhi is now a revered international figure and official Great Man. Now going alternately by the names Mahatma (“great soul”), Bapu (“father”) or Gandhiji (a familiarization), he ceases to speak to other people as individuals but makes pronouncements for the masses — even if there is only one other person in the room.
Largely drawn from the real Gandhi’s utterances (“an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”), they nonetheless add to the stilted nature of the film’s latter portion.
I was struck by the depiction of Gandhi’s reliance on the media to spread his message. It seems he always has an entourage of Western journalists following him around (Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen among them). He cajoles and charms them, extending his friendship — offers that, at least in the depiction of the movie, reporters are more than happy to turn into an exchange.
There is relatively little depiction of Gandhi’s personal life. His four sons are barely seen, and there are essentially two scenes exploring his relationship with his wife, Kasturba (Rohini Hattangadi), whom he married in an arranged ceremony when they were both just 13.
The most notable is when Gandhi first organizes an ashram — essentially a farming commune — and insists that everyone share all the work, including cleaning out the latrine. Kasturba objects that this is the work of “untouchables,” the lowest caste of Indians relegated to the dregs of society. Gandhi becomes angry and even physically violent with her, but quickly finds his peaceful center.
The primary relationships are with Gandhi’s fellow Indian National Congress activists: Pandit Nehru (Roshan Seth), a moderate Hindu who would later become India’s first prime minster; Maulana Azad (Virendra Razdan), a younger scholar who doesn’t say much; Vallabhbhai Patel (Saeed Jaffrey), an exuberant man of the people; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee), the peevish and aristocratic chief of India’s Muslim faction, who would eventually splinter away from the group and become the founding father of Pakistan.
The best parts of the latter portion of the movie are these men holed up in various rooms, discussing how they will best gain their independence from the British Empire and map out the beginnings of their own country. There’s a sense of grandiosity in the moment, but also that these were human beings who could be petty and flawed.
I enjoyed the tight little smile that Kingsley gives Gandhi, who uses it as a sort of imperturbable mask he presented to the world. He employs the same expression both in greeting old friends and in surrendering to the various military or police authorities who come to arrest him from time to time.
Perhaps the most harrowing sequence in the movie is the depiction of the Amritsar massacre, in which British forces fired upon a crowd of completely peaceful demonstrators, resulting in more than 1,200 casualties, with something like 370 killed, including women and children.
Edward Fox plays the steely general who ordered his troops to fire for 10 minutes straight into the thickest parts of the crowd as they tried to escape. At the inquest hearing, asked if he would have used machine guns if the armored cars carrying them had been able to fit into the square, he tersely replies, “I think probably, yes.”
A great number of actors enjoy small roles in the film, most of them British: Nigel Hawthorne, Bernard Hill, Richard Griffiths, Trevor Howard, Ian Bannen, John Gielgud, even a very young Daniel Day-Lewis as a South African street punk who threatens Gandhi. John Ratzenberger even turns up as a jeep driver, though I swear his distinctive nasal honk has been dubbed.
“Gandhi” was nominated for 11 Oscars and won eight, including Best Picture, Actor, Director, Original Screenplay (by John Briley) and Original Score.
I don’t really begrudge “Gandhi” its Best Picture win all that much. The Academy has a predilection toward certain pedigrees of filmmaking: historical, biographical costume dramas with a sense of profundity and gravitas. (This was part of the reason “12 Years a Slave” was such an easy pick to make earlier this year.)
“E.T.,” for all its wondrous magic, is still seen as a children’s picture, and Oscars tend not to go the way of feel-good family pictures (or comedies).
The one Oscar I do think was a serious injustice was Best Costumes, which won over “TRON.” Whatever you want to say about the video-game adventure, it had a lot of groundbreaking special effects combined with elaborate, vividly original costumes.
For years I had made light of the Gandhi vs. TRON costume donnybrook by saying of the former film, “It was a guy in a white sheet!” Now that I’ve seen the movie again, I confess that there was much more to the costumes in “Gandhi” than the little man’s simple homespun wrap. Gandhi wears natty period suits in the early period, and some of the other notable Indian figures are quite snappy dressers. Nehru, of course, even had a classic mid-century style of suit named after him, faithfully replicated in the film.
Still, I place more value on doing something differently from the way anyone has done it before than executing a familiar thing well. So even upon further reflection, I still think “TRON” got robbed in the costume award.
Actually, this sums up well my feelings about “Gandhi” as a whole. It’s overall a pretty marvelous film, but in the end it’s a fairly standard “great man” biopic. Perhaps that’s why the movie’s reputation has waned rather than waxed with the passing of years, and it is mainly remembered only as the film to which “E.T.” lost.