|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 28 August 2001|
Mohandas K. Gandhi became better known as Mahatma Gandhi – Mahatma meaning "great soul." Director Richard Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley have crafted a respectful biographical epic about the leader who popularized the concept of nonviolent resistance and helped win India’s freedom from Britain. The film "Gandhi" manages the delicate feat of simultaneously humanizing and lionizing its subject. The filmmakers recognize that Gandhi is heroic, but they don’t force us to look up at him – their gift is that they put us level with him, so that his actions seem not those of a saint but rather the choices of a living, breathing man (albeit one with more backbone and principle than most).
The film begins with the assassination of Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), then flashes back to his days as a young Indian lawyer in South Africa, where that country’s abominable race laws spur Gandhi to organize resistance. Returning home to India, Gandhi is dismayed by the poverty, injustice and indignity directed against Indians by their British rulers. Gandhi campaigns diligently for self-rule in India, countering the argument that the departure of the British would herald chaos with the observation, "There is no people on Earth who would not prefer their own bad government to the good government of an alien power." Gandhi counsels his followers never to answer violence with violence. In one memorable, terrible incident, 1,600 unarmed demonstrators (including children) are massacred by British troops at Amritsar. Gandhi’s appeals to the conscience of the world begin to have impact – even as India begins to shudder with internal strife.
Briley’s dialogue is informative and naturalistic – he even manages some humor now and then – and we get a strong sense of how Gandhi judges himself. Kingsley gives an expert performance, modulating Gandhi’s desire to affect change at almost all costs – he is intellectually prepared to cope with humiliation – with an instinctive, iron grasp on his own integrity. There’s an astonishing scene where he loses his temper with his wife (Rohini Hattangady, also doing fine work), then nearly crumples in disbelief at what he’s done. Gandhi is a dimensional figure and, given the complexity of the issues at hand, it’s quite a tribute to Briley and Attenborough that we comprehend as much as we do. Attenborough does have pretty visceral stuff to work with, but it still requires skill to give it impact, and the director does justice to his material. The Amritsar sequence is so disturbing to contemplate ("Gandhi’s" version is a re-enactment, but the incident is factual) that some viewers may have to shut off the film for awhile to regain equilibrium.
As actor Kingsley points out in a charming, articulate interview in the supplemental material, "Gandhi" was made in the days before digitization of faces – the crowds onscreen are filled with real bodies. Speaking many years after the fact, Kingsley still seems awed by the experience of being surrounded by 400,000 people. Attenborough’s spectacle has scope and heft – we believe Gandhi changed the world not just because we know the historical upshot of his deeds, but because Attenborough has included so much of the living, breathing world in his frames.
The print transfer for the "Gandhi" DVD is gorgeous. Chapter 11 has some of the most stunning colors to be found outside the fantasy genre, with a gorgeous gold edifice gleaming in the sun and a multitude of people in brilliant-hued clothes milling about, beauty that resonates in the horror that follows. Chapter 18 shows of similar detail and clarity, with precise features and nuances of color across the wide screen, even wreathed by a cloud of dust kicked up by the masses walking on the roads.
The sound mix on the "Gandhi" DVD is frankly peculiar. The box says the sound is "English Dolby Digital" with no further designation. There are great directional sound effects – but only in the mains. At times, the rears are so dead that a listener may wonder if there’s a short in the system. The rears do come to life when they are called upon to supply music, beginning in Chapter 1 and again noticeably in Chapter 4. In Chapter 17, there is a lone isolated directional effect as birds wheel through the left rear. The dialogue often tends to sink in the center, which is problematic with so many soft-spoken characters. Chapter 25’s crowd scene elicits a big, floor-shaking rumble from the sub. The sound placements and emphases in the mix for the DVD are so odd that it is tempting to recommend "Gandhi," not as reference, but as something that is unique in its idiosyncrasies.
The supplemental material, apart from Kingsley’s informative and likable comments, consists of a photo gallery, written quotes from Gandhi and newsreel footage of the man himself. It’s surprising that there’s no audio commentary.
"Gandhi" won nine Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Doubtless some of the votes were out of approval for Gandhi the man, but "Gandhi" the film is highly admirable as well, and holds up beautifully nearly 20 years after its original release.