A biopic that strives to be more but ends up just like the rest!
Written By: John Briley
Directed By: Richard Attenborough
Gandhi is truly a great film when it takes on the issue of peaceful non-cooperation and population tendencies. The idea of peacefully offering resistance in the form of non-cooperation is a foreign idea to most people because we are an inherently forceful people. Even those of us who don’t believe in violence tend to voice our concerns in harsh tones and demands as opposed to peacefully. Where Gandhi gets its theme picture perfect is in exploring the idea of a valid message versus the populace’s desire to go with their natural instinct. Gandhi preaches peace and the population accepts, but how will they react when they are actually struck in the face? That is where the real life Gandhi’s peaceful non-cooperation way of life struggles the most, not because it is invalid but because at least one in a group of people when provoked will erupt into violence and more than likely the rest will follow suit. The film explores these ideas and does a remarkable job of it, but because it is a biopic it can’t focus on those themes and idea as much as it should.
The area where Gandhi fails the most is in presenting Mohandas Gandhi as a real person who we can emulate. Outside of one moment early in the film when Gandhi becomes a tad bit upset at his wife, the film goes out of its way to portray Gandhi as the perfect human being. Maybe that is how Gandhi was in real life, but based on what he has said and his own teachings I don’t believe that is the case in any way. He was a flawed man and it was through those flaws that he gained his enlightenment. The film Gandhi presents Gandhi as a Christ like figure, except for minus even the flaws that were present in Jesus himself. Throughout the film this really bothered me because in order to get the films message across a more human Gandhi was needed, not a transcendent being.
The other area where director Richard Attenborough falls short is in his manipulations of the audience. Some scenes feel false, such as the early train scene where the camera has to include the two racist gentlemen leaning out the train car and gloating at Gandhi. There’s also a later scene during Gandhi’s last fasting where he is visited by some friends and the character of Meerabahen just has to be holding a copy of the famous Life Magazine issue with Gandhi on the cover. Two small things, but neither moment rings the least bit true. I also could have done without the opening proclamation that this is a retelling of some of Gandhi’s life, but no film can hope to tell it all. This is a film, it won’t contain every nugget of Gandhi’s life, you don’t need to try and cover your bases for things left out before the first scene has even played out.
Most false was the camera and its attempts to elevate Gandhi, especially in light of the films preaching of Gandhi the man’s message. Gandhi didn’t view himself as better than anyone else or above anyone else, yet Attenborough goes out of his way to elevate Gandhi every chance he gets with his camera, to place him on a plane above all others. The genius of Gandhi’s teachings is that anyone can do what he did, it’s just a question of whether or not you are willing to endure. Attenborough never allows that sense of connectivity to seep into his film, instead with his cameras Gandhi becomes a being beyond our comprehension, one full of ideals we could never hope to attain.
Attenborough is also very sympathetic in his views towards Gandhi, the film never seems completely real because he always feels the need to paint Gandhi in the most positive light. Story wise there were also some gaps in logic, such as Gandhi’s speech to Charlie about needing him to leave so people could view the fight as an Indian fight. Strong words, but this is followed up by two hours of other white people aiding Gandhi in what was supposed to be an Indian fight.
For as much as the above did trouble me and Gandhi did have its flaws, the film wasn’t by any means a bad picture. It was a captivating tale that moved at a brisk pace. In a lot of epics there are dull moments or great lulls, but not so in Gandhi, Attenborough keeps the film moving and constantly strings the viewer along to the next important moment in Gandhi’s life. Ben Kingsley is wonderful as Gandhi, not so much in the way of messages delivered, but bodily wise he brings us the actual Gandhi. His performance and appearance manage to cut through the deficiencies of the narrative and cause the viewer to believe in Gandhi again.
Gandhi is a film that falls into the usual biopic traps, but it features more than enough great acting from Kingsley and meditation on its themes to be a worthwhile experience. It isn’t a film I would recommend anyone rush out and see, and there are far better biopics out there. But, even if the film only serves as a springboard for people to discover the real Gandhi and learn his teachings then it is a film that has made a great impact on the world.