Controversies not withstanding, Gandhi holds an unshakable place in the long span of India’s history. He is perhaps best remembered for his early leadership of the Salt March. This small man, with spindly legs, wrapped in Hindu peasant garb, was called upon by energies beyond his control to embody the imperatives of his time. This is one of the few movies featured on this website where I have provided all the notes I made while watching this film.
Ben Kingsley plays the title role in this biographical film on Mahatma Gandhi. It opens in New Delhi, 1948. We see the old man Gandhi shot point blank by a lone gunman. There is a huge funeral. The scene shifts to Southern Africa, 1893. The young Gandhi, a lawyer called to the bar in London, is thrown off a train because he is perceived as colored. He decides to organize an equal rights demonstration for the Indian population of the country. There is a confrontation with colonial police and he is badly beaten. An English clergyman comes from India to join his cause. Gandhi draws parallels between his Hindu beliefs and those of Christianity. A NY Times reporter (Martin Sheen) befriends Gandhi, who is building an ashram. He has a confrontation with his wife, who does not share his convictions. She capitulates. He organizes much larger demonstrations of the Indian population against official bigotry. His philosophy of non-violence becomes practice. He is put in prison, and then released.
He returns to India as a hero of the struggle, landing at Bombay in 1915. His help is enlisted to “make India proud of herself.” He will become India’s identity-maker. He takes a train across the country and observes the poverty and despair. The politicians want him to work for home rule, but he concentrates on his identification with the downtrodden masses. He radically changes his appearance. “If I want to be one with them, I have to live like them.” The people call him “father” (Bapu). He asks the English clergyman to leave, explaining that Indians need to know that what they need to do can be done by Indians. He draws great crowds when he travels. He is arrested and brought to trial, then released. There is a meeting among English officials where they fret over the inconvenience represented by Gandhi. There is a meeting among Indian leaders, including Gandhi and young Nehru, where issues of terrorism are discussed. Gandhi advocates a day of prayer (general strike). The people are beginning to call him “Mahatma” (Great Soul). The British arrest him. People gather in the streets. The British send a force and there is a massacre with over 1,500 casualties. The general in charge of the force is brought before a hearing to justify his action. He asserts that he wanted to teach the people of India a lesson. In a meeting with the British, Gandhi points out that the English are masters in someone else’s home. “You must humiliate us to control us.” The British suggest that if they leave there will be chaos. Gandhi speaks to the people from a canopied platform. He declares that India must be worthy of its freedom; there must be unity between Hindus and Muslims; and they must defy the British.
In his maturity, Gandhi continues to strategize for non-violent revolution. A group of marchers turn on policemen who have beaten some of their members. One of them kills a policeman. Gandhi goes into crisis. He goes on a fast until the people stop their marching. In the end, all demonstrations of non-cooperation cease, and the people pray for Gandhi-Ji. He ends the fast.
Shockingly, the recovering Gandhi is arrested again. He freely admits his commitment to driving out the “evil” rule of the British. He is sent to prison and released sometime later. The film jumps several years ahead picking up with Martin Sheen who has come to India to find his old friend. Gandhi and his wife are reenacting their wedding at the age of 13. High British officials meet with Lord Irwin (John Gielgud) and explain that Gandhi means to march to the sea and make salt. It is a symbolic gesture of independence from the Empire. Their control of the production of salt is an analog of their control of the country. Gandhi says “they are not in control; we are.” Thousands of people line the way of his walk. He claims the salt of the Indian Ocean for the Indian people. Gielgud sends a force to stop the salt-making. They arrest many but to no avail; then they arrest Gandhi. There is a confrontation at a British saltworks where soldiers beat the non-violent protestors.
Gielgud calls Gandhi from prison to invite him to England for a conference on the possible independence of India. Gandhi is a celebrity in London. He returns to India with no commitment from the British. He says, “They are clinging to old dreams.” World War II has begun and Gandhi is once again arrested and detained in a pleasant mansion. Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) comes to photograph him. Both Mr. and Mrs. Gandhi articulate their mature philosophies to Bergen. Mrs. Gandhi dies of a heart attack in detention with her husband at her side. The war ends and the British send a Viceroy to begin talks on the practicalities of independence. The Muslim minority fears it will be dominated by the Hindus; they want to partition a Muslim state to be called Pakistan. Gandhi tries to make a bridge but fails. There will be two independent states, and civil war will be averted.
The British flag comes down. Gandhi returns to his spinning wheel. On the India-Pakistan border in 1947, a conflict erupts between displaced Hindus and Muslims. The violent unrest spreads throughout the country. Gandhi is profoundly discouraged. He goes to Calcutta where there is chaos in the streets. There is chanting of “death to Muslims.” The climate of religious hatred worsens. Gandhi begins another fast until the people come to their senses. Prime Minister Nehru comes to tell Gandhi that things are getting better, but more deadly rioting breaks out. Great efforts are made to persuade Gandhi that the hatreds will be resolved. Nehru makes a speech saying “Gandhi-Ji is dying because of our madness.” One day a delegation comes to tell him that the riots have stopped. As he recovers he makes plans to go to Pakistan with a message of friendship. One of his followers observes to Bourke-White, “He offered the world a way out of madness.” He walks into the garden and is shot by an extremist. They pour his ashes on the river. This is a beautifully crafted film by Richard Attenborough.
The collapse of British Empire in India is a living metaphor of a turning point for Civilization, precipitated by World War II. The essence of Gandhi’s genius (and Kingsley’s) was in shaping his image to suit the function of identity-maker. The release of ancient urges for vengeance between Hindus and Muslims is a harbinger of things to come. In early 2002, India and Pakistan raised the threat of nuclear war. This film swept the Academy Awards, displacing E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial among others. Kingsley won Best Actor.
In India we learned of misgivings about Gandhi and about this film. Attenborough was apparently granted financial support from the Indian government for making his film, contingent on his avoidance of controversial issues relating to Gandhi’s life. These include his treatment of his wife and children, his sometimes contradictory views on political matters, and his relationships with female followers in his later years. Not everyone in India, then or now, is grateful for Gandhi’s accommodation to the Muslim population of the country, but Gandhi remains an indisputable icon for the coming worldwide movement toward self-governance. This movie, even with its deflection of attention to personal flaws, serves as an essential chapter in the annals of humanity’s long march to universal equality. The same process would later be observed in treatments of the life and work of Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. This is the drama of our times.
The Making of the Mahatma (1996)
While it lacks the epic sweep of the Attenborough film, this treatment of the early career of Mohandas Gandhi is interesting for its attention to the formation of his philosophy. It begins with the young barrister’s 1893 departure from his wife and children in Bombay to travel to South Africa where he will represent a wealthy client in an inconsequential lawsuit. As he travels by train to his destination, he encounters racial prejudice directed at Indian indentured workers who are treated as inferiors by the British colonials. At first he wants to demand the dignity of his British education but soon enough he begins to identify with the downtrodden. He is a Hindu by birth and inclination but he is sympathetic to the prosperous Muslims among whom he practices his trade. They value his skills and gradually he becomes a leader of the resistance to British oppression. His wife and children join him in Durban, British Colony of Natal. He becomes fastened on the issue of racial discrimination on the part of the British. They feel they have enough difficulty with the native population and cannot tolerate an infusion of Asiatics.
Gandhi endures beatings and imprisonment in his pursuit of justice but his conviction is strengthened. A friend gives him a volume of Ruskin and his ideas are crystallized. While he is in jail his wife falls ill and it seems she might die. His son is infuriated when Gandhi comes home and advocates austerities. The son leaves home. Gandhi has become deeply committed to non-violent resistance to repressive policies, and his following is growing steadily. His wife recovers and he later informs her that he will embrace celibacy to overcome his desire. She says that overcoming his desire will be like capturing an ocean in a teacup. He leads a very large group of people on a protest march that looks like a harbinger of the Salt March. He is repeatedly arrested. The movement is getting worldwide attention and the government is under pressure. Gandhi shaves his head and adopts native dress (this has the strange effect of making the actor look much less like the real Gandhi). He meets with the governor and learns that the majority of his demands have been met. He walks by the sea contemplating his return to India. It is the year 1915. Gandhi spent 21 years of his early adult life in South Africa and returned to India a popular hero.
Gandhi, My Father (2007)
The film is framed by a scene in 1948 where of Gandhi’s, Harilal, is found near death, the authorities label him a drunkard and a beggar. It opens in Durban, South Africa in 1906 where Gandhi and his wife, Kastur, receive a letter from their son announcing his plans to marry against his father’s wishes. Harilal is called back to South Africa, leaving his pregnant wife. He goes to work in his father’s law office. The family is living at Phoenix Settlement. This part of the film covers much of the same territory as The Making of the Mahatma (1996), centering on Gandhi’s struggle for Indian equality in South Africa. He returns to India in 1915, transformed to the iconic Bapu dedicated to selfless service. Hari is sinking into failure, blaming his lack of education and inability to live up to his father’s ideals. “I must find my own path. Search for my own identity.” He gets involved in business ventures that are opposed to those ideals. When he swindles his employer, his father advocates stern punishment from the law. He begins to drink, and his wife leaves him. Gandhi struggles to hold him accountable for his actions and tries to help his distraught daughter-in-law. His wife and son die and he falls apart. His father tries to help but the offer is refused.
Next we see him in Calcutta trying to put his life together. There is a father-son reconciliation. Gandhi wants Hari to join the fight for independence. He does. A group of businessmen approach him offering to start a corporation using his name. They are persuasive and he agrees. It fails and he absconds. Gandhi dissociates himself from his son and dedicates himself to eradicating Untouchability, and promoting Hindu-Muslim unity. There is fierce opposition and an assassination attempt is made. Hari is rescued from ruin by Islamists and converts to Islam. Soon he becomes a deeper embarrassment to his family and to the Islamists. Shamed, he returns to Hinduism, and to alcohol. The adulation of Gandhi and Mother Kasturba reaches fever pitch across India. Documentary footage shows the rebellion in the streets. Hari is now a derelict. Kasturba dies in Gandhi’s arms. The issue of partition creates riots and massacres. Gandhi tries feebly to halt the barbarism. Sensing he is near death, he searches for Harilal. Independence comes amid mass celebration and horrifying violence. The destitute Harilal hears the news of his father’s death. He joins the crowds at the cremation but is trampled. He dies in a hospital in Bombay five months after his father’s death.
Bhowani Junction (1956)
Set in India of 1947, this film offers a panoramic look at the early years of Indian independence (granted by the British in 1947). It stars Ava Gardner as a half-caste woman torn between her love for her homeland and her feelings for a British Colonel (Stewart Granger). Granger is charged with helping with an orderly transition. The enemy here appears to be the Communists. Filmed on location in Lahore, Pakistan, it is based on the John Masters novel. The focus for this film is on the effects of the British departure from India. The setting is modeled on the city of Jhansi in central India. It is a major railway junction.
This picture, though filmed in Pakistan, gives a very fine portrait of India in the period leading to the death of Gandhi. The choice of casting Ava as a half-caste is inspired. She forms the pivot in a situation fraught with deep cultural and racial contradictions. This is quite a remarkable subject area for 1956. Stewart Granger, called Rodney Savage, anchors the British end of the spectrum and strikes the appropriate note of enlightened arrogance. He must try to maintain order in a society that is on the brink of chaos. There are scenes of riots in the streets that are very convincing. Though there are efforts from the Gandhian faction to preserve the agenda of non-violence, there are others who are committed to violent rebellion. The rebels have acquired a trainload of dynamite and the results are catastrophic. All the while, Ava is caught in the middle, torn between the two sides of her birthright. Her relationship with Granger is contentious through most of the film but her efforts to establish a bond with an Indian man who loves her are equally troubled. He wants her to adopt his Sikh religion and she tries very hard. She feels that she doesn’t belong in either reality. When she kills a British officer who tried to rape her, she is tormented with guilt. The film ends in a confusion of courtroom drama, complicated romance, and a frantic train chase to prevent an assassination attempt on Gandhi. Granger wants Ava to come back to England with him but she wants to stay in India and be herself. He vows to return.