Sunday, 2 November 2014

Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ lives on


MOHANDAS Karamchand Gandhi, who led India’s freedom movement against the British, is gaining currency beyond the currency notes on which his photo is published. On his 145th birth anniversary on Oct 2, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a cleanliness campaign that was joined by political opposition and critics, their grins replacing grimaces for the cameras.
Gandhi was denied the Nobel thrice. That “mistake” is now corrected with the Norwegians choosing child rights activist Kailash Satyarthi for pursuing the Gandhian ideals.
To my mind, and I am not alone, the richest tribute to Gandhi has been the 1982 film of the same name. The followers of his ideals, everywhere, shall remain grateful to its producer and director, Sir Richard Attenborough, who died in August. His film contributed immensely to place Gandhi’s life and work on the global map. India, too, found recognition that was either grudging or absent in the developed world.
It covers Gandhi’s life from a defining moment in 1893 as he is thrown off a train in South Africa for being in a whites-only compartment, and concludes with his assassination and funeral in 1948. A practising Hindu, Gandhi’s embracing of other faiths is vividly depicted.
Immortalising Gandhi on the celluloid was not easy. The film was conceived for 20 years and got the final push from then prime minister Indira Gandhi. She received flak from many, who objected to someone from the former colonial power and one who had played a war hero and not a peace-loving man in movies when young.
There was resentment at Attenborough being assigned the privileged facilitation of shooting across India at the actual spots where Gandhi lived and worked. The government was seen as discriminating against Indian film-makers, and there were many who had won international recognition.
Parliamentarians demanded a debate. Then information minister Vasant Sathe read out passages from the Gandhi script (written by John Briley; it contributed immensely to the film’s success). His persuasive rendering of the way Briley and Attenborough interpreted Gandhi brought tears to the eyes of senior members of parliament who had marched with Gandhi.
By any reckoning, it was a tremendous filmmaking effort. More than 300,000 “extras” were used for the funeral scenes, the most for any film, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Attenborough used Indian artistes , and not white men with brown make-up, to play the big names of the freedom movement. Roshan Seth, who played Jawaharlal Nehru and Rohini Hatangadi who played Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife, although they won the Bafta Awards, got branded for life, unable to outdo their Gandhi performances in their latter careers.
Having auditioned many leading Indian actors, Attenborough chose his own Gandhi in Ben Kingsley. Son of a Gujarati, born Krishna Bhanji, he brilliantly portrayed Gandhi through his evolution over 55 years.
The white characters were played by some of the best actors of that era — Trevor Howard, Sir John Gielgud, Sir John Mills, Geraldine Page, Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and many others.
Attenborough was fair to history and to characters, by and large. There was suspicion, however, that he did guard Britain’s “sovereign” interests. His General Dyer, who had infamously ordered firing on unarmed civilians’ rally, killing more than 400 at Jallianwala Bagh in Punjab, had no insignia depicting the British sovereign, on his cap. Still photographs of Edward Fox, who played the general, distributed at the film’s media preview, however, showed the crown. When I pointed this out, he apologised.
I walked up to him saying that I had extensively reported on the criticism of the project by the Indian intelligentsia. But on seeing the film, I had “converted”. He smiled, and playfully punched me.
The criticism died down once the film was released in India and abroad, taking the world of cinema by storm. It won a record eight Oscars at the 55th annual Academy Awards. Besides Best Film, and Attenborough as the Best Director, and Best Screenplay by Briley, the Best Actor Oscar went to Kingsley.
Bhanu Athaiya, who painstakingly designed costumes that fitted Nehru, Sardar Patel, Maulana Azad, Ghaffar Khan, Acharya Kripalani, Sarojini Naidu and others, and won accolades from those who had seen them all, also got the first Oscar for an Indian.
Of the numerous moving scenes, Gandhi’s funeral scene was perhaps the best. As his ashes are immersed in the holy Ganga, there is a voiceover: “When I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always.”
Attenborough’s film was a wholesome interpretation of what Gandhi stood for. His Gandhi is still discussed in classrooms and homes across the globe. But to say that it should be the only one would defeat the very idea Gandhi stood for. Views may differ. Gandhi has even been pitted against his assassin, Nathuram Godse.
A proposal to install a second statue in London has been opposed by some British Indians. We are living in times when controversies are the staple of the media and social discourse.
To confine Attenborough’s work in terms of Gandhi alone would be wrong. As an actor and director, he was part of too many classic films of his era to be listed here. Indian legend Satyajit Ray had him in Shatranj Ke Khiladi. The younger generation would remember him as the failed theme park developer in Jurassic Park.
He was an untiring advocate of British Cinema that, like much of the celluloid world, remains threatened by Hollywood’s onslaught. Other cinemas, particularly Indian, now that it is 119 years old and hopefully, matured, should draw a lesson from Attenborough so as not to get swept out in its zeal for globalisation.
From: New Straights Times Online

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