From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

Movie Retrospectives: Biographical Epics

At the beginning of Richard Attenborough's Gandhi, text appears on the screen. It explains that in undertaking the task of telling any man's life story, it is difficult to distill that story to a specific number of incidents. One hopes at best to get at the heart of the man himself. Spike Lee and Denzel Washington did a commendable job with Malcolm X. Richard Attenborough and Ben Kingsley really bring the heart of Mohandas K. Gandhi to life in this movie.

Attenborough starts the story at the end with Gandhi's assassination. The audience is presented with a stunning shot of the funeral procession, a scene that features over 300,000 extras. 20,000 feet of film is pared down to a two minute sequence that lets the viewer absorb the almost godlike following this compassionate, wise, forthright man commanded. It is an awe inspiring moment.

And then in a flash, we are brought to the birth of Gandhi's life as a leader. An incident aboard a train in South Africa brings to light the inequities in the British colonial system in its treatment of Indians as subjects of the crown. As a young English educated barrister, Mohandas Gandhi knows and understands the fundamental injustices of the laws by which he is governed. He also knows that fighting the system with violence only further legitimizes the controls being used.

He begins a movement against the registration laws which distinguishes Indians as second class citizens in the empire, preaching non-violent active resistance. It is this movement that leads him on a journey back to a homeland he has not seen in many years. He takes up the cause of working towards an independent self-governing India. And his non-violent movement evolves to such power as to bring down the British empire.

I can't help but look at this movie and laugh at myself a little. This film won eight Oscars in eleven nominations in 1983. One of the films it beat out for Best Picture was E.T. I was eleven years old at the time, and thought it was a travesty that what was then to me the greatest movie in the world lost to some musty old three hour picture about a man I barely knew anything about. Note that I dismissed Gandhi completely even without seeing the movie. In a move very reflective of the political nature of the Oscars (which I was far too young to understand then), I only knew that I loved E.T. and that it made more money than any other movie at the time. What more did anyone need to know it was the best movie ever?

Now that I am an adult, viewing the movie with an adult educational background, and a much more mature worldview, I can put both movies in a much better perspective with relation to each other. E.T. still can make me see the world through a child's eyes, but Gandhi delivers the same message from a very adult perspective.

I think almost all credit for that goes to Kingsley. In my opinion, his performance as Gandhi ranks among the all time greatest male leads. He is the embodiment of not just the person that Gandhi was, but everything that he stood for and believed in. Whether he is speaking before a crowd or being beaten by police, he always manages to hold head high and walk with the dignity and respect that he feels he deserves. Kingsley's paternal lineage goes back to the same province of India where Gandhi hailed from. It almost seems predetermined that he be the man to bring Gandhi to life on screen.

Kingsley's performance resonates even more in the context of the political history of the region, and recent events in that part of the world. As the Indian people fight over issues that would wind up splitting the territory into what is today Hindu majority India and Muslim majority Pakistan, my heart aches even more at the valiant efforts Gandhi made in his late years to try and bring that conflict to a peaceful resolution. He was a man whose principles elevated him to status that few others could ever rise to. Fewer still it seems of late have even made the effort.

There's also a very nice rapport between Kingsley and Rohini Hattangadi as his wife Kasturba. Early on there is conflict between them as she feels constrained by his absolute adherence to his beliefs regarding equality in the basram (sp?) they establish in South Africa. As she comes around to his way of thinking, it makes it much more convincing in seeing how she not only supports his beliefs, but becomes an active part of his work: speaking along side him, going to prison when he does.

Then there's a scene late in their lives where they are telling the story of how they met to a reporter. They go through the motions of reciting their wedding vows and the movements of the marriage ceremony. At the end it comes out that the marriage occurred when both were 12 years of age. And the love that has grown up over that long a period of time comes through in a single look. It's a beautiful moment in a movie that is full of them.

The film has a few flaws, as it does run very long (a hair over three hours). There are some cuts the could have been made, but anything cut the removed any part of Kingsley's performance would make it a lesser film. I would much rather have the whole of the story and enjoy Kingsley's performance for all that it brings to the screen.

Tomorrow: an epic that also has a prominent role from Kingsley. Schindler's List.