Release Date: 8 December, 1982
Oscar Ceremony: 11 April, 1983
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Candice Bergen
Nominees: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Missing, Tootsie, The Verdict
“They may torture my body, break my bones, even kill me. Then they will have my dead body, but not my obedience.” – Mahatma Gandhi
Everyone knows Gandhi. He’s the bald Indian man whose name is attached to thousands of inspirational peace quotes. He also helped India gain its independence by promoting nonviolent civil disobedience. He’s an icon for civil rights movements. That’s what I knew about him before watching this biopic, and that’s still pretty much all I know after having watched it.
Making a 3-hour movie about an icon’s life seems like a safe bet considering some of the past Best Picture winners. Audiences are always suckers for true stories and impressive actor transformations, and let’s face it, in Gandhi’s case you can’t really go wrong with the message either. The thing is, I’m not really sure Gandhi’s life story was truly interesting enough for a full-length feature. Everything worthy of knowing already seems to be out in the open; the movie doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Actually, who knows? Maybe it does. The truth is that I got way too uninterested and bored to actually think about it. No offense to Gandhi’s achievements, but as soon as I saw that this movie would be over three hours long I knew we were getting off to a bad start.
The story starts in 1893, where Gandhi gets thrown off a train in South Africa for being in a “whites-only” compartment, despite having purchased a first class ticket. The movie portrays various periods of his life up until his assassination and funeral in 1948. There’s no particular focus and there isn’t much revealed about Gandhi’s character other than his commitment to civil rights, freedom and nonviolence. If you’re looking for a little nuance or entertainment, you’ve come to the wrong place.
I have an issue with biopics. Obviously, there is no way of documenting a person’s entire life in the span of a few hours, so that means you have to get creative and find a purpose. The filmmakers behind Gandhi even address this point at the beginning of their movie. Considering that, I don’t really understand why they STILL tried to cover everything they could. Gandhi would have greatly benefitted from a more focused plot. Everything eventually became extremely redundant and slow. I feel like the point of the movie was made clear very early on and then the rest just dragged. If you’re going to make a movie about a person’s life and just retell everything you can think of in a plain and dry way, you might as well just make a documentary.
Nonetheless, I can admire the fact that this was not an easy project to tackle, and the weight of its subject is universally significant. It could easily have been a flop, but it wasn’t. You can tell that everyone put a lot of work into it, and according to the Academy, it paid off. Biopics will always receive criticism in regards to their accuracy or the artistic choices made in the process, and Gandhi is no different. Everyone has different interests and preferences, so even if this wasn’t necessarily MY cup of tea, I can definitely see how someone else might love it. You know what they say, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, right?
Let’s end with the obvious: Ben Kingsley’s genius performance. I’ve never really witnessed Gandhi in action, but based on the bits I’ve seen here and there, Ben Kingsley really is the perfect guy for the role. Eventually, you forget that you’re watching an actor onscreen and not the actual historical figure. Stepping in the shoes of such a famous and iconic hero is no easy task, but Kingsley pulls it off splendidly. Honestly if I were him, I would have hesitated taking on the role for many obvious reasons, but also because I would have been scared of people seeing me as nothing more than Gandhi for the rest of my career. You know what I mean? It’s especially dangerous when it’s your first step in the limelight, so it’s really nice to see that Ben Kingsley has lived on as a fairly versatile actor known for much more than just his first big role.
In the end, I don’t necessarily know if Gandhi deserved to beat E.T. for Best Picture, but I’m not really surprised. It’s an epic project, and its political side obviously touched a nerve with many people. That seems to be enough to earn the Academy’s vote.