The winner of nine Academy Awards in 1982, Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi has endured as a compelling and powerful testament to one of the twentieth century’s most enigmatic, awe-inspiring and influential people. Gandhi’s approach to life and politics were hardly conventional – it’s not everyday that one man says he won’t eat and a nation comes to a standstill – but this record of his life is.
The film begins with Gandhi’s massive 1948 funeral. Some 400,000 extras (a few throwing rose buds at Ben Kingsley’s cadaver in the hope of making him flinch) make these initial scenes superb feats in themselves. Then we flash back to Gandhi as a wet-eared but privileged attorney arriving in South Africa in 1893, only to be thrown out of first class due to his colour.
The story moves on chronologically from there, at a deliberate, slow pace but without being overly meandering. Sometimes the narrative’s fanatical reliance on accuracy wins out at the expense of explanation. Various characters, for instance, are trotted out for display seemingly so the historically attuned audience can tick them off, rather than being woven inextricably into Gandhi’s development as a leader and icon. Yet other characters – such as Gandhi’s children – are mysteriously quite invisible.
While such treatment does lend shallowness rather than intrigue to the characters, the grandeur of the scenery and the sweeping cinematography that captures them cannot be faulted for their ambition, nor their execution. Englishman Ben Kingsley – sporting a suntan he worked hard at — plays a faultlessly charismatic Gandhi, and is well-supported by a big name cast.
The pompousness of the colonial British, too, with their indignant cough spluttering and stupid, blinkered adherence to British law, is wonderfully presented. But the British were more than just a silly inconvenience, and the horror of a their rule is brought home soberly when British troops to fire on thousands of unarmed Indian protesters. It doesn’t make it difficult to comprehend why Gandhi, who once revelled in his sons being “proper little English gentlemen”, turns into one of the strongest driving forces behind the expulsion of the British from India.
Gandhi’s remarkable life was crying out to be recorded on film, and the events he lived through and helped shape are monumental enough to sustain the well-trodden narrative path Attenborough takes us along. While he didn’t devote much attention to gaining a fresh insight into the man’s life through a cinematic exploration of what made him tick, Attenborough nevertheless produced a masterful epic worthy of each of its Academy Awards.
VIDEO: The nearly 20-year-old print used for Colombia’s 2.35:1 widescreen transfer is in superb condition, and allows audiences to see precisely why Gandhi won an Academy Award for Best Cinematography. The colours remain vibrant, rich and natural, an important virtue when long shots are so integral to the film overall. The images themselves are for the most part sharp and crisp, with consistent brightness. Specks and pixellation are not a problem, and although there are a few tiny jumps in the transfer, they are not enough to distract attention away from the film. This is a very impressive transfer – a shining example of why film-lovers should opt for rewatching all their favourite films on this medium. Subtitles are availabale in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese, Korean and Thai.
SOUND: The Dolby surround sound of Gandhi adds drama and movement both to the big scenes – and there are plenty of these, involving huge crowds and protests – to the smaller, more intimate scenes where simple things like doors being closed on one side of the room are picked up accurately. George Fenton and Ravi Shankar’s evocative score is given more resonance, too, by the crispness of the audio recording. Oddly – and inexcusably — the sound quality seemed to drop substantially during Ben Kingsley’s interview.
MENUS: Basic, easy-to-follow menus that follow the film’s themes.
Featurette: Interview with Ben Kingsley After seeing him play such a humble character as Gandhi, it’s surprising to see how quietly confident, or even arrogant, Ben Kingsley is in person. He claims – not in as many words, but in a roundabout way – that capturing Gandhi’s character was easier than learning how to spin and talk at the same time. Nevertheless, Kingsley provides some very valuable trivia about the making of the film (it took 20 years to get backing), the cast (he and Martin Sheen shared what he calls one of the greatest moments actors can have) and how he prepared to play such a revered Indian leader (lunch with Gandhi’s grandson, chats with Indira Gandhi). The only disappointment here is that this interview is the only one provided.
Newsreel clips of the real Gandhi: These are inspired choices to include on this DVD. You’ll think the portrayal of the British as pompous idiots in the film is bad enough: Then comes this fantastic collection of four short news reels about Gandhi they produced, with titles such as “Gandhi Goes to England”, which show how truly patronising the British were. Gandhi’s a “little man” who hundreds of Brits wait to see in the pouring rain on his first visit to England. “They waited to see what he really looked like. And they saw quite a lot of him — even his knees!” laughs the newsreader, making a reference to Gandhi’s traditional Indian attire. This stuff is worth its weight in Oscar gold.
Others: Two minutes of famous Gandhi quotes set to music are merely a time filler, while a photo montage of the making of Gandhi is only marginally interesting. A trailer and plenty of filmographies are also included.
Final Thoughts: As Ben Kingsley points out during his interview, Gandhi is one of the last true epics, with a fantastically huge cast rather than digitalised extras. This film is the result of the fitting efforts made by many people, but they still pale in comparison to the efforts Gandhi made throughout his own life. It’s a story that can’t go wrong, and a beautiful film well-worth watching in its DVD format.