Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Gandhi’: Modeling Peaceful Protest, a Must-See for 2020

November 6, 2020 Updated: November 6, 2020

PG | | Biography, Drama, History | 25 February 1983 (USA)

I saw “Gandhi” when it debuted in 1982. A recent viewing reveals today’s stars in bit parts, such as Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Farrell, and John Ratzenberger, which has the interesting effect of making a nearly 40-year-old film feel cutting-edge.

man in brown hat and vest in "Gandhi"
Daniel Day Lewis playing a South African racist in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

Apart from its three-hour length and the somewhat more leisurely pacing of the pre-computerized era, it’s solid storytelling. And much like “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave,” it provides a good history lesson in how to outlast and subjugate oppressive regimes using endurance and human kindness.

Spiritual communities claim that every so often a great enlightened being from a much higher dimension will incarnate as a human and facilitate a great change for the improvement of humanity. If that’s indeed the case, all it takes is one viewing of “Gandhi” to have that penny drop, to register the plausibility of such a concept as truth. Watch “Gandhi” to restore hope, and then watch “Selma” to see Gandhi’s principles of nonviolence updated for a later generation by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Vision

“Gandhi” was director Sir Richard Attenborough’s dream project for 20 years; it’s clearly a labor of love, and Attenborough’s crowning achievement. It’s an old-fashioned epic with panoramic vistas, vast numbers of people running around, and great political tectonic shifts, which nevertheless manages to retain a sense of intimacy—in this case due primarily to Ben Kingsley’s performance.

man with white shawl and round glasses in "Gandhi"
Ben Kingsley as Mahatma Gandhi in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

As the film is highly ambitious in scope, Attenborough swings for the fences, as opposed to Steven Spielberg’s as well as Ava DuVernay’s choices in, respectively, “Lincoln,” and “Selma,” which pick smaller pieces of a character’s history to focus on, thereby allowing one to get to know the iconic historical figure better. Attenborough gives us the whole life of Mahatma Gandhi and still lets you feel you’ve come to know the man well.

The scope of the film encompasses India’s political upheaval, how it won its Gandhi-led independence from British rule in 1947, the Hindu-Muslim divide that led to the partition of India into India and Pakistan, as well as Gandhi’s assassination in 1948.

It’s got powerful war set pieces, such as the brutal Amritsar massacre of at least 379 Indians (including women and children) killed by a platoon of native soldiers in an enclosed compound, commanded by British Brigadier General R.E. Dyer (Edward Fox).

soldiers massacre civilians in "Gandhi"
The Amritsar massacre, in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

There’s also another confrontation between British-trained Indian soldiers who, under orders to protect the Dharasana Salt Works, ruthlessly beat hundreds of peaceful Indian protesters bloody with clubs. The heroic crowd willingly submits to the one-sided violence, while resolutely refusing to vacate the premises.

The Man

However, if there was ever an actor born to play the biographical role of a historical figure, the British (half-Indian) Ben Kingsley was born to play Gandhi. And so the vast scope of the film is anchored by what feels like actor-channeling.

Kingsley portrays Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi from the time when, as a young London-trained barrister with a full head of hair, wearing Western-style suits, he incurs the racial slur of “kaffir” and is humiliatingly thrown off of a train in South Africa. If ever there was a call to take up the Hero’s Journey, this is a striking example.

man in suit reads statement in front of protesters in "Gandhi"
Ben Kingsley as Mohandas Gandhi in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

Mohandas then begins his transformation into the Mahatma. (Mahatma means a person regarded with reverence or loving respect; a holy person or sage.) His is a lifelong peaceful mission to obtain freedom and dignity for every Indian man, woman, and child—regardless of color, nationality, creed, or caste—by antagonizing the British with a nonstop campaign of civil disobedience.

While Gandhi’s courage and heroism is displayed in a near-constant comportment of humility, patience, and dignity, there’s also a warrior-manliness—much like that in “Braveheart”—grounded in Gandhi’s legal background, which renders him immune to being British law enforcement’s hapless fool. He knows the law, and his philosophy of “nonviolent noncooperation” (peaceful insurrection, the passive resistance to political oppression) is buttressed by this.

Britain attempted throughout Gandhi’s life (and throughout the film) to destroy his hero status by forever locking him up in prison, which only fed his fame and the devotion of his followers.

man in white suit visits man in prison in "Gandhi"
Ian Charleson (L) and Ben Kingsley in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

The film’s greatest accomplishment, besides demonstrating the effectiveness of nonviolent noncooperation, is to depict (literally) the homespun side of Mahatma Gandhi: The little brown man who walked around in, basically, diapers was the original wearer of the round spectacles that John Lennon popularized as a hippie fashion statement, tended to his sheep and goats, and embraced indigenous Mother India by teaching himself to sit on the ground and spin wool.

man and woman spinning wool in "Gandhi"
Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangadi in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

Like all truly spiritually elevated individuals, or least most achieving such a designation, Gandhi had a great sense of humor. But “Gandhi” hints at his spiritual trials. At one point, the womenfolk marvel at his wife’s relating that her husband, after a few failures, remained resolutely faithful to his lifelong vow of celibacy. Dr. King did not fare so well. Nor, actually, did Gandhi, if one takes a closer look at his actual history in this area. However, Gandhi’s original intention, absolutely, was to remain chaste.

Kingsley

“Gandhi” is cast with an excellent lineup of elder British actors, such as theater royalty Sir John Gielgud, who stealthily undermine their characters’ desperate attempts to clutch at receding dignity, with a whiff of ever-so-slightly Monty Python-esque ridiculousness.

But Kingsley’s performance is jaw-dropping. He displays a quiet, humble, but incandescent charisma so magnetic that it’s immediately self-evident how this little man, whose life was taken from him at age 78 by an assassin’s bullet in 1948, managed to capture the hearts and imaginations of India’s staggering population.

man in white holds handful of salt in "Gandhi"
Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley, C) demonstrates to his fellow Indians how they can make their own salt, in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

Best of all, much like “Selma,” “Gandhi” underlines the importance of nonviolent demonstration at a time when America is in the clutches of a communist infiltration that is turning, unbeknownst to them, America’s masses into “useful idiots” by fomenting and encouraging a terrorist mindset as the only way to express the desire for change.

silhouette of man spnning wool in "Gandhi"
Mahatma Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) spins wool, in “Gandhi.” (Columbia Pictures)

‘Gandhi’
Director: Sir Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley, Rohini Hattangadi, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, Athol Fugard, Geraldine James, Daniel Day-Lewis, Colin Farrell, John Ratzenberger
Running Time: 3 hours, 11 minutes
Rating: PG
Release Date: Feb. 25, 1983
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch