David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962) is one of my favourite films. It is a sprawling biopic in which the film’s grasp of history and politics is problematic to say the least. But Lean gives us some of the most poetic images committed to celluloid; a rousing spectacle that compensates for what is a dubious account of T.E. Lawrence’s exotic exploits. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) was long in gestation, coming to fruition in the early 1980s, an Indo-British co-production which involved the NFDC at the behest of PM Indira Gandhi. Gandhi was an unusual project since the remit the NFDC had cultivated over the years was exclusively indigenous but this meant for the first time the NFDC worked in tandem with an external international body, GoldCrest Films, a British production company with ties to Channel Four. The film is populated by a plethora of Parallel Cinema faces while Govind Nihalani directed the second unit. It is certainly true that Gandhi would probably never have been made without the endorsement of the Indian government but one can only wonder what a filmmaker like Shyam Benegal or Mrinal Sen would have done with the project. Although Richard Attenborough had long pursued the dream of making a film on Gandhi, the final film was a resounding international success story, garnering many Oscars and a favourable critical response.
While the figure of Gandhi has been immortalised in many films, it has now become a revisionist task for film historians since the story of Gandhi continues to remain tentative. Attenborough’s Gandhi has become a significant point of reference for those who may be unfamiliar with the man. There is no denying Attenborough’s view of British colonialism is an accessible, populist representation of Gandhi’s achievements made palatable for a broad audience. However, the film is both inert in terms of its cinematic storytelling and simplistic historicising. Attenborough is so enamoured by the mythology of Gandhi, his view of history is disconcertingly linear in which equally influential political leaders like Nehru and Jinnah come away as ineffectual caricatures. Also amiss is the lack of focus on the ordinary people of the Quit India movement, the millions who were part of a seismic passive movement and the many who also gave their lives to the cause. Attenborough’s is an abridged history of modern India, cataloguing Swadeshi, Gandhi’s ascension, the end of British rule, the holocaust of Partition, to name a few. The calamity of trying to film history is the burden of history itself, which in this case is too much for Attenborough and his writers to studiously traverse.
While the defining gestalt is Ben Kingsley’s legendary performance, the film’s overblown critical reputation, much like Attenborough’s directorial career, can partly be attributed to the ambivalent critical halo of Oscardom. If anything Gandhi was the film that helped to revive the commercial fortunes of the NFDC that in turn led to a production and distribution surge in Indian Parallel Cinema. Although the term epic is often used to describe Attenborough’s film, it lacks both an emotional intimacy and cinematic zeal that Lean conjures so superbly for Lawrence of Arabia. It is not Attenborough’s linear view of history that is the problem, potentially a charge that can be levied at most films dealing with historical events, but a boring, inert and flat style of filmmaking that leads to a parochial, if not preachy, biographical tone. There probably never will be a definitive film on Gandhi and we do not need one as his legacy and story is one that is continually being fought over by historians, a site of ideological contestation so to speak. Contemporary films have been made on the topic of Gandhi notably Shyam Benegal’s The Making of a Mahatma (1996) and Kamal Hassan’s Hey Ram (2000), both brilliant films in their own way while a populist film like Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) evokes the ubiquity of Gandhi to great satirical effect.