Columbia Pictures; produced and directed by Richard Attenborough

Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi does not follow the formula of all too many films: a business deal made, stars hired, and the movie thrown in almost as an afterthought. Gandhi is the product of 20 years’ preparation to film the life of the man whose name means “The Great Soul”—the father of modern India, Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Hindu pacifists do not translate into entertaining footage as well as, say, spies or extraterrestrials. Given this, actor Ben Kingsley (in his film debut) succeeds remarkably, especially considering the aging involved in the role. He conveys Gandhi’s courage, humility, and deep love for his nation. Gandhi’s own influences, however, are neglected. The Mahatma met George Bernard Shaw and drew heavily from the writings of Tolstoy, Thoreau, and the New Testament. He once called Jesus “the most active resister known to history.” An important dimension of Gandhi’s life is thus left uncharted.

Chronologically, the film is often vague. Historical figures Lord Irwin (John Gielgud) and photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) remain, for the most part, outside the drama of Gandhi’s life. The injustice of the British raj comes through without excessive flagellation, but lurches and spurts of violence that make the film uneven. To his credit, Attenborough does not neglect the violence and repression perpetrated by the Indians on their own after independence nor the devastating effect this had on Gandhi.

Parts of the film capture the abject poverty of India’s millions, but Gandhi never delivers the visual banquet audiences might expect, and which would have helped carry the long work (three-and-a-half hours). Too much of the time is spent in plodding expository scenes.

And yet, Gandhi is well worth seeing, if only as a private vision of a man who lived what he believed and took nonviolence to its ultimate conclusion at great cost to himself. Such people are too rare in today’s world to ignore.

Reviewed by Lloyd Billingsley, a writer living in Southern California

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