Much to the annoyance of General Smuts (Athol Fugard), the unyielding figurehead of South Africa, Gandhi begins to form contacts within the Indian worker minority. Shipped over to either toil in the mines or tend crops, there is no sense of unity amongst them; this is where Gandhi comes in. Organising a meeting of his countrymen, open to all regardless of religion, Gandhi attempts to kindle within them a sense of injustice. Words fail him however, being unused to public speaking, and Gandhi resorts to direct action; burning his identity card in front of the assembled police. His subsequent assault makes the headlines, yet horrifies his wife Kasturba (Rohini Hattangandy). In short order Gandhi becomes a major thorn for Smuts; yet because Gandhi advises non-violent resistance at all times the government is unsure how to alleviate the crisis.
Imprisoning the troublemakers and introducing harsh new legislation initially seems like a good idea. Gandhi, however, has allies like international reporter Walker (Martin Sheen) on his side. Thus the pressure on Smuts builds up, leading to the moment when he cracks and accedes to the movement's demands. In a move of true humility, Gandhi accepts the victory but not the spoils; instead his family return to their homeland. What he doesn't expect is the hero's welcome that awaits him, especially when India feels like a foreign land. Rushed into the presence of Congress Party men Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Alyque Padamsee) and Pandit Nehru (Roshan Seth), he would rather establish his law firm. Fortunately wiser heads prevail and Gandhi embarks on a journey both literal and metaphorical, the result of which will be the unrequested appellation of Mahatma.
An exhaustive yet glancing biopic of one of this century's most influential individuals, Gandhi locates drama in the most unlikely of places. The obvious scenes of Gandhi's funeral and the Amritsar massacre are, of course, covered but it is the moments elsewhere that remain in the memory. Uncinematic asides such as Gandhi's notorious fasts or his first brush with injustice are where Gandhi excels; these are the incidents which make the man. As it happens it is in the first half of the film that the character building occurs, with Gandhi discovering that he cannot stand idly by while others suffer. In South Africa his nascent political intuition and personal charisma combine powerfully, inspiring loyalty and devotion from followers. As the second half of the film arrives, India, the country, takes Gandhi's place in the emotional centre. While somewhat more challenging in terms of identification, this switch perfectly illustrates how the histories of Gandhi and India are tightly bound together.
The unyielding knot which holds Gandhi together over its many decades and differing conflicts is Kingsley. His performance is so on-target in its honesty, emotional nuance and direction that it barely feels like a performance at all. When Kingsley speaks the phrases that are enshrined in history, it's as if Gandhi were mouthing them for the first time. This identification stretches far beyond mere physical resemblance though; instead Kingsley seems to realise the innate power of these words and is content to act as a conduit. All he needs to add are the details - the fiercely intelligent aura, the utterly rational and calm reaction to inflamed emotion, the unshakeable beliefs and principles. These are the qualities which Richard Attenborough gives Gandhi; what's remarkable is that such a man ever existed. For modern audiences Kingsley is that man.
Where Gandhi displays weakness is in its coverage of the figures near to Gandhi and the wider political situation. By concentrating so intensely on one man, however captivating he might be, the context provided by his allies and enemies is threadbare. Hence the British rulers impress more as isolated fools than the successful colonisers of a continent, with figures such as Lord Irwin (John Gielgud) fatally underestimating the difference that a man in a loincloth can make. By doing this Attenborough almost undermines Gandhi's long struggle, though it is a joy to see his simple strategy flummox the incumbents. Within the Congress Party both Jinnah and Nehru are sketched in very broad terms, giving little insight into their true allegiances and motivations. Thus it's not apparent what the real rifts are and why Gandhi cannot heal them. In some ways these are small points, yet their solution could have strengthened an already impressive movie.
Beyond these faults Gandhi is a majestic portrayal of a society in flux, guided by the one man who never asked to be a leader. This is a tale of trust, of non-violent co-operation and of proactive revolution. In a world where "might makes right" it's a valuable message, though one tempered by the messy divorce of India and Pakistan. To this day the conflict continues, fuelled by politicians for their own ends but rooted in the partition of 1947; the tragedy is that Gandhi was in some ways destroyed by the very country he helped to create. Just how varied and beautiful this domain is can be glimpsed via the gorgeous cinematography of Ronnie Taylor and Billy Williams. Gandhi demands to be shown upon the big screen, yet even this feels too restricted to contain the film's scope. The enduring fact then is that Gandhi united a fractured people when such an aim appeared hopeless; what else matters?
This film was viewed at the 1997 Birmingham International Film & Television Festival