Yet again, I am writing to you from somewhere other than New York City. (Perhaps if I updated this blog more often, this wouldn't happen as frequently.) I am currently in the very sleepy town of Naples in upstate New York, rehearsing The Thirty-Nine Steps for Bristol Valley Theater. A parody of the classic Hitchcock film, the play consists of dozens and dozens of characters but only four actors - one man to play the lead, one woman to play three female characters and two other actors (referred to in the script as Clowns) who play everyone else. I have the fitness-inducing pleasure of playing one of the madcap clowns.
On a break from rehearsals, I found the time to watch the last of 1982's nominees for Best Picture...
Ben Kingsley, Candice Bergen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Martin Sheen, Ian Charleson, Athol Fugard, Gunther Maria Halmer, Saeed Jaffrey, Geraldine James, Alyque Padamsee, Amrish Puri, Roshan Seth, Rohini Hattangadi
8 wins, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Kingsley)
Spanning more than five decades in the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi (Kingsley), the critically acclaimed biopic certainly covers a lot of ground. In South Africa at the end of the nineteenth century, the London-trained attorney-at-law experiences first-hand the discrimination rife in the British Empire. As an Indian, he was not allowed to travel first-class or even walk on the pavement. Rather than wallow in disillusionment, Gandhi leads a non-violent campaign to protest the injustices, eventually winning some concessions from the British government. Back at home in India, he begins the arduous task of gaining India's independence from Britain. Over the years, he endures several imprisonments, witnesses horrific incidents of oppression and initiates one or two hunger strikes, yet Gandhi remains steadfast in his conviction that violence is never the answer.
Despite a running time of just over three hours, Gandhi is surprisingly concise. The narrative is consistently clear and easy to follow, giving a comfortable accessibility to our protagonist's growth. As with most underdog stories, there is plenty of powerfully emotional content and our empathy for Gandhi's plight is quickly realised through several scenes depicting his or his people's oppression. The massacre scene is particularly evocative and almost difficult to watch.
One potential pitfall of presenting a story about such a revered historical figure is the temptation to depict the subject without flaws and foibles, making him seem somehow superhuman. This picture is certainly not ashamed of glorifying its subject but, thankfully, it also allows Gandhi a few moments of hotheadedness. When he loses his temper with his wife, he becomes more of a regular guy with which we can all identify, rather than just the constantly serene nothing-ever-rattles-me saint of the rest of the film. These revealing moments are perhaps too few and too brief, but they make for a fascinating study nonetheless. Mind you, from another perspective, his moral tenacity could easily be seen as another flaw. Gandhi is so dogmatic in his pacifist beliefs to the point that he almost kills himself by refusing to eat. In any other human being, such stubborn behaviour would be considered stupidity. Again, these issues only help to create a more well-rounded character on screen, far more interesting than a cut-and-dry do-gooder.
Chariots of Fire, is amiably subtle as the Christian Reverend that Gandhi befriends. Not English, but also impressive are Martin Sheen, Candice Bergen and particularly Roshan Seth, expertly portraying the love and frustration that goes along with being Gandhi's close friend and political colleague. To satisfy my penchant for picking out the yet-to-be-famous actors in relatively minor roles, the film offers several instances of such - Nigel Hawthorne appears briefly; Harry Potter fans will recognise Richard Griffiths; although not immediately discernible, Daniel Day-Lewis' trademark intensity as a South African thug gives him away; and everyone's favourite mailman from Cheers, John Ratzenberger, shows up as a military driver but his voice is dubbed (by Martin Sheen, reportedly), ironic since Ratzenberger is now also very well known for his prolific voice work, mostly with Pixar.