Monday, July 25, 2011

1982 - Gandhi

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...

Richard Attenborough
John Briley
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
Academy Awards:
11 nominations
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.

Ben Kingsley (pictured) carries the film with a powerhouse performance that earned him the Best Actor Oscar. Playing one man over the course of fifty years is never easy and Kingsley is just as believable as the 70-something Gandhi as he is as the 20-something Gandhi. He is supported by an eclectic array of talented actors, including plenty of esteemed British greats, who pop in for a scene or two - Trevor Howard, John Mills, Edward Fox, and my favourite, John Gielgud as the peevish Viceroy of India. Ian Charleson, appearing in his second consecutive Best Picture winner after 1981's 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.


  1. I watched the Blu-ray of Gandhi about a month ago. It was the first time seeing the film since 1982, duringr its theatrical run. Back then, I wasn't overly impressed, feeling it was handsomely produced and well-acted, but rather inert. I had a better reaction this time. It had an epic feel and you could see that Richard Attenborough made it a labor of love. I did wonder how it would have turned out with someone like David Lean at the helm. Perhaps more compelling, but I don't know. Gandhi as a cinematic character is no T.E. Lawrence. I actually longed for the younger Gandhi, the lawyer who stood up for his people. When he became the Mahatma, it seemed he was either spinning his cloth or fasting.

    I think Attenborough had better success with his Indian actors. Some of the Brits veered into caricature, especially Edward Fox. You picked out all the small parts from the stars to be, so I have nothing to add in that regard. Overall, I think the Academy was pretty generous awarding it eight Oscars, considering the competition.

  2. Good luck with The Thirty Nine Steps. Here's what Tim Dirks has to say about the theatrical production on his greatest films site:

    " A comical theatrical version of the film, officially called "John Buchan’s The 39 Steps," opened in 2007 in London's West End. It then premiered on Broadway in early 2008 as a fast-paced stage production, now more accurately titled "Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps," with a cast of four performers playing almost 250 roles. The tour-de-farce, breakneck-speedy adventure also included many allusions, puns and visual gags of other well-known Hitchcock films."

    So, Matt, will one of your characters be missing part of his little finger?
    Or from Spellbound:
    "I knew Edwards only slightly. I never liked him."
    "I knew Edwards only slightly."
    "I knew Edwards only slightly."
    "Knew Edwards slightly."
    "Knew Edwards"
    "Knew Edwards"
    "Knew Edwards slightly"

  3. Why, yes, one my characters is missing his little finger. :-)

    Interestingly, every time I read about it, the number of characters claimed to be portrayed within the play gets bigger and bigger. In actuality, there are only about 30 characters. I'm not quite sure where the 250 number comes from. Maybe if you count the police chase as consisting of 200 policemen...

    I saw the play when it was on Broadway and knew I wanted to do it. When I watched the movie version recently in preparation for the play, I realised how much the play's script sticks to the screenplay. And in fact, a lot of those in-jokes that I thought were subtly referencing other Hitchcock films were actually taken directly from the film. For instance, I remember chuckling when Hannay is chased on foot by a plane, instantly recognising it as a reference to North by Northwest (and, in fairness, the dialogue at that point overtly mentions that film by title). But it turns out that sequence was not merely inserted as an inside joke. Hannay is, in fact, chased on foot by a plane in the movie (although it is not nearly as exciting as the crop-duster chase in North by Northwest).

    Likewise, the voice-over recall of earlier dialogue, the jump cut to a train whistling and probably many other things. It seems Hitchcock utilised a lot of techniques or story elements in The 39 Steps that he would later hone for better effect.

    In any case, rehearsing the play is truly a joyous experience. Two of my loves merged together, theatrical farce and old movies.