Categories: Zest

Gandhi: The story of a Mahatma

“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth.”
– Albert Einstein

The struggle faced by actor/director, Sir Richard Attenborough while fulfilling his dream of producing a film on the life and times of Mahatma Gandhi, was perhaps as arduous as the one faced by an extraordinary man called Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. The dream, however, proved difficult and became a quest of twenty years for Attenborough just to get the project off the ground. Since this was a personal mission of Attenborough and not a studio-driven project, he was charged with the Herculean task of finding funding for the massive undertaking on his own.
It all began in 1952 when Hungarian film producer and director, Gabriel Pascal secured an agreement with then prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to produce a film on Gandhi’s life. However, Pascal died in 1954 before preparations were completed. In 1962, Attenborough was contacted to discuss the film by Motilal Kothari, an Indian-born civil servant working with the Indian High Commission in London, and a devout follower of Gandhi. Attenborough agreed, and after reading Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi, spent the next 18 years attempting to get the film made. He was able to meet Pandit Nehru and his daughter, Indira Gandhi through a connection with Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Nehru approved of the film and promised to help support its production, but his death in 1964 was one of the film’s many setbacks. Attenborough would dedicate the film to the memory of Kothari, Mountbatten, and Nehru.
Attenborough again attempted to resurrect the project in 1976 with backing from Warner Brothers. Around same time, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi declared a State of Emergency in India and shooting would be impossible. Finally in 1980, Attenborough was able to secure both the funding and locations needed to make the film. Screenwriter John Briley introduced him to Jake Eberts, the chief executive at the new Goldcrest production company that raised approximately two-thirds of the film’s budget. Co-producer, Rani Dube persuaded Indira Gandhi to provide the remaining $10 million through the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), then chaired by DVS Raju.
Since Attenborough had been thinking about this project for long, several actors were considered over the years for various roles. Attenborough worked with a young Candice Bergen in the mid-1960s and even back then asked her if she would play the part of photographer, Margaret Bourke-White, which she would, fifteen years later. Martin Sheen’s impressive performance in ‘Apocalypse Now’ (1979) earned him his role in ‘Gandhi’, as did Ian Charleson’s work in ‘Chariots of Fire’ (1981). Sheen even donated his salary to charity. A number of celebrated actors such as Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard and John Mills were also signed.
As for the lead role, three actors were in main contention: Anthony Hopkins, Alec Guinness, and John Hurt. All three actors eventually agreed that the ability of a European actor to convincingly play an Indian was just too great; and then came Ben Kingsley as recommended by Michael, Attenborough’s son. The choice came in favour of Kingsley, who is partly of Indian heritage; his father being Gujarati and his birth name Krishna Bhanji.
Sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar immediately agreed to score music for the film in collaboration with George Fenton, resulting in Indian musicians coming to London to perform. Arriving in January, the studio had to be specially warmed as their instruments – unused to the cold – were constricting, resulting in inaccurate pitches and notes.
The scale of production of ‘Gandhi’ was enormous. When an open solicitation for crowd members was made for the funeral scene, an estimated 3,00,000 extras showed up. The scene, incidentally, was shot on the 33rd anniversary of the event. This was the highest number of extras for any film according to The Guinness Book of World Records. The shooting of the film began on November 26, 1980 and ended on May 10, 1981.
Despite the fact that no one wanted to finance the film for twenty years, distributors scrambled to secure rights for ‘Gandhi’ once the completed feature was revealed in industry previews. Claiming it to be one of the most important films ever made, Columbia committed to do anything it took to be the distributor, including organising the biggest worldwide opening schedule for a film ever, at that time.
‘Gandhi’ premiered in New Delhi on November 30, 1982. Two days later, on December 2, it had a Royal Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square in London, in the presence of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. The film had a limited release in the US on December 8, 1982, followed by a wider release in January 1983.
Reviews for ‘Gandhi’ were broadly positive not only domestically in India, but also internationally. Critics and audiences alike were amazed and effectively overwhelmed. The film was discussed or reviewed in ‘Newsweek’, ‘Time, ‘The Washington Post’, and even ‘The Journal of Asian Studies.’ It went to garner a whopping 11 Oscar nominations, and won in 8 categories.
Produced at a budget of $22 million, ‘Gandhi’ grossed a total of $52.7 million in North America, thus becoming the 12th-highest-grossing film of 1982, in US. Audiences around the world loved the film and went on to see it several times helping the film to generate more income. In India, it was one of the highest-grossing films of all-time – and the highest for a foreign film – during the time of its release by earning over Rs100 crore. In Mumbai, the original English version was screened at the Regal Cinema, while Hindi dubbed version was released at the Plaza Cinema, tax free. It was also released in Delhi and other places.


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