Not often does an Oscar winner for leading actor or actress dominate the entire picture through and through. Everything in “Gandhi” gravitates around Ben Kingsley in the role of a lifetime, or quite simply: the role he was born to play. Mahatma Gandhi’s story is about the power of one influencing the power of millions. Richard Attenborough’s film aspires to spread that message in this fascinating three-hour biopic about the strength and willpower of the human spirit.
“Gandhi” is in fact responsible in part for the modern day biopic, a genre that has become a huge part of awards season almost every year. Humbly, the film begins with a message that no film could fairly capture the life of one person, let alone Mohandas K. Gandhi, the lawyer that virtually became a prophet. They needn’t be so humble: they easily achieve the goal of capturing the essence of Gandhi, the core of his person. The film starts with Gandhi making political waves in South Africa then taking his message of non-violence and non-resistance to India in attempt to force the English out on their own terms.
Attenborough, an actor who had made a couple war films and a Winston Churchill biopic “Young Winston” prior, struck gold with this film. It is not a film that begs a director’s signature touches, rather one that requires patience and the ability to surrender the film’s influential power completely to the main character. With the exception of some key scenes that don’t involve Gandhi, Attenborough is nearly invisible. We’re meant to hear this man’s words and become as magnetized as all South Africa and then of course India does. Attenborough primarily contributes a worldly feel, like that of a true epic, as well as purposeful and quick pacing.
Ultimately, writer John Briley keeps “Gandhi” fascinating by bouncing back and forth between plan and action. Gandhi and his followers or Gandhi and the government meet to discuss how they might make a stand, Gandhi says some instantly-quotable wisdom and then we see the impact on the greater country. It seems formulaic, but it keeps “Gandhi” from lingering too long in one place and losing its impact.
Holding those “planning” scenes is the poise of Kingsley. He has that intangible “it” factor as Gandhi. Gandhi was well-spoken, strong-willed and never doubted his position of influence, but he had to have been more humble than any man before him with that kind of political influence. Many Oscar winners have the inner demons of their character to wrestle with in order to add power to their performances; Kingsley does it all gracefully and understated.
The difference one man can make in the cycle of violence has never been clearer. Martin Luther King Jr. would become the “next Gandhi” perhaps, adapting his principles and continuing to prove that a single voice can lead a people as it has as far back as biblical times. Humanity needs a face to help rally it sometimes and Gandhi was able to fast to quiet a nation of 300 million (at the time).
In exploring the power of this one Indian man of short, unimposing stature, “Gandhi” offers discourse on the dynamics of power between oppressor and oppressed and also highlights that despite how easily one single person can start the cycle of violence, say by throwing a rock at a passing group of Muslims as one Hindu does later in the film, one person — contrary to popular belief — can under the right circumstances end it.
Directed by Richard Attenborough
Written by John Briley
Starring: Ben Kingsley