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This week marks the 60th anniversary of Indian independence. It is also the 60th anniversary of the division of India into two rival states, India and Pakistan. The first was the lifeís struggle of Mohandas K. Gandhi. The second he despised and argued against. Both are the subject of the best picture of 1982, Gandhi.
Only one man has ever won the Oscar for best actor in his film debut, and that was Ben Kingsley. Though he was born in England, his family hails from the Indian state of Gujarat, just like Gandhi. Add to that a respectable stage and TV career before this movie was made, and the fact that he looks quite a bit like the Mahatma, and Kingsley was the perfect choice. He absolutely disappears into this role. At no point do you think to yourself that Kingsley is doing a remarkable job, because at no point do you think of him as Ben Kingsley. Itís just Gandhi up there on the screen.
And Kingsley is not alone. He is joined by a large group of wonderful performers, from Candice Bergen and Martin Sheen as American reporters, to Ian Charleson, following up his role in the previous yearís best picture Chariots of Fire as preacher/ track star Eric Liddell with this role as preacher/ follower of Gandhi Charlie Andrews. Another good performance is turned in by Alyque Padamsee in the only film role of his life as the founder of Pakistan Mohammed Ali Jinnah.
Joining the great cast, is seemingly the entire population of India. The funeral scene alone included 300,000 extras. Another scene where Gandhi arrives at a train station includes enough extras to stretch all the way to the horizon. This helps illustrate the vast popularity Gandhi enjoyed in his homeland during the height of his political career.
The movie does well to detail the brutality of the British raj as its time in India drew to a close. And though part of you wants to see the Indian populace take up arms and defend themselves when faced with the tyranny of Britain, but there is something noble about the use of non-violence. Gandhi was inspired by Henry David Thoreauís Civil Disobedience, telling one British official "One hundred thousand Englishmen simply cannot control three hundred million Indians if those Indians refuse to cooperate," and he in turn inspired many of the tactics used a decade later by Martin Luther King in the American Civil Rights movement and later in the century by the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. The scenes of Indians turning the other cheek are breathtaking. In one scene line after line of Indian protesters approaches a line of British guards only to be beaten by sticks and dragged off by women who take them to a makeshift triage unit off to the side. They knew what would happen when they arrived. Both groups knew their parts, and played them.
But coupled with Gandhiís greatest victory, came his great failure. He gained independence through non-violence, but once it came the tenants of non-violence fell by the wayside as Hindu and Muslim believers tore the new nation in half. Before independence, one British official warns Gandhi that this might happen. "But then it will be Indiaís problem," is Gandhiís reply. When independence, and with it partition, become a foregone conclusion, Gandhi asks Jinnah about the difficulty in uniting Muslims in two far removed sections of India. "That will be Pakistanís problem," replies Jinnah, throwing Gandhiís argument back at him. (Gandhiís words of warning had merit. Pakistanís two noncontiguous sections could not remain whole, resulting in the independent state of Bangladesh.)
The Oscars were a two horse race in 1982, between Gandhi and Steven Spielbergís ode to aliens ET. The voters went with Gandhi, but ET would have won if those soldiers at the end had been holding walkie-talkies instead of guns, so years later Spielberg digitally altered the movie and the Academy called for a re-count, leading to the unprecedented move. . . . . Oh no wait, Spielberg just made those changes because heís a dick. Not nominated were Das Boot, one of the best World War II movies ever made, and one that shows the war from the other perspective, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which contrary to popular belief is great for more reasons than just Phoebe Cates and Diner, an examination of what it meant to be a Colts fan in the 50ís, released two short years before the Mayflower moving vans ripped the hearts out of every Colts fan. (Ironically Paul Rieser plays a guy named Modell, though there is no reason to believe he is supposed to be the man who ripped the hearts out of Browns fans by returning pro-football to Baltimore.)
Though those movies are all good (And I mean come on, Phoebe Cates, canít go wrong there) nothing quite compares to Gandhi. As a bio-pic, it does what a bio-pic should, making you appreciate and admire the subject and learn about his life and times, and the contributions he made to society. It is also well acted and visually stunning. ET was good, but Gandhi is truly great.