No other movie in my DVD library effects me as powerfully as Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. The first time I saw it, it so compelled me that I watched the movie several more times that very weekend. As many times as I have seen it, it never fails to provoke a response in me. I've read it described as "cinematic hagiography", a celebratory portrayal of an icon. The film covers Gandhi's life as a political activist, from his initial campaigns in South Africa to his role in India's independence movement spanning most of the 20th century.
Gandhi is well-known for his commitment to nonviolence, a commitment that inspired Dr. Martin Luther King's approach to the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. I do not believe I was aware of the moral strength and conviction such a commitment required until I saw Gandhi's depiction in this movie, nor did I appreciate it as I do now. When the film begins, Gandhi is but a young lawyer, one thrown off a train when he refused to leave his first-class ticket. These tickets are denied to all "colored" people, Indians included, and this confrontation begins Gandhi's career in activism. He begins campaigning on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, but from the start holds fast to nonviolence. The film's most poignant moment for me is a speech made to a conference of Indians soon thereafter, where he speaks publicly on the need for nonviolence.
In response to Gandhi's initial campaigns, the British government issues a law requiring that all Indians come forth to be fingerprinted. The law further states that British policemen can search Indian households with no given cause. Outraged at this infringement of human rights, several of the men in the audience swear to kill any British officials who dare insult them in this manner. Gandhi praises their courage, but adds that while he too is prepared to die in this just cause, "there is no cause for which [he] is prepare to kill".
He then proceeds to champion nonviolence, which is rooted not only in Hindi religious philosophy, but out a devotion to what I can only term radical love.
"I am asking you to fight. To fight against their anger, not to provoke it. We will not strike a blow -- but we will receive them. And through our pain, we will make them see their injustice. And it will hurt, as all fighting hurts. But we cannot lose. We cannot. They may torture my body, break my bones -- even kill me. Then they will have my dead body -- not my obedience."
Every time I view this scene, I am struck by the power of it. Gandhi is committed to nonviolence not just to prove his point without making the situation worse, but to force the oppressors to see what their ambition, pride, fear, and anger are lowering them to. He's sacrificing his own comfort -- taking pain -- to help the very people who administer that pain so that both of them may be freed from the oppression. This is a kind of nobility that defies words, and I cannot witness it without being changed by it.
Gandhi and his followers do not champion nonviolence simply out of religious piety or even because of their committment to radical love that goes beyond any system of ideas. It's also pragmatic. Not only does their commitment to nonviolent action rob the oppressors of legitimate excuses to grow ever more horrific, but it ensures a kind of purity among the demonstrators. It weeds out weaker characters, people easily given to bloodshed and close-minded partisanship. The future first prime minister of India, Mr. Nehru, asks mid-film: if India becomes free through violence and war, what kind of leaders will that throw up? The viewer need only glance at the history of nations forged by gun-toting revolutionaries, states like the Soviet Union and the First French Republic. Violence begets violence, and I think Gandhi realized that the chain of events must be undone before it leads to greater tragedies. In spite of his yearning for a free India, he and others committed to nonviolence are committed to gaining that independence the right way -- "proving worthy" of it. When the time is come, freedom 'will fall like a ripe apple'. Gandhi and those who support him demonstrate in action their principles, standing up against abuse and demonstrating on behalf of their rights against fierce resistance throughout the movie.
Gandhi's philosophy makes this movie for me, but it is far from Gandhi's only strength. The acting is well-done, and the music is stellar. I adore the depiction of Gandhi in this movie, particularly the character's humbleness, simplicity, and dedication. I don't know that the movie's characterization is quite fair to Mr. Jinnah, the future prime minister of Pakistan: throughout the film he's portrayed as hostile toward Gandhi, and ever self-absorbed. I am not familiar with Gandhi, Nehru, or Jinnah's total biographies, nor with the Indian independence moment as a whole, so I would not be surprised if there are historical inaccuracies done for the sake of making a more dramatic movie. Tension has its place. A review I read in the course of looking for a specific quote from the movie claims that Attenborough took some liberties but aptly portrayed Gandhi's philosophy and dedication.
I believe this to be a particularly strong movie, remarkable for its depiction of human beings at their very best -- fighting injustice while not becoming party to it, returning spite for compassion. Gandhi's story, as well as Martin Luther King's, proves that we can fight for our humanity and not lose it in the process.
Here's the trailer that lured me into watching the movie for the first time.