4 DECEMBER 1982, Page 10

An opportunity missed

Gita Mehta

My earliest political memory is of being sent as a child to watch Mahatma Gandhi's funeral cortege pass through the streets of Delhi. Although I was only five years old I, like everyone else in India, knew who Gandhi was, knew also that he had been shot point-blank three times and died saying the name of God each time a bullet entered his body. News of the assassination had devastated the grown-ups of the household who had followed Gandhi into jail, faced the lathi-charges of the police of the British Raj and tried to prevent Hindus and Muslims from slaughtering each other, armed only with what Gandhi called moral force.

I recollect sitting on someone's shoulders that day, awestruck by the uncharacteristic silence and lack of colour in the ocean of Indians lining the route. People wore white, the Indian colour of mourning. There was no pushing or yelling, just the sound of weeping. Only when an ordinary lorry bear- ing a flower-covered body and a lot of distressed leaders passed by did the crowd surge forward to throw flowers on the lorry shouting 'Mahatma Gandhi amar rahe — Gandhi is immortal.'

As spectacles go it was a rather shabby affair. The dignity of the event came from the genuine and unchoreographed grief ex- pressed by the two and half million people who crowded the roads which led to Gan- dhi's funeral pyre.

Sir Richard Attenborough's film Gandhi opens with Gandhi's assassination, till cuts to the funeral procession. And WhAatof funeral procession it is. A militarY guar.:id honour Sikhs, Raj puts, Gurkhas C000- their rifles reversed, boots crashing u de with terrifying precision on the main avea st of Lutyens's Delhi; Mountbatten andli° ci


of other dignitaries walking slowlY be,th"iiiri" I an elaborate vehicle on which Gan—,1,5r body rests, watched by a vast mass o restless spectators. rat,' already amassed in order to create 'an e"aoli procession; t

spectators. I'm sure the

briefly, was exactly as Attenborough reo trays it. After all, Sir Richard has °he countless interviews describing hnvi the spent 18 obsessive years studYingZhis logistics, the finances and the politics 0' L". dvemure. Indeed, for the restaging nt. 68101; I transported 3,000 servicemen and 85' hes funeral procession Attenhor0uoce villagers to augment the 250,00° eic, ct replica' of the original occasion. Yet ftur the verisimilitude and expensive gran'cioj of the sequence the director has succee t. merely in staging a look-alike of the everlic, The essence of the funeral was s,Phos unadorned grief and this Attenborougo of failed to elicit from the hundred; thousands of assembled actors and e";-:sioi. The inability to capture moments ,-ole pie, uncomplicated emotion show trY.,„ of hollowness and over-staged theatricalillex, Richard Attenborough's Gandhi with so. asperating frequency. In sequence aftetfey quence the screen is filled with armies ° coy tras, miles of landscape, crowds of ha al, identified minor characters conveYing uneasy aura of historical mystification, of To make a heroic epic about the ° life was the one leader in this centurY wh,00ts always determinedly anti-heroic P' re obvious problems. Sir Richard hasnt s for ed them. His film opens with a Pie: co clemency with the text: 'No man's Ine,o be be encompassed in one telling. Wilat c—ord done is to be faithful in spirit to the reefthe and try and find our way to the heart °,41,i's

man ' Minutes later, while

ashes are being sprinkled on the Grcio Gatos River a sententious voice informs us t'ao,i11 Albert Einstein's opinion, `GeneratiOnSs ever: scarce believe that such a man as thi in flesh and blood, walked upon this e'orit The apology, followed by an endorsen:iiity, of Gandhi from the Father of Relari joa reflects Attenborough's own uncertaintY,'„c, film which oscillates between historiaj c ,;0, curacy, the director's admiration of

dhi, and the demands of the inter

natl° box office. ives a Ben Kingsley, who plays Gandhi, g,,tral bravura performance as the character, appearing ce".4 -n almost ev- sequence of the three-hour-long film. Kingsley, a product of the National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company, brings an intelligence to his interpretation of Gandhi which is not supported by the rest of the film. The wit, the shrewdness, the compassion which characterised Gandhi and the development of Gandhi's personali- ty over the half-century encompassed by the film, are convincingly depicted. More im- pressive is the actor's subtle refusal to engage in hyperbole. The excellence of his performance is betrayed by a script full of caricatures — the knights of the British theatre play New World abrasiveness, the token British followers of Gandhi, a vicar and an admiral's daughter, look like escapees from Chariots of Fire and a hippie commune. The masses who follow Gandhi are mawkish, his colleagues, who were in fact a most fractious lot, are shown as bor- ingly sycophantic and the film becomes precisely the kind of hyperbolic tribute which Kingsley's performance tries to avoid.

The rest of the film consists of several big scenes, almost all of them violent — the most violent being the massacre in Amritsar of unarmed civilians, including women and children, by the troops of the British Raj. To a British audience this sequence may come as a shock. Certainly the film dwells on it, rising on a mound of dead bodies to the announcement of intermission. Left unexplained is the reason for the massacre or the fact that Gandhi himself was even more shocked by the law which led to the meeting which led to the massacre — a law which allowed Indians to be jailed without trial and required that on certain streets in Amritsar Indians crawl on their bellies as punishment for manhandling a missionary. This scene underlines Sir Richard's difficul- ty with his subject. Resistance to indignity, injustice and vendetta — even if such resistance led to death — was the basis of Gandhi's philosophy. As he said often, the exacting of an eye for an eye only leads to a lot of blindness. Gandhi's greatness lay in convincing a continent and an empire of the reasonableness of this truism. Atten- borough concentrates instead on the price of such reasonableness and in the process merely achieves the ironic distinction of making a violent film about the great apos- tle of non-violence.

An opportunity has been missed and it is difficult not to speculate on what David Lean, who spent ten unsuccessful years try- ing to convince the Indians to let him make this film, would have done with the subject. Still, the production information on Atten- borough's Gandhi informs us that interna- tional statesmen, political leaders, church- men, scientists, writers, broadcasters `and other opinion-makers' are agreed that 'Gandhi is one of the most important films to come out of actual history.' I guess Gan- dhi is better than Nine Hours to Rama or Bhowani Junction, but then it should be with the full backing of the Indian govern- ment which donated f41/2 million to the film's budget, and provided the security,

the clout, the crowds and the questionable blessing of a Prime Minister who distinguished herself by prohibiting the publication of Gandhi's views on freedom only five years ago.

If importance is judged by budget and logistics, or by the worthiness of the subject and the good intentions of the director, At- tenborough has made an important film. But as everybody knows the excellence of a

film is defined by a director's treatmen his subject and the creative use °f resources. In 1963, when discussing Nehru ;5T project with Attenborough, ic `Whatever you do, don't deify Gancittioo was too great a man.' There was a c11.14ii going round Delhi while Gandhi was 41 filmed: `But was Gandhi a great enough wood to make Richard Attenborough int° a g director?' Regrettably, the answer isrl°'