Monday, October 11, 2010

Day Ninety-Nine: Gandhi

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #168
Year: 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Starring: Ben Kingsley and Martin Sheen

Despite being one of the surest things come Oscar season, especially in the acting categories, the epic biopic is one of the most maligned genres of film. Everyone in history with an inspiring or interesting or important story has become fodder for screenwriters to schmaltz up, and these projects inevitably find their way to the tops of great actors' most wanted projects lists. Hell, I've more than once contemplated buying a screenwriting software to write a Wright Brothers biopic. It's a totally logical genre to work in. With that status, however, comes a perception that it's "too easy." After all, retelling a story that was already interesting with a skilled cast and crew will still be interesting, and depending on the nature of the story, it could even be called – gulp – Oscar bait. Whether Richard Attenborough was baiting the Academy when he set out to direct Gandhi, a retelling of Mohandas Gandhi's struggle to gain independence for India, the subsequent split between India and Pakistan, and eventually his assassination, he brought home eight gold statuettes for the picture. The film is probably best remembered today for Sir Ben Kingsley's stellar performance in the title role. Kingsley is of Gujarati Indian descent himself, and no one else could have pulled off the performance quite like he did. But was the film great?

In a word, yes. It's easy to criticize a three hour movie that, with the exception of adding a fictional journalist character played by Martin Sheen to help with plot exposition, basically imagines that there were cameras set up as history was unfolding (in English). Particularly cynical people could even say that Kingsley performs in "brownface" and that Gandhi should have been played by a Bollywood actor instead. These aren't completely invalid criticisms (well, the last one might be), but the execution is just so perfect and Kingsley's performance is just so moving that it's ultimately inconsequential what this movie is; it's clearly more about how it's done.

Plot synopsis is immaterial when talking about one of the best-known stories in 20th century history adapted into one of the best-known movies from the 1980s, so I'll spare you that. Instead, what's important to take from this movie is the message that Gandhi preaches, that change can come through nonviolence and whether you're Muslim, Hindu or otherwise, you should love thy neighbor as thyself. Christians in the West think they have a monopoly on this kind of thought, but Gandhi did a much better job of preaching it than most of their figureheads. Gandhi is two sides of a coin: On one hand, the peaceful opposition to British imperialism gained India its independence, and on the other, Gandhi was assassinated by a Hindu nationalist who wanted India to retain the regions granted to Pakistan. It's a sobering message. We can gain so much by remaining nonviolent, but if one man with a gun decides he doesn't like it, a peaceful ideology can't shield us from bullets. The film ends (and begins) on a tragic note, but it doesn't undo all the good that Gandhi did in his lifetime, and it beseeches us all to act as he did.

The Good: Sir Ben Kingsley wouldn't be knighted if it weren't for this performance. 'Nuff said.

The Bad: It's a bit too long.

The Skinny: #168 sounds good to me.

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