18 September 2001 | Chris_Middlebrow
Gandhi's Umpteenth Fast
In her diary entry of Saturday, February 27, 1943, Anne Frank wrote in passing (translated from the Dutch): "The freedom-loving Gandhi of India is holding his umpteenth fast."
It's a comment at once mildly comical and respectfully admiring, one I think the Mahatma would have appreciated with a twinkle and a laugh. He and Miss Frank are linked with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., as the civil rights spokesperson-giants of the 20th century. And civil rights, and the reversal of the institutionalized violation of the same, are a large part of what the last century's politics were all about. Movie viewers are apt to find in the diary remark a distillation of their experience of the Richard Attenborough film. A recommendation is that it be followed by rentals of Saving Private Ryan and The Long Walk Home, which together convey the investment put into the respective causes the trio represented.
At the beginning of Gandhi we confront these words: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record, and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man...."
John Briley's screenplay accomplishes that faithfulness, and one probably has to be a scholar of the subject to sort out what is his and what is Gandhi's. Not that it really is of relevance, given what we learn from the movie about the value of eclecticism. Looking out over the bay at Porbandar, Gandhi (Ben Kingsley) tells Walker (Martin Sheen): "The temple where you were yesterday is of my family's sect, the Pranami. It was Hindu of course, but the priests used to read from the Muslim Koran and the Hindu Gita, moving from one to the other as though it mattered not at all which book was read as long as God was worshipped." In a preceding scene, similarly, confronted by young toughs on a South African street, Gandhi defends for his Christian friend Charlie (Ian Charleson) the New Testament intelligence of turning the other cheek. A worried Charlie states, "I think perhaps the phrase was used metaphorically. I don't think our Lord meant...," and is interrupted by a movie shot of the approaching menace. Gandhi replies calmly, "I'm not so certain. I have thought about it a great deal. I suspect he meant you must show courage--be willing to take a blow--several blows--to show you will not strike back--nor will you be turned aside.... And when you do that it calls upon something...that makes...hate for you diminish and...respect increase. I think Christ grasped that and I...have seen it work."
The script is replete with these kinds of memorable words, and with others that reflect its subject's political acumen and strategical cleverness.
Kingsley is sublime in the lead role. Saeed Jaffrey, Roshan Seth, and Alyque Padamsee do well as Gandhi's pro-independence collaborators. Ditto, Athol Fugard ("Assuming we are in agreement?") and John Gielgud ("Salt?") as two of his adversaries. Charleson, in his clerical collar, looks like he has walked in off the set of the preceding year's Academy Award winner, Chariots of Fire (where he played the Scottish sprinter-missionary, Eric Liddell).
This movie won eight Oscars, with Attenborough, Briley, and Kingsley all earning honors. No other film biography I ever have seen works so well. It will stand the test of time and inform multiple generations. One doubts remakes will be necessary.