Gandhi would have been amused at being played by a Brit, Nehru told Richard Attenborough

The tributes to Richard Attenborough have been many, rich and well deserved. They bring together the many Attenboroughs, the actor that the older generation remembers for his role as Pinkie Brown in Brighton Rock (1947), my generation for the Great Escape, and the younger for Jurassic Park. His role as a leading figure of the British film industry and the director of major films has been acknowledged, yet his greatest success was for directing the multi-Oscar winning Gandhi, often called Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).

In Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke khiladi/The Chess-Players, 1977, Attenborough played General Outram. Weston (Tom Alter) tries to explain that Wajid Ali Shah as a poet, playwright and dancer is an accomplished and good king, but Outram, who has spent more than 30 years in India, manifests British bafflement at these alleged regal talents, saying …“[he is] a bad king. A frivolous, effeminate, irresponsible, worthless king…. he’s not the first, but he certainly deserves to be the last. We’ve put up with this nonsense long enough. Eunuchs, fiddlers, nautch-girls, and ‘muta’ wives and God knows what else. He can’t rule, he has no wish to rule, and therefore he has no business to rule.”

However, Outram and others thought the British did have the business to rule so Avadh was annexed. His role in this episode and the 1857 Uprising was rewarded with a baronetcy, and his name adorns streets throughout the former empire, including Outram Ghat in Calcutta. His statue still stands in Whitehall Gardens. Attenborough played Outram not as a dastardly imperialist villain but as a bluff British soldier whose failure to understand the culture of India underlay much of the later troubled history.

Earlier attempts

Many earlier attempts to film the Mahatma’s life had come to nought, from DW Griffiths to David Lean and Emeric Pressburger. Attenborough’s Gandhi epic took 20 years in the planning, as Attenborough recounts in his book about the making of the film, which also appeared in 1982.

Attenborough was introduced to Nehru in 1963 by their mutual friend Earl Mountbatten. Nehru shared photographs and made further introductions. The last time Attenborough saw him, Nehru said: ‘Whatever you do, do not deify him – that is what we have done in India – and he was too great a man to be deified.’ Indira Gandhi gave her formal approval: ‘The film has captured the spirit of Gandhiji’, as well as enabling 400,000 Indians to act as extras in the recreation of the funeral procession and authorising $6.5 million from the National Film Development Corporation towards the $22 million production. Not all politicians showed such support: Morarji Desai threatened to kill himself if the film went ahead and questions about the making of the film were asked in parliament.

The film follows a classic Hollywood biopic structure and contributed to the British “Raj Revival” that was part of Thatcherite Britain’s reassessment of history in the 1980s, although Attenborough film’s is critical of the imperial venture. As one would expect, the film was aimed squarely at a global audience rather than a specifically Indian one, with much prominence given to several non-Indian figures, including Mountbatten, Mirabehn (Madeleine Slade) and the photojournalist, Margaret Bourke-White. Key protagonists such as Annie Besant, Rabindranath Tagore, Aurobindo and Ambedkar are absent.

Casting Gandhi was always going to be a major problem, but in India, casting anyone as Gandhi was controversial. A female journalist objected to Gandhi being portrayed at all, but if he must be, said he should appear on screen “as a moving light”. In a rare loss of temper, Attenborough snapped back, ‘Madam, I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell!’

A foreign Gandhi

The final choice was Ben Kingsley (Krishna Pandit Bhanji), an actor in the Royal Shakespeare Company, who was partly Gujarati. Although Kingsley was not Indian, Gandhi himself was, to all purposes, a diasporic Indian when he returned to India in 1915, after 21 years in South Africa and 3 years in London. Gandhi himself is eager to find himself on his arrival to India, and like many other such foreign seekers, he adopts Indian dress, tours the country by third class train, is shocked by poverty, people travelling on the train roof, and even rides an elephant.

Kingsley was clearly more plausible than other actors considered from Richard Burton to Dirk Bogarde to Anthony Hopkins. It seems no Indian actor was ever considered for the role. Even Nehru supported the choice of a non-Indian, according to Attenborough:

“I paid Nehru a second visit months later, and he made two observations. The first concerned the problem of finding an actor to play Gandhi. I needed a trained professional, not just a lookalike. The prime minister’s own surprising choice was Alec Guinness, which took me aback because Alec was English.

“‘The nationality is unimportant,’ Nehru declared. ‘All that matters is that he should be very good. Besides, the idea of being portrayed by an Englishman would have made Bapu laugh a great deal.’”

A human portrayal

Kingsley’s portrayal of Gandhi was extraordinary as he came across as human, warm and funny, even though his saintliness overcomes strange features of personality. Kingsley’s superb performance made him the embodiment of the freedom movement, the Indian nation, and in this western film, the idea of Indianness, who dominates the entire film which despite its clear inaccuracies is a great biopic with magnificent set-pieces such as the Salt March.

However, the version of Indian history created by Attenborough’s film has become part of the way in which India knows Gandhi and the film adds to the mythology of this extraordinary person. Despite a mixed critical reception from historians and nationalists, the film’s epic and great qualities were recognised and reinforced by eight Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture.

This Indian part of his work would be enough to guarantee Attenborough’s greatness. He never sat back, and used his considerable fame to good effect. In later years, this director whose films once needled the establishment became a key figure in it, as Chancellor of Sussex University and patron of the arts. He was seen as a “luvvie”, an actor whose sentences are peppered with “lovely” and “darling”, which he took with great humour, calling his entertaining 2008 autobiography, Entirely Up to You, Darling. This dedicated service to his career in film as well as to the institutions in which it was formed, is seen also in his younger brother, Sir David Attenborough, an equally great British and global institution, a wildlife broadcaster who also set up BBC2. They really don’t make them like them any more.

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