Cameras started grinding here yesterday for a British feature film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi that has generated enormous controversy in India over how the guiding light of this country's fight for independence will be presented to the outside world.

Gandhi's oldest living associate, 93-year-old Acharya Krupalani, entered the fray week when he said it was "premature" to make a film on the life of Gandhi, who was assassinated in 1948, five months after India gained independence from Great Britian.

Futhermore, he questioned whether any foreigner could possibly do justice to the man whose title "mahatma" means great soul or saint and who is revered in India as a combination of George Washington, Thomas Paine and St. Francis of Assisi.

"I am somewhat staggered by the extent of the controversy," said Sir Richard Attenborough. The 57-year-old British actor, producer and director of "A Bridge Too Far" and "Magic," said he has dreamed for 18 years of being able to film the life of Gandhi, whom he called "probabaly one of the most remarkable men that has lived in the last hundred years or so."

Fueling the controversy is the question of money, which arose when the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (no relation) agreed to invest $6 million -- almost one-third of the film's total cost of $20 million -- in the production. The money will come from an agency set up to support innovative Indian filmmakers who complain that they get only small amounts while a foreign-made production can walk away with millions.

But it is the image of Gandhi himself, and the way India has lived up to his selfless ideals during its 33 years of independence, that arouses the greatest concern among Indians. "Gandhi is very, very controversial, even in India," said an Indian reporter during a news conference here that consisted mainly of loaded questions and assertions by a generally hostile Indian press. m

Moreover, the idea of presenting Gandhi to the world in a dramatic fashion threatens to open all sorts of wounds that Indians would rather forget. For this reason, no Indian has dared make a dramtic film of Gandhi's life. The one film made by a Westerner -- American director Mark Robson's "Nine Hours to Rama" -- is still banned in India 17 years after its release in the rest of the world.

Attenborough' film will depict communal riot: the violence between Hindus and Moslems that led to bloody massacres at the time the British raj was partitioned into largely Hindu India and Moslem Pakistan. This carnage, still part of today's India, was the oppostie of everything Gandhi stood for in his nonviolent drive for India's independence -- an effort that forced Great Britian to give up the crown jewel of its empire in a way no armies could.

"How are you going to depict communal rioting? Will you generate some?" An Indian reporter asked Attenborough to nervous laughter.

"Yes sir," the director replied, "How else do you think? If you are making a movie and you have a battle or a riot or whatever, you have to find people who are extras, actors, stunt people or whatever who will do that. And so we re-create communal rioting -- but under control, please God."

The Indian press wanted to know what "slant" there might be to the film. Attenborough said there is none. "Gandhi said, 'My life is my message.' So we have attempted to pick out the incidents and the moments and the relationships which reflect the manner in which, as far as I can learn, bapu [indians' affectionate name for Gandhi, which means "respected elder"] conducted his life."

Attenborough's dedication to his subject is clear. For the past 18 years, since he was given a copy of Louis Fisher's biography of Gandhi by a diplomat at the Indian High Commission in London, he has been obsessed with making a film on the Indian saint.

He said he gave up an earlier opportunity when Hollywood demanded a film that would not be true to Ganhi. But the script he is not shooting, written by John Briley of "Cromwell" fame, was reported to have made Indira Gandhi cry. Attenborough insists the Indian government did not appove the script, but he acknowledged he would never be allowed to make the film here -- let alone get the government's financial backing -- if they felt it cast a poor reflection on the country or its national hero.

Yet there have been objections to the still unreleased script, which some say they have seen in bootlegged copies. One correspondent insisted that Attenborough had not consulted the real Gandhi experts, although the director insists he has checked with everyone important over the years from India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nebru (Indira Gandhi's father, who first gave his approval to the film proposal in 1963), to most biographers and even Gandhi's secretary, Pyare Lal.

Some of the objections are clearly self-serving, such as those by Gandhi biographer T.K. Mahadevan, who wrote in New Delhi magazine that Briley's script omits many important details that will only come to light in his soon-to-be-published book. "I see not a single fingerprint to show that Briley has anything more than a greenhorn's understanding of the exceedingly complex personality of Gandhi," wrote Madhadevan. He called the Attenborough film "a misguided attempt to turn the fascinating life of Indi's greatest son of the century into a glossy panavision burlesque."

Other Indians expressed disappointment in the prominent, though small, roles in the film given to such Western stars as America's Candice Bergen. She will play Life magazine photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White, who often photographed Gandhi during India's struggle for independence. Sir Laurence Olivier and Sir John Gielgud are also being mentioned for key but small roles as English officials in India who had dealings with Gandhi. Gene Hackman was mentioned by Attenborough as a possibility to play an American reporter who was touched greatly by Gandhism.

"I don't see the revelance of all the foreigners," said an Indian reporter at the Attenborough press conference. Attenborough explained he was using characters like the American photographer and reporter to give a Western audience someone to identify with.

All the Indian roles are being played by Indian or Anglo-Indian actors. Gandhi is being played by Ben Kingsley, and Anglo-Indian who is a leading player with Britian's National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company. His ties to India are slight: He was born and grew up in England, but his late father was an Indian doctor.

Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, will be played by Indian stage actress Rohini Hattangadi. Sardar Vallabbai Patel, a key figure in India's first independent government, will be played by Saeed Jaffrey, who moves between Indian and Western films. The western tecnhical staff will work alongside Indians. And scores of Indian actors and actresses will have their chance to appear in what Attenborough hopes will be a major success.

But there are doubts among many here that a film about a man whose life revolved around the theory of nonviolence -- despite Gandhi's great influence on world figures -- will make it at the box office. Even Attenborough believes there is a vast ignorance in the world about Gandhi -- particularly among the young who form the bulk of the world's moviegoers.

"They don't even know he's Indian. Half of them think he is [Indira] Gandhi's father. That's just terrible," said Attenborough.

But, he said, Gandhi's story "is highly dramatic, highly moving and I think uplifting. That is the story I want to tell."

He also believes that in depiciting the history of India's independence, the film will have the kind of violence that often makes a box-office hit, he confided to the London Sunday Times.