"He's the most intelligent character I've ever played -- aside from Hamlet," Ben Kingsley was saying above the babble last night at a party for "Gandhi," the new film he stars in. "But it would be misleading to say that it has spiritually changed me. I'm an actor. My next part might be an ax murderer -- or Richard III."

But last night, Kingsley was Gandhi at a Washington premiere that temporarily gave the Uptown theater a bit of Hollywood sheen. There were searchlights criss-crossing the sky, a red carpet, limousines, velvet ropes to hold back the gawkers. "It's Martin Sheen!" they screamed.

It was. He plays an American journalist in the 3-hour and 20-minute movie. Last night, as he enjoyed a drink during intermission, Sheen observed: "If I hadn't been an actor, I would have been a reporter."

Getting noticeably fewer screams were some of the 1,000 gray-suited Washington poobahs who came to see just what this movie was all about anyway. It's been getting a lot of press, and seeing it early means you can drop it around the office or the weekend dinner party. Former ambassador Ellsworth Bunker came, as did some 30 ambassadors, a gaggle of reporters, former Cabinet member Joseph Califano, former Mideast negotiator Sol Linowitz and Sheila Tate, Nancy Reagan's press secretary. Generally, everybody went on and on about the movie. OMB Director David Stockman pronounced it "good;" Jennifer Blei, his fiance', called it "very powerful."

Afterward, there was a party at the Corcoran Gallery. Getting there was tricky, or at least it was for Roshan Seth, who plays Nehru in the film. He seemed a little timid crossing a chaotic Connecticut Avenue on the way to his limousine. "I feel safe in India," he said, his white Nehru jacket a beacon in the television lights. "I don't feel safe here. I'd feel much better with about 10 times as many cars." Then he climbed into the limo provided by Columbia Pictures, settled into his seat, and observed pleasantly: "It's not every day you get to ride in a hearse."

He lit a cigarette, remembering the times he'd met Nehru in India. "He was the one I really admired," he said. "I worshiped that man. I really loved him. Even with his faults, and he had a lot of faults. He had enormous compassion, but he was also very vain."

Once at the Corcoran, things were decidedly Ridgewell's. A troupe of violinists played classical music on the marble steps. Silver candelabra threw their light on chocolate truffles, oysters on the half shell, cold crab claws. Richard Attenborough, the director who worked 20 years to make this film, was eating heartily at a crowded table. "I'd been working on the Hindi version of the film for 4 1/2 months, and I arrived in L.A. to do some interviews. I drove down Sunset, and there on Sunset was the largest billboard advertising 'Gandhi' that I've ever seen in my life. I thought, 'Jesus, we're going to see this movie.'"

The premiere and party were choreographed and paid for by Columbia Pictures and Coca-Cola, which bought Columbia earlier this year. The evening was a benefit for UNICEF, which seemed confusing since the tickets were all giveaways--although they won't be at subsequent premieres in New York and Los Angeles. The reason? Film spokesmen quietly explained that in Washington, people have come to expect freebies.

So Columbia gave UNICEF $75,000 for the evening. If you're wondering what UNICEF has to do with "Gandhi," it's this: First, UNICEF is an organization serving Third World countries, such as India. Second, Columbia--which is spending $12 million to market "Gandhi" worldwide--can use UNICEF to pull people in for a good cause. Columbia can also use UNICEF's organizational structure, i.e., mailings and buttons, to further promote the film.

Two nights ago, the Prince and Princess of Wales saw "Gandhi" at its London premiere. Attenborough sat next to Diana. "She said she hadn't wept as much in a cinema before," he reported.

Rohini Hattangady, who plays Gandhi's wife from their early marriage to her death, also met the royal couple. "She didn't say much," Hattangady said last night, "but afterward, when Prince Charles was leaving, he complimented me on aging very gracefully."