When recalling the 20-year labor of love that eventually culminated in the production of "Gandhi," a tediously prestigious biographical epic which begins an exclusive engagement today at the Uptown, director Richard Attenborough has frequently mentioned a sound piece of advice offered by Jawaharlal Nehru in 1962: "Whatever you do, don't deify Gandhi. Don't . . . place him on a pedestal as we have here. He was too great a man for that." Unfortunately, Attenborough seems to have found the advice more useful as an anecdote than a guide.
But the film's extended gestation period has proved fortunate in at least one crucial respect; it permitted Attenborough the luxury of finding an actor perhaps uniquely qualified for the role of Gandhi in an ambitious, methodical, English-language historical spectacle. Ben Kingsley of the Royal Shakespeare Company (he played Mr. Squeers in their famous staging of "Nicholas Nickelby") happens to be Anglo-Indian. Born Krishna Bhanji, he's the son of an emigrant doctor who settled in Manchester during World War II and married an Englishwoman.
In addition to sustaining an extraordinary physical impersonation over the course of a scenario designed to cover highlights of Gandhi's life from age 23 to 78, Kingsley provides some witty resistance to the smothering solemnity of the production itself. One feels grateful for the playful, fallible human dimensions Kingsley brings to Gandhi's goodness, because the presentation as a whole gets stuck in a reverential rut.
Attenborough may stop short of shameless, nostalgic hero worship, but he can often be detected sanitizing Gandhi's story in several respects. For example, the filmmakers maintain strict silence on the notoriously embarrassing subject of Gandhi's daily enemas, allowing themselves only a brief allusion to the more presentable ritual of mudpacks, which arouse the distaste of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the fastidious leader of the Moslem League, during a summit conference of Indian politicians at his residence.
Decades pass before the filmmakers dare to mention Gandhi's vow of celibacy, initiated when he was 37. Moreover, this form of self-denial is treated as something of a darling little joke among the women in his entourage (in effect, a platonic harem) when finally commented upon by the person most intimately affected, his devoted wife Kasturbai. While her submission to her husband's will earns the effortless sympathy of the filmmakers, they're also careful to obscure the fact that her death from a bronchial infection in 1944 may have been sealed by Gandhi's refusal to allow British doctors to treat her with penicillin.
At the level of political policy, the film conveniently overlooks the likelihood that Gandhi and other Congress Party leaders unwittingly contributed to the partition of India after independence by agitating themselves into prison terms with a demand for immediate independence during World War II. Simultaneously, the Moslems were cooperating with the war effort, a tactic that probably placed the British in Jinnah's debt when he insisted on creating a Moslem state, Pakistan, out of the Punjab after the war was over. Some hint of this misjudgment might have given added poignance and gravity to the depiction of Gandhi's extraordinary efforts to stop the hideous slaughter that erupted between Hindus and Moslems at the time of the partition.
This slaughter would also generate more impact if Attenborough had avoided another, outrageously inappropriate distortion -- the pictorial emphasis on India itself as such a clean, picture-postcard scenic environment that it's rarely possible to think of the setting as a place that might teem with squalor, misery and potential violence. This utterly trivializing prettiness is probably the price paid for accepting a large share of the financing (roughly a third of the $20 million production cost) from the Indian government.
While literate and coherent in digest-of-history terms, the chronicle of Gandhi's remarkable career as a mass political organizer and spiritual inspiration distilled from the biographical record by Attenborough and screenwriter John Briley remains grievously doting and squeamishly evasive. Rather like a month of Sundays spent among the most earnest BBC and PBS programmers, "Gandhi" exposes moviegoers to several varieties of needless pious subterfuge, along with a prolonged sit (188 minutes, excluding the intermission).
Borrowing the structural outline of "Lawrence of Arabia," Attenborough's film begins with an incisive depiction of Gandhi's assassination by a fanatic Hindu nationalist and then travels back in time for an extended chronicle of his life. The movie seems promising and absorbing during the early episode devoted to Gandhi's emergence as an inventive political organizer and tactician among the Indian emigrants in South Africa.
There's also an interesting flash of tension and misunderstanding between Gandhi and his wife (well-played, as far as the elusive material allows, by Rohini Hattangady) when he begins his first communal settlement, but this moment ends up standing alone as an insight into the resentment and turmoil his work must have created in members of his immediate family.
But the first crippling miscalculation in the movie occurs when Gandhi, already something of a national hero, returns to India and vows to familiarize himself with the country's peasant masses. Unlike the historical figure, who became a living saint to those masses by walking among them and sharing the privations of village life, the movie character seems to do all his observation from a railway car, contemplating more of those delightful scenic panoramas.
Although the continuity escorts one past major conflicts and famous names, there are excellent performances by Athol Fugard as Jan Smuts, Roshan Seth as Nehru and Alyque Padamsee as Jinnah.
Maybe "Gandhi" was an irresistible, self-congratulatory guilt trip for Attenborough, in the same respect that it seems to be for a cameo player like Martin Sheen, who doesn't have a role but gets to express instant moral outrage as a journalist witnessing Gandhi's followers being clubbed by the police.