Detail from movie poster.
Detail from movie poster.

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Gandhi"

Aug 6, 2015


In his review of Gandhi when it was released in 1982, Roger Ebert wrote, "I imagine that for many Americans, Mahatma Gandhi remains a dimly understood historical figure." Reading that line 33 years later, it is hard to believe that this was ever the case.

Today, the name "Gandhi" is synonymous with nonviolence, civil disobedience, and Indian statehood. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi is one of the giants of last century's human rights struggle. Known by many as simply "Bapu" (Hindi for "father"), he is seen as more a symbol or an ideal than an actual human being with faults.

It is, of course, impossible to say that this apparent change in stature over the past few decades was all due to British director Richard Attenborough's Academy Award-winning biopic, but few films are treated as reverently as this one. It is a textbook on Gandhi's political philosophy and the Indian quest for statehood. And for many, Ben Kingsley's performance in the title role, which won him an Oscar and worldwide fame, is the definitive portrayal of the man.

The Film

Clocking in at over three hours, Attenborough traces Gandhi's entire journey as one of the central figures of the Indian independence movement, from his beginnings as a civil rights lawyer (neatly dressed in a suit) in 1890s South Africa to his assassination in 1948. As the opening title card indicates, this is an admittedly flawed approach:

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 try to find one's way to the heart of the man . . .

Nevertheless, the film grinds its way through 50 years of arrests and fasts; meetings with Hindu and Muslim Indian leaders; horrible acts of violence committed on all sides; inventive methods of civil disobedience, including the Salt March and the burning of English-made garments; negotiations with British officials; and lots of gentle, yet cutting and inarguable preaching from Gandhi against British rule, and, later, religious intolerance. In the end, India and Pakistan become independent states and Gandhi a national, and then a worldwide, treasure. He spends much of his days meditatively spinning modest cotton clothes on a simple loom, but still collects followers from all walks of life with his simple yet powerful message of human dignity, nonviolence, and self-determination.

Gandhi is certainly a flawed film—the middle part, with the aforementioned cycle of violence, arrest, fast, negotiate, is mind-numbing in its repetitiveness—but, at the end, you know and love Bapu. The vast majority of the credit here goes to Kingsley. Not only does he have an uncanny resemblance to Gandhi (his father is from the same Indian state as Gandhi), but he plays the man with the exact demeanor you'd expect of someone who challenged the British Empire by fasting and making salt. He always has a mischievous glint in his eyes and a wry smile.

This Gandhi knows exactly how smart he is and he reads people instantly and usually correctly, but is never condescending. He is from the merchant caste and educated in England, but it's not forced when he dons the simple clothes of poor Indians or when he shows up to diplomatic summits in London wearing said clothes. Gandhi's charm instantly put people at ease, but Kingsley and Attenborough knew that in his heart, there was absolute conviction and even rage, if you went looking for it. When he pointedly tells the viceroy that he does indeed expect the British to simply walk out of India or when, as an old man, he scolds young Hindu nationalists for chanting "Death to Muslims!" outside his ashram, you can see the passion that motivates his lifelong struggle.

The Limits of Nonviolent Resistance

It is easy to look at Gandhi's story and say that his strategy of civil disobedience, populism, and simple living was a massive success and led directly to an independent and democratic India that prevails to this day. But as Gandhi would be the first to tell you, a key part of his vision was a complete failure.

Around the middle of the film, Gandhi sits by the Indian Ocean in his home city of Porbandar and talks wistfully of his childhood with an American journalist (Martin Sheen). He says he was raised Hindu, but the priest at his temple would also read from the Quran. This left a strong impression on Gandhi; at one point he tells his followers, "I am a Muslim and a Hindu and a Christian and a Jew and so are all of you." So it is especially heartbreaking when the Indian subcontinent is divided along religious lines when the British leave in 1947. And it is even more heartbreaking when the partition results in something resembling a civil war.

At this pivotal moment, Gandhi had no answer. Before the partition, when he perceived that there was a shred of hope that the subcontinent would remain as one, he declared that the Muslim leader, and eventual founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah should be prime minister. Many Hindus saw this type of thinking as being overly accommodating to the Islamic community, which, though it numbered in the millions, was still a minority. Later, when violence erupts, Gandhi abruptly exits a meeting with Jawaharlal Nehru, a close friend and the first Indian prime minister, and with other high-ranking officials, saying that there is nothing more than he can do. Nehru later finds out through the press that the elderly and frail Gandhi plans to "fast unto death" to protest the violence. As the movie tells it, Gandhi then goes to Calcutta, one of the hardest-hit cities, and begins to make good on his promise. Eventually, the near death of a national hero forces reconciliation between the Hindu and Muslim firebrands.

But the damage has been done. According to some estimates, over 15 million people were displaced, between 1 and 2 million were killed, and 75,000 women were raped. Tensions persist to this day. And, of course, anger at Gandhi's role, or lack thereof, in the agreement led directly to his death in 1948.

Just as Gandhi ultimately could not solve religious intolerance through nonviolence, he also did not have much of an answer for genocide. With Gandhi as a symbol for so much positivity and compassion, it is easy to forget that he lived at the same time as Hitler, the 20th century's most enduring example of evil. As the film shows, however, Gandhi did not change his message even as the Nazis expanded their empire of violence and fascism through Europe; the British imprisoned him (albeit in a mansion) for speaking out against the war effort.

Indeed, while his commitment to his ideals is laudable, Attenborough's Gandhi did not argue for nonviolence in the face of Hitler's genocide. When the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen) asks him how he could use this strategy against Hitler, he answers:

Not without defeats, and great pain. But are there no defeats in war? No pain? What you cannot do is accept injustice. From Hitler, or anyone. You must make the injustice visible, and be prepared to die like a soldier to do so.

As this quote shows, he seemingly allowed that violence (dying "like a soldier") might sometimes be a necessity

The Enduring Symbolism of Gandhi

At certain points in the film, Attenborough attempts to humanize Gandhi: he reacts violently when his wife Katsurba refuses to clean the ashram's latrines and later she discusses her husband's infidelities with Bourke-White. But the overall impression at the end of the film is that Gandhi was almost a deity

Two scenes near the end of the film illustrate his outsized effect on humanity: In one scene, Nehru flies into a rage when he encounters a group of Hindu nationalists shouting "Death to Gandhi!" At that point, Nehru is the prime minister of India, but he is reduced to something like a little brother ready to fight for the honor of his big brother over these slights. He forgets who he is and the true power that he has and all he can think of is this man that he loves.

In another, as Gandhi lies starving during the partition violence, a Hindu man begs him for forgiveness. The man explains that he killed a young Muslim boy in retaliation for the killing of his own son. Gandhi tells the man to find another young Muslim boy and raise him as his own.

Today, of course, 33 years after Ebert's review, this is the Gandhi that the world knows. But should we also remember that Gandhi had a temper, was prone to infidelity, and, maybe worst of all, had trouble thinking pragmatically? As the partition seems inevitable, Gandhi pleads with Jinnah, saying, "Muslim and Hindu are the right and left eye of India. No one will be slave, no one master." Jinnah replies, "The world is not made of Mahatma Gandhis. I am talking about the real world." Still, Gandhi is undaunted and later makes his offer to the Muslim leader, but to no avail. Violence engulfs the subcontinent and ends Gandhi's life.

Still, Gandhi's legacy remains unimpeachable. And perhaps humanity needs god-like figures like King, Mandela, and Gandhi to spur us to be compassionate and courageous in the face of violence and injustice. In a lot of ways, the Indian subcontinent and the rest of the world remain as dark and foreboding as they were in the first half of the 20th century. A figure like Gandhi, however, gives us hope that change can happen and Attenborough and Kingsley's work certainly is an inspiring illustration of this.

Discussion Questions

1. Does humanity need deified leaders like Gandhi, King, and Mandela for inspiration? Is there more value in seeing these figures as human being with faults?

2. Should we look past the personal faults and indiscretions of our political leaders? Can the private and public life truly be separated?

3. Was Gandhi wrong to speak out against British involvement in World War II?

4. What are the limits of nonviolence and civil disobedience? How should pacifists react to an impending genocide or the invasion of a sovereign state?

5. Does Gandhi share some of the blame for the partition and the ensuing violence? Was he too accomodating to Jinnah and the Muslim leaders?

6. Was Jinnah right to say that partition was inevitable because "the world is not made of Mahatma Gandhis"? Did he incite divisions among the Hindus and the Muslims for an ulterior motive?

7. Was Ben Kingsley, a half-Indian/half-English British citizen, the right choice to play Gandhi?

8. Some argue that India ultimately benefited from colonialism because it adopted democracy and a Western legal system. Is this argument valid? What would the Indian subcontintent look like today if it had never been ruled by the United Kingdom?

9. At one point Gandhi said, "We have come a long way together with the British. When they leave we want to see them off as friends." Was Gandhi too patient in his struggle against British rule?

10. How did Gandhi's embrace of religious pluralism inform his politics?

11. Can nonviolence be more dangerous than violence or terrorism to a ruling class? If so, why?

12. Do you agree with Gandhi's saying that "poverty is the worst form of violence"?

Works Cited

"Attenborough's Truth: The Politics of Gandhi," Threepenny Review, Akhil Gupta, Autumn, 1983

"'Gandhi' Movie Reviw & Film Summary (1982),", Roger Ebert, January 1, 1982

"Gandhi: Quiet Scenes From a Revolutionary Life," Time, Ben Cosgrove, October 15, 2014

"The Great Divide: The Violent Legacy of Indian Partition," The New Yorker, William Dalrymple, June 29, 201

"Salt March," Wikipedia, Last modified on June 26, 2015

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