Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Gandhi" (1982)

Scene from Gandhi
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Release Date: December 2, 1982
Director: Richard Attenborough
Written By: John Briley
Starring: Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Candice Bergen
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 191 minutes

Oscar Wins: 8
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Actor (Ben Kingsley)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Cinematography
-Best Art Direction - Set Direction
-Best Costume Design
-Best Editing

Oscar Nominations: 3
-Best Sound
-Best Original Score
-Best Make-Up

Other Best Picture Nominees

-E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial
-The Verdict

And the winner is...

In the echelon of iconic 20th century figures, there is nobody quite as revered as Mahatma Gandhi. He was a leader of peace and incited change in the country of India. He also sparked many worldwide to adopt a different kind of protest; one that called for non-violent resistance. While the man himself lives on in history, it still feels appropriate that any biopic would be done on a grand scale, capturing everything that was great about him over the course of three hours. Director Richard Attenborough's Gandhi is the accumulation of several decades of preparation and dedication to getting the story right that makes it one of the best biopics in The Academy's history. Along with a career-defining performance by Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, it's a film that didn't only teach the world to be more respectful, it taught them about how sacrifice can make a difference in the world around us.

While the final release date of Gandhi is in 1982, the story of pre-production goes back to 1952. During this time, producer Gabriel Pascal received the rights to make a film about Gandhi from the Prime Minister of India. Unfortunately, Pascal died two years later. Director David Lean would later receive them and contemplated making it after The Bridge on the River Kwai. This didn't pan out, as he went on to make Lawrence of Arabia instead. He would get a third shot to make it, but opted to make Ryan's Daughter instead in 1970. In 1962, Attenborough received a call from Motilai Kothari of the Indian High Commission in London, who claimed that he would be the right choice to direct. Upon reading a biography of Gandhi, Attenborough agreed and then Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru and his family agreed to the plan. Much like Pascal a decade earlier, Nehru died two years afterwards. Because of this, the new power wasn't cooperative, thus sabotaging immediate chances until the 80's, largely due to Attenborough's desire to shoot in India during a conflicting time.

When the film finally got underway, the financing proved to be the next hurdle. Most studios didn't want to fund it. Attenborough sold his rights to the play "The Mousetrap" to acquire a small portion of it. Actors Joseph E. Levine and Jake Eberts also donated in exchange for directing other films. Beyond various British companies also pitching in, a third of the final budget was donated by National Film Development of India (approximately $10 million). Considering how long the film had been in pre-production, it was a miracle that shooting began in March of 1980. Compared to everything else that happened, there were practically no major conflicts during the filming in India. At most, some people found conflict with the depiction of Gandhi, with one person suggesting that he should be but a speck of light.

The casting of Gandhi was crucial. Dustin Hoffman was initially approached, but turned it down for a role in Tootsie. Harold Pinter recommended Ben Kingsley after seeing him in a play. Considering that the actor was part-Indian, it made more sense than the white washing that would come with their alternatives. To prepare for the role, Kingsley did a number of things, including dieting, losing weight, practicing Yoga, and learning to spin thread while living in India. He also studied newsreels of Gandhi and read books. He was so convincing that during filming, many of the older residents confused Kingsley for the real life Gandhi. While this took a lot of preparation, the only major conflict that Kingsley admitted was that he had trouble spinning thread while talking. Kingsley's birth name was Krishna Bhanji and had named himself after a London theater. By coincidence, the film features Gandhi taking a trip to the same location. It wasn't a cute reference, but based on actual events.

The film ends with a scene of Gandhi's funeral. Attenborough initially planned to use an effigy, but thought that it would look unconvincing. Kingsley eventually did the part without reacting as petals fell over his body in a casket. The scene also called for 400,000 extras. The crew littered the city with flyers, as they wouldn't have enough to make it look convincing. There were about 300,000 in the final scene, which was shot on the 33rd anniversary of his funeral. Along with installing turnstiles to regulate flow of extras, it was also requested that the extras only wore white. The scene ended successfully. This moment would go on to enter the Guinness Book of World Records for most extras. It's an  honor that does seem likely to be held, as the advent of C.G.I. makes adding artificial audiences an easier alternative.

The film was a success upon release. It would go on to earn 11 Oscar nominations. It was no surprise that the film would almost sweep the ceremony with 8 wins. In a moment of irony, Kingsley beat Hoffman in the Best Actor race for the role that Hoffman did instead of Gandhi. One of the only people who was truly confused was Attenborough himself. When he accepted the Best Picture and Best Director awards, he noted that he thought that Steven Spielberg and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial was going to be the big winner. By some strange luck, he would work with Spielberg a decade later for Jurassic Park. Kingsley would also star in a 1993 film from the director called Schindler's List - of which won him Best Picture. A duplicate of Gandhi's Best Picture statue is currently displayed at the "World of Coca-Cola" exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia. This is largely because the studio that made Gandhi (Columbia) also owned the soda company during this time.

The impact of Gandhi is one that is present in any biopic that tries to tell a thorough story of an activist making a difference. While Kingsley continued to have a fruitful career following the film, his performance in Gandhi ranks not only as one of his best, but among the greatest performances in history. It wouldn't be the only biopic that Attenborough made, either. During the film, both Charles Chaplin and Winston Churchill are referenced. The director would make films about these two men with Chaplin and Little Winston respectively. There's been arguments made that Kingsley has attempted to reprise his role later on in slight ways. The most noteworthy is as the villain in Iron Man 3 called The Mandarin, which follows vaguely similar, though opposite beliefs, of Gandhi. In one of the more baffling moves, Kingsley starred in what is a blatant parody of Gandhi in the failed Mike Myers comedy The Love Guru as Guru Tugginmypudha, who is cross-eyed and farts. He would receive a Razzie nomination for his time.

No matter how much time will pass, Gandhi will remain a towering achievement in biopic film making. While it doesn't replace the influence of the man himself, it definitely serves as a loving tribute to a man of high influence. While Kingsley has gone on to an impressive career, he is likely to never top his impressive, dedicated performance. It's a film that changed the epic genre and gave a bigger sense of purpose, even as it was meant to show the simpler side of life. With a production that spawned several decades, it's a miracle that things turned out as greatly as they did. It's a loving film that asks us to be kinder to strangers while educating us on the man who changed the world without violence. It's an impressive feat, the likes of which have rarely been seen since.

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