81 Days With Oscar And Me

Every Academy Award-Winning Movie, Back to Back, Starting With the First

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Gandhi

October 13th, 2009 · No Comments · 1982, Ben Kingsley, Bhagavad Gita, Biopic, Color, Columbia Pictures, Drama, Gandhi, John Gielgud, Non-Violent Civil Disobedience, Original Screenplay, Sir Richard Attenborough

Gandhi No doubt about it, the life of Mahatma Gandhi is inspiring. The death of Mahatma Gandhi (at the hands of an assassin) is a profoundly ironic tragedy, which makes Gandhi a powerful, deeply moving film.

I remember when Gandhi was released in 1982. I saw it with a group of friends. One of them, the wife of a co-worker, flipped over the movie. For weeks afterward, she cooked nothing but Indian food, wore Indian garments, and even wanted to wear a red dot (bindi) on her forehead between her two eyebrows.

I remember watching the movie and cheering for Gandhi, and crying when he was assassinated. I was extremely moved then. I am extremely moved now, watching it for the fourth or fifth time.

As interesting as the movie is – and, make no mistake, it’s extremely compelling – I find the real Gandhi’s life more engaging, and complex. In the movie, Gandhi is transformed from a London-trained barrister into a humble crusader of the people because of injustices committed against him and his people.

Gandhi the ManIn real life, however, his transformation came about through a deepening prayer life and immersion in the Bhagavad Gita (“Song of God”), one of the most important Hindu scriptures, revered as a sacred scripture of Hinduism. According to the book Gandhi the Man by Eknath Easwaran:

Writers and philosophers before him had written thick volumes on truth and happiness, but few of them had been able to change their lives. Gandhi was not interested in such abstract principles. He wanted to know how to live, and was willing to transform his whole personality, if necessary, to bring him closer to that goal. He scrutinized the lives and works of men from many other nationalities and faiths, looking for a guide. When he found one at last it was in the spiritual tradition of his own land, a tradition unbroken for more than five thousand years.

The Bhagavad Gita had always been near to him while he was a child. Ironically, he did not begin to glimpse its practicality until he was in England: with English friends, reading an English translation. The first time he read it, he recalled, its words went straight to his heart. In South Africa they began to penetrate his actions as well. There the Gita became what he called his “spiritual reference book,” the practical guide through the dangers and challenges he encountered as he deepended his search for truth.

Here are Gandhi’s own words on the matter: “What effect this reading of the Gita had on my friends, only they can say; but to me the Gita became an infallible guide of conduct. It became my dictionary of daily reference. Just as I turned to the English dictionary for the meanings of English words that I did not understand, I turned to this dictionary of conduct for a ready solution of all my troubles and trials.”

Easwaran, who was born in India and who knew Gandhi personally, continues:

The principles of meditation is that you become what you meditate on. Gandhi meditated “with an undivided singleness of mind” on the ideal of the Bhagavad Gita: the man who renounces everything for love of serving others, and lives in freedom and joy.

Again, here are Gandhi’s own words: “The last eighteen verses of the Second Chapter of the Gita give in a nutshell the secret of the art of living…[Those] verses of the Second Chapter have since been inscribed on the tablet of my heart…those verses are the key to the interpretation of the Gita.”

And here those verses are:

But when you move amidst the world of sense
From both attachment and aversion freed,
There comes the peace in which all sorrows end,
And you live in the wisdom of the Self.

The disunited mind is far from wise;
How can it meditate? How be at peace?

When you know no peace, how can you know joy?
When you let your mind follow the siren
Call of the senses, they carry away
Your better judgement as a cyclone drives
A boat off the charted course to its doom…

They are forever free who have broken
Out of the ego-cage of I and mine
To be united with the Lord of Love.
This is the supreme state. Attain thou this
And pass from death to immortality.

And, finally, this from author Eknath Easwaran:

These are the verses which summarize Gandhi’s life. For more than fifty years he meditated on them morning and night and devoted all his effort to translating them, with the help of the mantram, into his daily action. They are the key to his self-transformation.

Of course, I forgive the director, Sir Richard Attenborough, for focusing on the outward manifestations of Gandhi’s life. It would be impossible to explore the inner life of the man (and still have a movie work watching), although it would have been nice to include a few scenes of Gandhi reading the Bhagavad Gita, meditating, and applying the wisdom of the Gita’s scriptures. As it is, Attenborough’s Gandhi appears to be little more than an incredibly nice man, a pillar of virtue, a guy who – inexplicably – rises above his circumstances to lead a nation.

In addition, Attenborough’s Gandhi overlooks Gandhi’s character flaws or quirks. Everyone has them. Even Gandhi. But Attenborough’s Gandhi is a saint, indeed. A saint who arises out of nowhere, lives a saintly life, and then dies violently.

As one might expect, the real Gandhi was much different. Richard Grenier, in his 1983 book The Gandhi Nobody Knows paints a very different portrait of Gandhi:

I cannot honestly say I had any reasonable expectation that the film would show scenes of Gandhi’s pretty teenage girl followers fighting “hysterically” (the word was used) for the honor of sleeping naked with the Mahatma and cuddling the nude septuagenarian in their arms. (Gandhi was “testing” his vow of chastity in order to gain moral strength for his mighty struggle with Jinnah.) When told there was a man named Freud who said that, despite his declared intention, Gandhi might actually be *enjoying* the caresses of the naked girls, Gandhi continued, unperturbed. Nor, frankly, did I expect to see Gandhi giving daily enemas to all the young girls in his ashrams (his daily greeting was, “Have you had a good bowel movement this morning, sisters?”), nor see the girls giving him *his* daily enema. Although Gandhi seems to have written less about home rule for India than he did about enemas, and excrement, and latrine cleaning (“The bathroom is a temple. It should be so clean and inviting that anyone would enjoy eating there”), I confess such scenes might pose problems for a Western director.

Grenier concludes the online article, which may in fact be the entire text of his book, with this:

On a lower level of being, I have consequently given some thought to the proper mantra for spectators of the movie ‘Gandhi.’ After much reflection, in homage to Ralph Nader, I have decided on Caveat Emptor, “buyer beware.” Repeated many thousand times in a seat in the cinema it might with luck lead to OM, the Hindu dream of nothingness, the Ultimate Void.

Although I’m quite sure the movie Gandhi is an antiseptic view of the man, I’m also quite sure the man – especially as revealed by Easwaran’s insights – was remarkable, a powerful force for good. Gandhi contributed two essential ideas that modern society would be advised to heed: (1) non-violent civil disobedience in the face of government oppression, and (2) the absolute necessity of personal transformation through meditation, prayer, and discipline.

Make no mistake. This is a wonderful movie, a great accomplishment in the annals of cinematic history.

The Cast
Ben Kingsley (1943- )……………………….Mohandas K. Gandhi
Candice Bergen (1946- )……………………Margaret Bourke-White
Edward Fox (1937- )…………………………Gen. Reginald Dyer
John Gielgud (1904-2000)…………………Lord Irwin
Trevor Howard (1913-1988)………………Judge Broomfield
John Mills (1908-2005)…………………….Lord Chelmsford
Martin Sheen (1940- )………………………Vince Walker
Ian Charleson (1949-1990)……………….Rev. Charlie Andrews
Athol Fugard (1932- )………………………Gen. Jan Christiaan Smuts
Günther Maria Halmer (1943- )…………..Dr. Herman Kallenbach
Saeed Jaffrey (1929- )……………………….Sardar Valabhhai Patel

Directed By
Richard Attenborough (1923- )

Written By
John Briley (1925- ) (born in Kalamazoo, Michigan…Yea Michigan!)

Gandhi was nominated for a whopping 11 Academy Awards and won eight: Best Actor in a Leading Role (Ben Kingsley), Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Director (Richard Attenborough), Best Film Editing, Best Picture, Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen (John Briley),

The most astonishing performance was Ben Kingsley’s. He was on screen in almost every scene of this more than three-hour movie. He didn’t just play Gandhi. Kingsley was Gandhi. I recommend Gandhi just to watch Kingsley’s performance.

Autobiography of a YogiSpeaking of which, Ben Kingsley’s read of the classic book “Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda is terrific. The story, alone, is wonderfully engrossing. But Kingsley’s lively read is nuanced perfectly. Every time I listen to Yogananda’s book in the car I hear Kingsley’s voice and I can’t help but I think “Gandhi.”

It’s too bad Ben Kingsely didn’t take part in the making-of special edition interviews. His absence was noteworthy and, frankly, renders the 2-DVD set pointless. I mean, I’m sure she’s a nice lady and all. But why do we care what the publicist for the movie has to say?

Whenever I watch Gandhi I want to say “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” I want to sell or give away everything I own and walk around wearing what looks like a giant diaper.

Thank heavens my wife stops me from doing such a thing.

Still, I wonder what life would be like if it were lived as Gandhi, in this movie, suggests.

I’m willing to find out if you are.

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