The Man behind the Mahatma

Posted on August 26, 2014


Richard Attenborough: 1923 – 2014. An appreciation.

To many Indians, Richard Attenborough, who died on Sunday at the age of 90, was the man who dusted the Mahatma off the pages of history textbooks and made him come alive on screen – if not with warts and all, then certainly with the great soul’s humanity intact.

Over the years, thanks to the empty rhetoric we are so fond of, so used to, the father of our nation had become some sort of dhoti-clad superhero, someone who raised his lathi and made the British vanish. Poof. It was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that made the Mahatma a man all over again – a very, very patient and perseverant man, who nagged and negotiated and argued, who walked and talked, starved and suffered, and slowly, over three hours, made possible an independent India.

Gandhi is an important movie for other reasons as well. The film was released in 1982, and it was the first full-fledged Western feature set in India, made in India, and revolving around an Indian. It wasn’t a rollicking animated romp like Jungle Book. It wasn’t a showcase for Hollywood stars with India as “exotic” backdrop – as in Black Narcissus, The Man Who Would Be King, or The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, which featured a character named Otamanu, the “Emir of Gopal.” And it wasn’t a pandering-to-the-West fantasy like The Elephant Boy and Mowgli, the films Sabu starred in. Only the Merchant-Ivory duo, till then, had tried to portray a “real” India, in dramas like The Householder and Bombay Talkies, but these films never really broke out of the art-house circuit.

What Attenborough, a Britisher, did with Gandhi was unprecedented. He drew the world’s attention not just to the subcontinent – presented with dignity, without snake charmers and rope-trick artists – but to a political struggle that was specific and vital to India. It was a big worldwide hit. It won eight Academy Awards. And on Oscar night, it introduced many Western ears to Raghupati raghav raja ram, which played when Attenborough went to pick up the awards for Best Director and Best Picture. On the podium, he said, “Dear colleagues, in all truth, it is not me, or even Ben [Kingsley] or [the winners in the technical categories] you truly honour. You honour Mahatma Gandhi and his plea to all of us to live in peace.”

Gandhi was the giant oak that loomed over Attenborough’s career – the other films he directed, unfortunately, come off as mushrooms in its shade. It wasn’t for lack of ambition, though. Attenborough never made a lazy film in his life, with an eye solely on the box office. His directing credits include musicals (his first film Oh! What a Lovely War, A Chorus Line) and action epics (A Bridge Too Far) but he remained fascinated by the prospect of chronicling the lives of the greats. He examined Churchill’s early years (Young Winston), Charlie Chaplin’s life (Chaplin), the relationship between CS Lewis and an American divorcée (Shadowlands), Hemingway’s experiences during World War I (In Love and War), and the friendship between the anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko and a hard-nosed journalist (Cry Freedom!).

Long before he turned director, Attenborough was an actor. His early films do not dignify him with a name – he was “a young stoker” in In Which We Serve (1942), “a railway worker” in Schweik’s New Adventures (1943), and “an English pilot” in A Matter of Life and Death (1946). The following year, he made a breakthrough playing a sociopath in Brighton Rock. To those familiar with Attenborough as a beloved avuncular presence – the money-minded but lovable theme-park developer in Jurassic Park, who was an echo of Attenborough’s money-minded but lovable circus owner in Doctor Dolittle; Santa Claus himself (or was he?) in the 1994 remake of Miracle on 34th Street – it’s interesting to watch the scene in Brighton Rock where Attenborough’s character murders someone in a fun-house tunnel of terrors. He was one of the first baby-faced killers.

Attenborough became a star after his first major Hollywood film, the wartime classic The Great Escape, where he played RAF Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett, the “leader of numerous criminal escape attempts.” In one of the film’s funniest scenes, an SS officer snarls at Bartlett, “If you escape again and be caught, you will be shot.” The joke is in Attenborough’s face – even as a younger man, he looked like the kindliest uncle imaginable, and to think of him masterminding prison escapes under the eyes of Nazis is hilariously far-fetched. It’s a brilliant instance of casting against type, and of course Attenborough’s character will go on to belie our initial impressions. But looking at him, at that point, you truly believe what William Goldman, who wrote A Bridge Too Far, said, that Attenborough was “by far the finest, most decent human being I’ve ever met in the picture business.”

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Posted in: Cinema: English