"Generations to come will scarcely believe that such a one as this walked the earth in flesh and blood."
That tribute from Albert Einstein was one of many paid Mohandas K. Gandhi after he was assassinated by a fellow Hindu who disapproved of the leader's tolerance of other religions. For the sweeping film biography of this slightly built man who became a towering 20th-century political presence, Richard Attenborough shot almost entirely in India--including Porbandar, Gujarat, the place where the leader of the Indian Nationalist Movement was born. Eventually, the people of India would call Gandhi "Mahatma," or "great soul," because of his revolutionary method of non-violent civil disobedience, which he first used as a young attorney in South Africa to defy British laws that unfairly made Indians second-class citizens.
After 21 years in South Africa, Gandhi would return to India and, five years later, lead the fight for independence using the same non-violent approach. After the British gave India home rule in 1947, Gandhi was saddened that, despite all his efforts and teachings, a split between Hindus and Muslims led to riots and the eventual formation of two states-India and Pakistan. Had he lived long enough, he certainly would have taken consolation in the fact that his methods inspired Dr. Martin Luther King to use passive resistance to lead the Civil Rights Movement in America. But assassination seems an ironic but all-too-common end for pacifists.
Although Attenborough's sprawling film logs in at 191 minutes, it has the same riveting quality as David Lean's "Lawrence of Arabia." It's a biographical epic that gets to the heart of the character and also captures the spirit of the age. Then again, the historical figure is so fascinating and the script, direction, editing, and performances are all so convincing that it's hard not to be moved by Gandhi's story and by the phenomenal portrayal given by Ben Kingsley, a half-Indian who was also born in the state of Gujarat.
"Gandhi" was Attenborough's and Kingsley's master work, with Attenborough walking off the Academy Awards stage with statues for Best Picture and Best Direction, and Kingsley taking home the Oscar for Best Actor. Out of 11 nominations, "Gandhi" won eight. It was also honored for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Cinematography, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, and Best Original Screenplay--failing to win only for Make-up, Music, and Sound.
In accepting the award for Best Picture, Attenborough remarked that it wasn't the film or the director that the Academy honored that evening, but Gandhi himself. It's easy to see why he would be so sensitive to the shadow that Gandhi cast, because the scene from the movie that required the most extras-some 300,000-drew two-thirds that number as volunteers, people simply wishing to pay tribute to Gandhi once more in this remarkable funeral-procession scene.
"Gandhi" has a similar feel to "Lawrence of Arabia." The cast itself feels like a Who's Who of British cinema, with people like John Gielgud, John Mills, and Trevor Howard putting in appearances. The pacing is unhurried but certainly not slow, the cinematography makes the land and its people a major character in the film, and it begins with the main figure's death, the rest recalled in flashback. There are also dramatic jumps in time. We never, for example, get the sense that Gandhi was in South Africa as long as he really was. But while both heroes are pursued by media, those characters and their storylines aren't quite as developed in "Gandhi" as they were in Lean's film. That's really my only complaint about this otherwise-perfect film. Some of the characters, like the journalists, seem only tangential to the thrust of the narrative, and their interaction with Gandhi does little to further illuminate his character or theirs--only to underscore the fascination with Gandhi that the world had. And frankly, there are better ways to do that.
Fans of the film will be glad that Sony finally came out with a Blu-ray, because a great film deserves great treatment. There's a Blu-ray exclusive, too--a pop-up trivia track that plays on Profile 1.0 stand-alones.
One of the great pleasures of screening Blu-rays is that you get to re-visit old films, some of which feel like old friends. Watching this again, I was struck by how wonderful the screenplay is, with each scene not only advancing the plot but also giving us an insight into Gandhi's character and teachings. Kingsley looks so remarkably different as both young and old Gandhi that you also have to wonder why Tom Smith didn't win a statue for Best Make-up. And at a time when newspapers are struggling to stay in business, "Gandhi" is a reminder of how much we need them. Without a reporter to witness and share with the world Gandhi's symbolic burning of ID cards in South Africa, the first peaceful resistance movement might have ended with a policeman's baton.
"Gandhi" was filmed in 1982, and mostly in India where there was no control over the lighting or conditions. As a result, this is a brighter film, with sunlight scrubbing away some of the high contrast and deep color saturation we've come to enjoy with Blu-rays. There's also considerable atmospheric grain, but happily not much in the way of noise. Considering the source materials, the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer (to a BD-50) does a good job of preserving the film's original look and heightening the contrast and level of detail. "Gandhi" is presented in 1.85:1, and looks almost as good as another Sony catalog title, "Passage to India," with no visible artifacts or DNR. Compared to the DVD, this looks great; compared to the best Blu-rays, it's a 7 out of 10.
The featured audio is an English or French Dolby TrueHD 5.1, with additional audio options in Portuguese and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1. I wouldn't call this a dynamic soundtrack, nor does it fill the room the way some of the best tracks do. But it's a clean and crisp audio with no distortion and a pleasing tonal quality that stops just short of "rich." Subtitles are in English, English SDH, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Arabic, and Dutch.
Disc One of this two-disc set features a director's commentary (same as the previous release, and interesting enough) and introduction, along with a picture-in-picture graphics track. It'll play on a Profile 1.0 unit, but you won't be able to navigate all that well, because it's sluggish. Better to let the slideshow play on its own. It's a well-designed screen that shrinks the movie to about one-sixth the size of a 16x9 screen and frames it on a drawn board that includes Gandhi's glasses and two other frames in which we see either pop-ups of Gandhi's own words, historical facts, or actual photographs with captions. It's a pretty fascinating way to watch the film again, and you can get a sense of the movie while learning in the process.
Disc two has all of the bonus features from the previous two-disc release. A handful of complete vintage newsreels showing Gandhi (including one of him talking) are among the best of the extras. Also included is an interview with Kingsley talking about Gandhi which is also pretty solid.
The "featurettes" are mostly interviews, with some clips from the film and vintage clips spliced in, but some of them are as quietly fascinating as the film itself. There's "In Search of Gandhi," which tells how Attenborough came to do the project, and how it's based on the Louis Fischer biography, The Life of Mahatma Gandhi; "Reflections on Ben," which is exactly what it sounds like; "Madeleine Slade: An Englishwoman Abroad," which is just a talking-head interview with the actress who played her; "The Funeral," which focuses on the biggest scene of the film; "Looking Back," more reminiscences about the filming; "Shooting an Epic in India," which has some nice additional behind-the-scenes footage; "Designing Gandhi," featuring the set designer, "From the Director's chair" interviews on two subjects, and "The Words of Mahatma Gandhi," an interactive primer. Rounding out the bonus features is "The Making of Gandhi," a photo montage.
"Gandhi" tells a powerful story in a quiet way, with sweeping cinematography and a sense of the period that makes it as memorable an epic as "Lawrence of Arabia"--ironic, considering that Lean was approached before Attenborough, but turned it down! Attenborough loved the story so much that he raised the money and directed. His love-of-subject clearly shows through, especially with Kingsley's performance so uncannily Gandhi-like that many Indians felt he was a reincarnation. I'm glad to have the Blu-ray, and I suspect other fans will feel the same.