Richard Attenborough and the idea of 'Gandhi'

For a hagiography, Richard Attenborough’s film Gandhi opens dismissively, not with Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's birth, but his death. The first face you see is of his Hindu nationalist killer, Nathuram Godse; cowardly enough to bring a pistol to a prayer meeting. To that bang of bullets, an aged and ailing Mahatma Gandhi's "Hey Ram!" (or his indecipherable rasp to that effect) is a seemingly ineffectual whisper. Gandhi’s fiery spirit, that Attenborough so wanted everyone to see, dies on screen even before it is a spark, let alone a flame. 

Attenborough’s next scene is no less dismissive, this time of a young Gandhi, offloaded from a train; a “coloured” in apartheid-infested South Africa. When he leaves, the triple evils of casteism, inter-faith discord and elitism that confront him in India replace the lone evil of racism that he struggled with abroad. Instead of being snuffed out, Gandhi’s spark bursts into flame, then a raging fire, as he battles all three evils with vigour. 

The point of Attenborough's underplayed reveal of his central character? There's nothing new or original about dismissing Gandhi and what he stood for: peace, equality, truth, inter-faith harmony. Bigots dismissed him before; they’ll do it again. Precisely why he must be remembered.

The year 2023 marks Gandhi’s 75th death anniversary and Attenborough’s 100th birth anniversary. Attenborough’s most profound artistic statement, Gandhi, which consumed nearly 20 years of his career, speaks powerfully to us today when Gandhi is under attack in the United States, Canada, Asia, Australia. But it speaks more profoundly to today’s democracies than it does to totalitarian regimes. More on that in a bit.

His Message

First, it isn’t so much the ideas of Gandhi, but the idea of Gandhi that’s under attack. Is there a difference? Attenborough thought so, and reflected that in his onscreen disclaimer,

“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling… What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record… to find one’s way to the heart of the man.”

For all its flaws, Attenborough’s film captures that spirit, while books and biographies get caught up in the weeds. The artist succeeds where historians and political scientists fail. He shows us how, like many great humans, Gandhi was courageous, but also a bundle of contradictions: wise but naive, principled but pragmatic, an individualist but a consensus-builder too. Indisputably central to Gandhi’s character was a fixation on peace and truth. He’d confess in person and in writing, thoughts that others (whose reputations are still intact) would rather keep to themselves. 

Gandhi rejoiced in the “seeking of” the truth as a journey, not a destination. Perhaps he suspected, with a humility that only great souls possess, that “the truth” is elusive and we can, at best, snatch at fragments. This snatching at truth is the point, not the having of it.  

Still, a truth merely borne but not broadcasted, eventually dims. So, composites of real-life journalists who carried Gandhi’s message to the world, under the stiff upper lip of an indignant Empire, feature as the film’s Western journalists who through their courage, character and conviction showed that journalism isn’t mere reportage, fact-telling isn’t always truth-telling. Is there a difference? Attenborough felt so and spotlighted a free Press as indispensable to truth-telling; free, that is, from undue/unfair influence, free from a weakness for profit.

Importantly, “Gandhi” negates the notion that identity matters above all else, i.e.: only Blacks must make films on Blacks, only women must write on women’s issues. 

As a quintessential outsider (and a Brit to boot!) Attenborough & his American screenwriter (John Briley) made, arguably, the greatest film on an Asian. Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi brilliantly, is another outsider: British-born, of African-British and, only distant, Asian descent. Gandhi himself built his intellectual foundation in Britain and South Africa; reached the world through the language of the English; relied on Western journalists to amplify his message. And it was a British Christian priest who prodded Gandhi to leave South Africa and head to India with a sense of mission.


Join Mercator today for free and get our latest news and analysis

Buck internet censorship and get the news you may not get anywhere else, delivered right to your inbox. It's free and your info is safe with us, we will never share or sell your personal data.

Gandhi believed that any identity (caste, class, religion, nationality) that undermined human dignity ought to be checked. Not denied or crushed but prioritised, in a hierarchy that respects the human, above every other identity. 

Gandhi challenged a totalitarian regime known for brutalizing its subjects because he recognised it as totalitarian, no matter how benignly it dressed; a lesson for rights defenders in contemporary democracies who bear outdated understandings of totalitarianism as a state that must fulfil several conditions to qualify as totalitarian. 

Today, too many rights defenders rule out strutting democracies as possible playgrounds for totalitarianism because they’re distracted by democracy’s trappings. Thankfully, political economist Peter Bernholz refined earlier rudimentary understandings by redefining totalitarianism, more as a work-in-progress, than a finished product. Likewise, Gandhi even then was implying that it’s foolhardy to wait for all totalitarian “conditions” to be fulfilled before flooding the streets in protest. 


But the ethos of the one-man menace (one man is responsible for a country’s descent into totalitarianism) is as dangerous as the ethos of the one-man miracle (one man is responsible for a country’s Independence). Dangerous, because it ignores undercurrents that allow the one man to achieve — on scale — what he might not otherwise. Dangerous, because it mirrors, however faintly, the fevered mind of the fanatic. 

After all, Godse believed that elimination of one man would end the “appeasing” of Muslims, but his cowardice allowed him to pick only the weakest possible target: Gandhi, not Lord Mountbatten or Muhammed Ali Jinnah, who were as heavily associated, directly or indirectly, with 1940s South Asian turmoil as other leaders of that era. Modern-day Godses worldwide, are equally cowardly, going after the weakest targets, and still blowing that deceitful and divisive dog whistle of "appeasement" to justify their hatred.

Godse believed that Gandhi's call for inter-faith peace and equality would die with him. Today, rights defenders fighting religious/caste nationalism too often blame one man (or two), believing that this divisiveness will somehow vanish if that one man were to go. But Gandhi’s fight wasn't just against divisive institutions or individuals but divisive ideologies; his fight was for freedom from divisiveness itself. Reviving that spirit requires profound changes. Dismantling divisiveness is hard work.

Yes, upper-caste hegemony, expressed only superficially in socio-economic outcomes, pulses underneath, poisoning everyday lives. But without a nexus with upper classes, even the noisiest upper castes would run out of oxygen. 

Wealth is the water that floods the lakes of caste supremacy. It’s why prosperous middle/intermediate castes can often be more oppressive than lower castes. Everyday oppression, that marginalised masses and minorities face, is both a consequence, and a cause, of prosperity. Not that lower castes can’t — or won’t — oppress, they just haven’t had the opportunity! Because of their sheer numbers, low-caste supremacists may be more of a nightmare than upper-caste supremacists. 

Gandhi wasn’t about replacing one hegemony with another, but about drawing water from the well of equality. And socio-political-economic equality of opportunity must precede, even pre-empt equality of outcome, if Gandhi’s beloved lower classes/castes are to have some hope of redemption. He may not have come up with permanent solutions (to casteism, elitism, inter-faith discord) and he may lament the Hydra triplets they’ve now become, but he at least saw hope in the path of peace and took it, resolutely. 

An old, frail man is easy to kill, with or without bullets. But the idea of Gandhi, expressed most profoundly in his stubborn embrace of nonviolence (Ahimsa) and truth (Satya) is harder to kill even with bullets, because that embrace isn’t his. He inherited it from spiritual leaders before him; it’s just that he won respect for it because, unlike lesser men and women, there was this minor matter: he lived it.


Rudolph Lambert Fernandez is an independent writer who writes on culture and society. Find him on Twitter @RudolphFernandz

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.