I've been pretty busy these last few months and haven't had too much time to write, (it hasn't stopped me from watching movies though). Since the last time I posted, the 2009 Oscars have come and gone. The biggest winner of this past year was "Slumdog Millionaire", a film I truly enjoyed and might need to write about in the coming weeks when I view it again on the small screen. But I wanted to write about 2 completely different movies I've watched this past month that have connecting ties to Slumdog by way of being Best Picture winners themselves. The first, "Gandhi", won the top Oscar back in 1982, and like Slumdog, takes place in India. The second was last year's winner, The Coen brothers, "No Country for Old Men". To view these movies together is a moral diptich of extremes. One looks at the real life history of a man who preached nonviolent resistance and peace as a means of changing the ills of society. The other looks at the immoral and brutal savagery that humans are capable of through a character who is true evil incarnate. A figure who uses violence as his way to reach a goal, even to the innocent people who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mahatma Gandhi, was one of the greatest figures of the 20th century and it's no surprise his story would make it to the big screen, but that doesn't mean it would be easy. Most Indians were very concerned that a "proper" telling of his life would even be possible (especially from an outside film company such as those from Britain or Hollywood), others view Gandhi as a holy man and depictions of him might be blasphemous. Further concerns questioned how both the Indian and British governments would be portrayed. All of these were real issues that had to be addressed before a single shot could be filmed. Previously, at least two attempt had been made to bring Gandhi to the screen. In 1952, Gabriel Pascal secured an agreement with the Prime Minister of India to produce a film, but died in 1954 before preparations were finished. Later David Lean planned to make a film on Gandhi, starring Alec Guiness in the title role, after completing "The Bridge on the River Kwai". The project was later abandoned in favor of his film "Lawrence of Arabia." It was Richard Attenborough, who considered this his ultimate "dream project", that was able to finally bring it to the screen. "The truth," he said, "is I never wanted to become a director at all. I just wanted to direct that film."
One difficult with telling any historical or biographical story is the issue of creating an accurate view, and knowing what to leave out and what to keep in. One individual has multiple facets to their life which can easily be interrupted many ways. There's a very good reason why there are four gospels in the Bible telling the story of Christ. Each one views him from a different perspective, and in doing so, creates a clearer overall picture. Attenborough realized this and tried to communicate this to the audience as well, beginning his film with these words:
"No man's life can be encompassed in one telling... least of all Gandhi's, whose passage through life was so entwined with his nation's struggle for freedom. There is no way to give each event its allotted weight, to recount the deeds and sacrifices of all the great men and women to whom he and India owe such immense debts. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record of his journey, and to try to find one's way to the heart of the man..."
From here, Attenborough puts together a epic 3 hour film, which would have made David Lean proud. Starting with Gandhi's assassination in 1948, than going back into time. Not much is told of his early life, but begins at a pivotal moment in 1893 when Gandhi, then a young lawyer, is thrown off a South African train for being Indian and traveling in first class. Seeing that the laws are unfair and racist, he begins a non-violent protest to fight for equal rights. Returning to India as somewhat of a national hero, he is asked to help to fight for the independence of India from the British Empire. Once victory from England is won, the country soon begins tearing itself apart because of religion. Tensions between the Hindus and Muslims would eventually lead to the breaking of the country into India and Pakistan. Gandhi would spend the last years of his life trying to bring peace to both countries, eventually angering and creating enemies on both sides, one of whom would assassinate him. The film is generally considered accurate in it's depiction of Gandhi's life and the Indian struggle for independence. Most of the major characters in the film are specific historical figures rather than composites or fictitious, a tactic some historical movies use to move a plot along. There is some debate as to what the filmmakers chose not to portray, disregarding some of Gandhi's personal flaws, and the specific interpretation of certain events.
One of the elements which makes "Gandhi" so great is the acting, starting with the lead role and Best Actor winner, Ben Kingsley. You truly lose yourself in his performance, which many times can be the most difficult aspect of filming a historical biography. Either the actor is too recognizable from other roles, or just doesn't have the right personality to capture the essence of the figure. A good example of this could be the other best biographically movie from the 1980's "Amadeus", I movie that I love. Tom Hulce plays the role of Mozart, and although I don't mind the silliness he brings to the part, I always think to myself, that's the guy from "Animal House" playing Mozart, and it loses the complete submersion into the story. Even though Kingsley has gone on to create quite a few iconic roles since this film, I still completely believe he IS Gandhi. Surrounding him, Attenborough has collected a who's who of great Bristish actors including John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Nigel Hawthorne and Daniel Day-Lewis as well as a few American; Martin Sheen and Candice Bergen, and Indian; Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth, stars.
A second element is the scenery. Shot almost entirely in India, in many of the actual locations, you truly get a sense of the place. As a side note, this film holds the World Record for having the most extras appear in a scene. When Attenborough put a call out in India for extras during Gandhi's funeral scene, approximately 300,000 people showed up, many saying they felt as if it was a memorial to the real Gandhi. This record may never be broken since most large crowd scenes are now created through CGI.
The film would go on and win 8 Academy Awards including many of the topics I've already discussed; picture, actor, director, art direction, and cinematography, as well as editing, costume design and screenplay.