Richard Attenborough in ‘Shatranj ke Khiladi’ (1977)
The year was 1983. By some sleight of hand friend and fellow journalist Ashok Row Kavi, who was also my chief reporter at the Free Press Journal, had managed to organize a special screening of Richard Attenborough’s ‘Gandhi’ exclusively for the paper’s staffers at the National Film Development Corporation’s preview theater at Worli in Bombay. I was one of them.
Thirty one years hence, I vividly remember feeling exhilarated after watching the three hours and eleven minutes long epic. I was struck by the irony of an Englishman having reintroduced Mohandas Gandhi to India with such passion and thoughtfulness. I doubt if any other Indian filmmaker with the eminent exception of Satyajit Ray could have made the film on the scale and with the finesse that Attenborough did. I am also unsure if Ray would have been happy making it on the scale Attenborough did.
My reference points to Attenborough, who has died at 90, are very limited—two as an actor and one as a director. I remember him as one of the ensemble cast in ‘The Great Escape’, a 1963 World War II movie where he played a British officer who masterminds the escape along with Steve McQueen. The other is him as Lt. Gen. Sir James Outram in Ray’s underrated ‘Shatranj Ke Khiladi’. As the English officer given the unpleasant task of unseating Nawab Wajid Ali Shah of Oudh Attenborough did a terrific job of capturing a mélange of conflicting emotions. This is one of the movies I watch frequently and impulsively and yet never fail to be amused by Outram’s amusement at Wajid Ali Shah’s whims and fancies. Soon after Amitabh Bachchan’s excellent narration introducing the theme of the film based on the novel by the great Munshi Premchand, the film opens with Outram seeking a report from Weston, one of his officers (Tom Alter) about Shah. Attenborough did a fine job of balancing his natural curiosity about the Nawab of Oudh and his nearly mandatory imperious condescension as a senior British colonizer.
Coming back to ‘Gandhi’, its effect was magical because of the sheer sweep of its ambition. It was Attenborough’s most cherished project for which he practically bankrupted himself. He had lived with it for over 20 years and eventually produced it himself. In those days it cost him $22 million, which in today’s terms could be nearly $60 million. As we emerged from the preview theater, there was general elation at what one had just seen. The film was, of course, the crowning achievement of Attenborough’s movie career. Although he was only 59, it would have been obvious to him that he could not have surpassed it. However, he did try with ‘Chaplin’ in 1992 but did not succeed anywhere close to ‘Gandhi’.
In the run-up to the making of ‘Gandhi’ Attenborough had met many people in India to do his research. One of the vexing questions before he eventually cast Ben Kingsley was how to portray someone who is regarded in India as near divinity. I remember Attenborough saying he was taken aback when one of many Gandhians suggested that instead of a human actor, he should use a lamp to represent Gandhi. The Gandhian’s logic being that Gandhi was so great that no human could do justice to him. Quite wisely and mercifully, Attenborough paid no heed to the pious hokum of a suggestion.
‘Gandhi’, notwithstanding its much cinematic abridgment and license, should be made a required viewing in Indian schools.