Richard Attenborough and India coalesce in the life story of Mohandas Gandhi. But the epic success of Gandhi (1982) has obscured from general awareness an earlier association of his with India.
And that connects him through celluloid to another Indian of visionary genius — Munshi Premchand. Many of Premchand’s novels and short stories have been made into films, of which his first novel Bazaar-e-Husn (1919) in its Tamil version as Sevasadan (1938), with the pre-Mirabai MS Subbulakshmi in the lead role is famous. Its producer-director K Subrahmanyan could not have done better than cast that yet-to-be pietised singer for the role.
It requires a discerning eye to spot the face that matches the role, not just a look-likely.
Premchand’s poignant novella Shatranj Ke Khilari (1924) would not have come to be known outside the Hindi-knowing world had Satyajit Ray not turned to it for his first non-Bengali film. As a bi-cameral story on the languorous lives of two chess-obsessed aristocrats in Oudh in the months before the Mutiny of 1857 Shatranj Ke Khilari is of the stuff of great films and that is what Ray made it into.
When Ray was casting around for men and women to act in this historical film, he wanted a tough-faced, plump-looking man to play General Outram (1803-1863), the cunning and ruthless British imperialist, who annexed Oudh and in the 1857 uprising came to the rescue of the beleaguered British garrisons in both Lucknow and Cawnpore (now Kanpur).
Outram was in many ways a stereotypical figure but something about him made him more than another blustering Blimp. It has been said that beside him a fox would seem a fool and a lion a coward.
No one could have done Outram easy justice in the film. I do not know how and when Ray first noticed Richard Attenborough but perhaps his appearance in The Great Escape (1963) and then in Flight of the Phoenix (1965) in uniform might have given Ray the idea of casting him in the olive-green of Outram.
Attenborough fitted the British general’s uniform and character as to the manner born as completely as Sanjeev Kumar did the character of Mirza Sajjad Ali, Saeed Jaffrey did that of Mir Roshan Ali and Tom Alter as Outram’s aide de camp.
Speaking about Ray in that experience Attenborough said, “He writes the screenplay, he composes the music, he directs it, he operates the camera. He half-lights the set. Certainly he works with the lighting cameraman in such detail that any source of light or change that he wants he gets.
He edits his own films, almost as Chaplin did.” The result of this grip over its making was, Attenborough said, that Ray personally made 90% of the film.
This was a profoundly accurate observation of Ray’s working method and also an introduction to a film-maker of genius, which Attenborough himself was.
Every single detail, from the big ticket observations of the protagonist to the way Nehru (Roshan Seth) keeps rubbing his cheek down, had Attenborough’s power of observation at play. From the old Shatranj team, he got Saeed Jaffrey to play Patel and Tom Alter to be Gandhi’s doctor at Aga Khan’s Palace.
But it was of course in his brilliant and entirely unexpected selection of Ben Kingsley to play Mohandas Gandhi that made the film the hit it became, bringing Gandhi to life as nothing else had before it, nor anything else has since.
Kingsley had played a character role from history, as Dante Gabriel Rossetti in BBC’s The Love School (1975) before Gandhi appeared. But it was the Academy-awarded Gandhi that made him Gandhi’s celluloid face for all time.
But my favourite character-actor in the film has been Ian Charleson, who played the Rev CF Andrews. Only a stroke of genius could have got Attenborough to find and feature that great stage actor for that nuanced role.
Charleson was to die within five years from his success in Gandhi, after a brilliant portrayal of Hamlet at the National Theatre, London, of HIV Aids, wanting, in very Andrews-like fashion, the HIV fact to be announced widely upon his death to enhance public sensitivity to its many dimensions.
Ray is known to have been tough on his actors. Attenborough was no less. The story of the making of that film needed to be written, as a testament of cinema’s re-capture of history.
And this not just to show how the film worked so brilliantly but, more importantly, why a film that took 20 years to gestate could still leave so much out. Questions will always be asked on why the film left such and such incident out, why Bose did not figure in it, why Jinnah was made so one-dimensional. Gandhi baiters will find it too hagiographic, Gandhi scholars too simplistic.
The inquisitive will want to know if young Indira Nehru’s meeting Gandhi was given many precious moments in the film to placate the prime minister of the day. History-purists will continue to ask if Attenborough should not have consulted more sources, resources.
The film, while fulfilling an unquestioned role in the vivifying of history through an accurate moving image, will always be tagged with these and similar questions.
Attenborough’s other ‘Indian film connection’, Shatranj, on the other hand, will remain a pure if minor joy. Shatranj is a niche film, Gandhi a mega phenomenon.
And yet of the two historical films the story of the chess players is more artistically complete than the epic re-enactment of the Indian statesman’s life.
At the passing of a creative icon, a question forms itself in the minds of his/her admirers and critics: Is art essentially an aesthetic self-fulfilment or does it shape human thinking, even history? In the hands of a Ray, Kurosawa, Chaplin and Attenborough art cinema definitely does the first and hovers over being the second. And there it measures up to the impact of great writing like that of Munshi Premchand, Leo Tolstoy, Pasternak.
What we wait for is a great film on a great film-maker like Attenborough and a great film on a great actor like Ian Charleson, which tells us what art gives to and takes out of life.
(Gopalkrishna Gandhi is former administrator, diplomat and governor. He is currently senior Fellow, Centre for Public Affairs and Critical Theory, Shiv Nadar University, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.)