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Movie Review: Gandhi

Directed by Richard Attenborough
Written by John Briley
Columbia Pictures, 1982

The only film that was going to beat Gandhi in 1982 was Steven Spielberg’s E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, but the Academy, as it had done in 1977 with Star Wars, snubbed the box office smash in favor of something more traditional.  Gandhi’s epic telling won out over E.T.’s mass appeal.  Some trivia: Spielberg would later cast Gandhi director Richard Attenborough in 1993’s Jurassic Park.

It’s the story of the pacifist Mohandas Gandhi (Ben Kingsley, in a career-defining performance that easily won him the Oscar in his first try), who, as a British-educated lawyer traveling through South Africa in the late 1890’s, became troubled by the way the Indian people were treated by the British.  His fighting was never physical but heavily disobedient, and he and his followers took waves of uncontested abuse for it.

Later, his message after World War I would be taken to India, then a British stranglehold.  Gandhi’s struggle was not only with the laws handed down by the British, but the fact that India was split into several different religious groups, Muslim and Hindu chief among them, and many of his followers became tired of the abuse and resorted to violence.  Gandhi resorts to fasting and approaching death to keep his followers in check, knowing that peace is always a difficult, maybe impossible thing to perpetuate, and even when the Brits leave the area, India splits in two with the birth of Pakistan, which history has proven has not exactly been a total success.

As a movie, the story of Gandhi is, of course, often compelling.  But here, the 3 hour-plus runtime is felt, because even though it’s an important story, it isn’t terribly exciting overall.  In this way, Gandhi is one of those movies you could never watch one day and then even a month later feel the need to see again.  I can’t really speak out against its Best Picture win, though, mainly because as the Academy goes, it’s perfect and has important stature.

Besides E.T., Gandhi beat out Costa-Govras’ Missing, Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict, and the year’s distant second-place box office finisher, Sydney Pollack’s Tootsie.  It won 8 Oscars overall.        

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