This week marks the 40th anniversary of the release of Richard Attenborough’s epic film, Gandhi. Attenborough’s papers are located in an archive an hour’s train ride from London. Visiting them recently, I found several files of reviews of the most significant (some would say only worthwhile) film that the director made. They included an assessment in The Telegraph, written by the young Tavleen Singh, who called Attenborough’s opus “easily one of the three or four greatest films I have ever seen in my life and certainly one of the most moving”.

There had been some grumbling among xenophobes about the fact that this film by a British director had been funded by the government of India. Singh thought this criticism misplaced; “after having seen Gandhi”, she wrote, “I, at least, believe that the money has been more than well spent. Attenborough has made the greatest possible film on Gandhi. India owes him a debt of gratitude.”

Another female reviewer, and of the same generation, was less exuberant. This was Amrita Abraham, writing in the Sunday Observer. While she admired Ben Kingsley’s acting, she remarked that the Indian characters other than Gandhi were presented “not as serious protagonists of alternative ideas or strategies, but as limp little men saying their set pieces for continuity’s sake”. “All the encounters between Gandhi and the other leaders,” wrote Abraham, “lack tension. And because you cannot get to grips with these other men, Gandhi and his spirit elude you as well.”

A simplified version

By focusing so relentlessly on Gandhi, the film had presented a radically simplified version of a many-sided freedom movement. Nor had it done justice to the moral vision of the main character himself. As Abraham observed: “In the course of the three-hour film Gandhi’s major ideas are covered in an obligatory way: swadeshi, the renunciation of material things, the use of symbolic action for moral and political purposes, civil disobedience and non-violent but active responses. But Gandhism as a single, central vision unifying private acts and political consequences, making individual conscience the touchstone of Hindu belief, is episodically split and the ideas never come together in a whole vision.”

There are some other critical reviews in the Attenborough papers, and none more hostile than Andrew Sarris’s assessment in the New York weekly, Village Voice. Sarris called the production “a lumbering mastodon of a movie so much out of step with the tippet-tap of contemporary kiddie-oriented marketing strategies that it might score a critical and commercial coup on sheer strangeness alone.”

Gandhi, remarked Sarris, is “not only about someone, but about something; indeed, about a whole host of somethings: Indian independence, nonviolence, charismatic asceticism, racial and religious prejudice, colonialism, imperialism, exploitation, not to mention the sweep of history. In fact, the potential subject matter of the film is so vast that this 188-minute super-production seems sketchy and underdeveloped. Director Attenborough and his scenarist John Briley have been compelled to select a few vistas and a few incidents from an infinity and eternity of possibilities.”

While admitting that there are moments where the film does come “stirringly to life”, the American critic ended his mostly negative review by saying that “the biggest flaw in Attenborough’s conception of Gandhi is the subordination of a complex history to a chic allegory” (that of good, brave, Indian freedom-fighters taking on, and ultimately defeating, nasty and cruel British imperialists).

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There were some critical British notices as well. Writing in the New Musical Express, Richard Cook said that despite some fine acting, the film “finally becomes like a parade of historical mannequins”. It was “lamentably short on Gandhi’s innermost struggles which must have coloured his later struggles over the country’s independence, and the potentially fascinating relationship between the Mahatma and his wife is made relentlessly simplistic”. The last sentence of Cook’s review tellingly read: “I’d be interested to see Satyajit Ray’s Gandhi; this model leaves me unbelieving.”

Naturally, Richard Attenborough kept cuttings of the positive reviews too. These included an effusive assessment by the Sri Lankan journalist, Tarzie Vittachi, published in Asiaweek. Vittachi was one of forty-nine guests specially invited to see a preview in New York. He came out of the cinema to describe Attenborough’s Gandhi as “the most moving film I have seen in 50 years of addiction to the cinema. We emerged from the screening room intoxicated with elation, all touched by a sort of spiritual munificence, a sense of wonderment at the revelation that real power does not come out of the barrel of a gun.”

This private screening was held close to the United Nations headquarters, where, as Vittachi wrote, “the superpowers were playing the streetfighters’ game of ‘You stop first’; the small fry, meanwhile, were privately negotiating more military aid even as they publicly mouthed phrases of peace.” These discussions at the UN were being carried on “as though Mahatma Gandhi had never lived, as though his work had not proven beyond any doubt that preparing for war is not the way to peace, as though he had not destroyed the mightiest empire in history without resort to a single gun, as though we had not learned that violence only breeds more violence”.

This was a world riven by conflict and war; however, as Tarzie Vittachi remarked, “it is that very irony that makes Gandhi the film so timely and, apart from the masterly skills evident in its script, direction, acting and camera work, so profoundly and unforgettably moving. It seems impossible that anyone who comes into contact with the film – those who made it as well as those who see it – could ever be the same again…”

In his lifetime, Gandhi was a greatly controversial figure, as widely and sincerely admired as he was fervently and intensely condemned. It was, therefore, unsurprising that a big budget, much-hyped film made about him three-and-a-half-decades after his death would attract such vigorous and varying reactions. I watched the film in a cinema when it first appeared, and have seen it several times since, usually with students in a course on Gandhi’s legacy that I have episodically taught over the years. In so far as the film brought back Gandhi’s message to a new generation, and to those of other nationalities than Indian, it served a worthy purpose. Ben Kingsley was brilliant in the lead role. The depiction of Gandhi’s last, heroic fasts for communal harmony was sensitively and movingly done.

On the other side, most of the other characters were played with less conviction, while some of Gandhi’s most remarkable contemporaries and rivals, such as BR Ambedkar and Subhas Chandra Bose, mystifyingly did not feature in the film at all. Nor, as Amrita Abraham pointed out, was the moral vision underlying Gandhi’s politics explored in a satisfactory fashion.

I’d like to end this (as it were) “review of reviews” by speaking of the reaction of the person who gave the green light for the Government of India’s funding of the film, namely, the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. In an interview with Vinod Mehta, Attenborough claimed that when he had shown rushes to the film to the prime minister, she had made only two criticisms: “She said because you are trying to compress Bapu’s life into three hours I urge you to place before the beginning of the film a statement to this effect. The other criticism she made was that Ba’s dialogue, particularly the early years, was too contemporary. She said that 90 years ago women spoke to their husbands in a very formalised manner. She suggested I look at that again. I followed both her suggestions.”

As it happens, we have Indira Gandhi’s own verdict on the film, and in words unmediated by the film director. On December 2 1982, the prime minister wrote to her American friend, Dorothy Norman, saying: “The Gandhi film has opened with much fanfare. It is impressive. It is good for the world to know what Gandhiji stood for. Yet for those who lived through those times, the film is a spectacle, grand and powerful, yet lacking some essential quality in the spirit that is India. The tragedy is that no Indian film maker has been inspired by the greatness and the drama of that magnificent mass movement or the remarkable men and women (almost every district has its heroes and heroines) who led it. Gandhiji was the crest of the wave. The film makes him a dramatic ‘superstar’ type of messiah – not more than he was but rather less by diminishing the other factors.”

Superficial but watchable – such was Indira Gandhi’s assessment of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. And so it was.

Ramachandra Guha’s new book, Rebels Against the Raj, is now in stores. His email address is ramachandraguha@yahoo.in.

This article first appeared in The Telegraph.