Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) has no shortage of powerful moments. The British director’s celebrated biopic opens with the assassination of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi by Hindu extremist Nathuram Godse on January 31, 1948, and then loops back to the key events in his extraordinary life.
Among the civil resistance movements that Gandhi galvanised as well as launched was the salt satyagraha of 1930. The simple yet audacious non-violent protest was aimed at shaming the British rulers for levying a tax on a basic food ingredient as salt. On March 12, 1930, Gandhi and his followers marched to the Arabian Sea in Dandi in Gujarat to create salt out of seawater. Numerous protests followed, including the one at the saltworks in Valsad, which was brutally put down.
The clash between ruler and the ruled is captured to tremendous effect in Gandhi. As wave after wave of determined satyagrahis attempt to take control of the salt factory, they are greeted by the sticks and blows of Indian policemen in the service of the British. The sequence gains bone-chilling momentum, with the takes getting shorter, and therefore more effective as the punishment wears on.
The sequence was heavily inspired by American journalist Webb Miller’s stirring reportage, which resounded across the world, and is credited with drawing attention to the Indian independence movement:
“Not one of the marchers even raised an arm to fend off the blows. They went down like ten-pins. From where I stood I heard the sickening whacks of the clubs on unprotected skulls. The waiting crowd of watchers groaned and sucked in their breaths in sympathetic pain at every blow. Those struck down fell sprawling, unconscious or writhing in pain with fractured skulls or broken shoulders. In two or three minutes the ground was quilted with bodies. Great patches of blood widened on their white clothes. The survivors without breaking ranks silently and doggedly marched on until struck down. When every one of the first column was knocked down stretcher bearers rushed up unmolested by the police and carried off the injured to a thatched hut which had been arranged as a temporary hospital.”— Webb Miller.
Some of Miller’s words are quoted verbatim by Walker, the character based on him and played by Martin Sheen in Attenborough’s movie. Miller’s prose also inspires the images created for the sequence: “There were not enough stretcher-bearers to carry off the wounded…Bodies toppled over in threes and fours, bleeding from great gashes on their scalps. Group after group walked forward, sat down, and submitted to being beaten into insensibility without raising an arm to fend off the blows.”
The sequence was filmed in and around Mumbai, Attenborough writes in his memoir In Search of Gandhi. “Logistically, it was very difficult to shoot, since it had to be staged on the only road linking two villages and consequently, after each camera set-up, we had to suspend filming to allow the considerable build-up of traffic and pedestrians to go about their daily business,” he recalls. “The scene was, I think, as moving as any in the script and, taken with the rest of his part, it affected Martin deeply. As a result, before he returned home to the States, he told Mike [Attenborough’s producing partner Mike Stanley-Evans] and myself that he wished his entire salary to go to charity, a large portion of which he donated to Mother Teresa in Calcutta.”