Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Audient Auscars Extended: Gandhi

When I announced in December that I was extending my Audient Auscars series for three more months to get in the last three best picture winners I hadn't seen, I fully expected I would watch Gandhi in January.

And I did start to watch it. I watched 25 minutes of it, in fact.

The other 158 did not come until yesterday.

What can I say -- it was a busy month.

And though I'm usually pretty anal about sticking to the schedules I establish on my blog, we're a bit outside the box here, extending a series by just three months. So I let the other priorities of my life dictate when I could get back to watching this three-hour movie. (In fact, I probably would have put it off even longer if it weren't due back at the library today.) I often skip January in my movie series anyway, just because it's so busy with other viewing priorities (like wrapping up the previous viewing year) that I don't have the time. I suppose that was more true when my viewing series used to involve multiple movies a month.


The 1982 best picture winner was what I expected in a lot of ways. It was not what I expected in some other, smaller ways. Like, who would have thought John Ratzenberger -- Cliff from Cheers, and the guy who has loaned his voice to nearly every Pixar film -- would show up here? (And that he wouldn't use his own voice for some reason? Martin Sheen, who also appears in the movie, dubbed Ratzenberger's voice.)

What was legitimately unexpected was learning about the key events in Mohandas Gandhi's fight to kick the British out of India -- though I use the word "fight" very loosely. Gandhi was of course opposed to violence in any form (even philosophically debating whether violence would work against Hitler), and believed that civil resistance was most effective when it provoked using persistence and public displays, not guns and swords. One of my favorite moments in the movie comes near the beginning, when some South African troops charge a group of Gandhi's protesters on horseback. They're seeking not to be treated like third-class citizens, including needing to be fingerprinted and the like. Instead of standing their ground, where they'll be beaten and cut down, or scattering to the winds, where they'll also be beaten and cut down, the protesters simply lie down on the ground, at Gandhi's behest. It's a brilliant tactic, as the horses are unwilling to trample the supine protesters, even if their riders show no such reluctance. So the horses rear up and the troops are forced to retreat. What's most brilliant is that Gandhi seems to have gotten this idea in the moment -- a reflection of his nearly preternatural ability to imagine the most productive method of effecting change in any given scenario.

Productive? How about convincing his followers who had strayed from his principles to abandon violence by going on hunger strikes? Not once, but twice? The people came to love him so much that they would rather eschew their violent impulses -- in other words, to calm a nearly unquenchable rage -- in order not to see him die for their human frailties. As frail as he was in stature, in all other aspects Gandhi seems to have been one of the strongest men who walked the earth in the 20th century.

That was a big takeaway as I was watching this -- that we don't seem to get great human beings like Gandhi anymore. Or at least, great human beings don't capture the imagination of the whole world like Gandhi did. Paradoxically, in a world where worldwide communication has become all the easier through the internet, we are perhaps all the more pushed into our own little corners of that world, seeing only the things that most directly pertain to us. Maybe there's a Gandhi out there today -- maybe there are plenty of them. Surely there are. But we're not hearing about them to the same extent, and that's a shame.

Although the casting of a non-Indian actor to play the title role would have been too controversial today, it's hard to imagine anyone playing Gandhi other than Ben Kingsley. He's pretty phenomenal. It's not a showy performance, as you might imagine, as Gandhi was a fairly understated person. But its every detail feels true. I think especially of Kingsley's physicality as the Mahatma, particularly the positioning of his legs as he sits on the ground, sewing his own clothing (another thing I didn't know about Gandhi). Kingsley was not yet 40 when he played the role, yet his fragility as the older Gandhi is something that makes us easily forget that.

I also didn't know anything about the Amritsar massacre in Punjab, in which British soldiers opened fire on a massive gathering of peaceful demonstrators and kept firing until hundreds, possibly more than a thousand, Indians were killed. I was hoping to learn that the colonel who ordered the strike -- "They've already been warned," he told an underling -- was hanged for this callous display of might and disregard for life. But Reginald Dyer was only removed from duty, and in fact became a celebrated hero in certain sections of England. Any time you need a reminder of how awful men can be, this is a good example. At least Dyer only lived eight more years before a series of strokes felled him.

For a movie this long, Gandhi is actually fairly lean -- starvation pun intended. There weren't any sections that I thought begged to be removed, and Sir Richard Attenborough keeps the pace moving pretty quickly all told. In fact, Gandhi's first hunger strike -- being one of the events for which he is most famous -- seemed to be over in a flash. I guess this is just a sign of what a full life of consequence and wisdom he had, so much of which was worth telling us about.

Okay, only two left! I've got Platoon in March before finishing up with The Last Emperor in April.

Assuming I don't get too busy, of course.

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