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When M.K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), a young Indian-born but English-trained barrister, arrives in South Africa shortly before the outbreak of World War 1, he receives a rude awakening about the reality of that country’s race laws. Forced to carry a pass and travel third class, he soon begins organising Indian workers to fight the injustices. However, he refuses to engage in violence, despite the violence done to him and his followers. That experience steels him to return to India and adapt his method of non-violent non-cooperation to his country’s struggle for independence from Britain. Confronted not only by brutality from the British regime, but deep divisions within the independence movement itself, Gandhi steadfastly maintains his opposition to violence as a solution, resorting to life-threatening fasts to make his point. Soon, the whole country is rallying behind him.

Review by David Edwards:
Richard Attenborough’s 1982 multi-award winning epic finally makes it to DVD in this splendid collector’s edition. And in light of recent events, its release couldn’t be more timely, or its message more relevant. At a time when violence seems to be all around us, the story of a man who brought about monumental change using non-violent methods resonates possibly even more so that on its initial theatrical release.

Gandhi covers about 35 years in the life of M K Gandhi (the appellation Mahatma, meaning “great soul”, came later). It begins during his days in South Africa, where the nature of oppression was pointedly revealed to him, through to his triumph in having the British agree to leave India, and his subsequent bitter disappointment as the nation was divided on religious lines into what is now India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

This is probably Attenborough’s crowning achievement in a remarkable career that includes A Bridge Too Far, A Chorus Line, Cry Freedom and Shadowlands. He creates such a deeply textured panorama of both Gandhi and India, that the viewer is simply swept along in the grandeur of it all. Scenes like the massacre at Amritsar remain some of the most powerful ever committed to film and the whole thing moves at a terrific pace, its 3 hours plus running time notwithstanding.

A few amber-hued moments apart, it also never falls into the trap of being overly simplistic; even though the history is necessarily pared down. Certainly, it takes a definite stand on British rule in India, but it doesn’t set out to paint every Indian as a saint and every Briton as an oppressor. Two of Gandhi’s trusted aides are Europeans, and two of his most conniving enemies are Indian. The film makes the point that violence and cruelty are not peculiarly British traits and, whatever the merits of their cause, those who resorted to violence were no better than those they considered oppressors or terrorists.

The film won eight Academy Awards, including best picture, best director for Attenborough, and best editing, cinematography and costume design. None of its technical quality is lost in a brilliant widescreen transfer, with the colours as crisp as its first release. It should be noted that this is an exact transfer of the original film, including its intermission; which seems something of a quaint anachronism on a DVD with scene selection function. The Dolby 5.1 sound preserves the score by George Fenton and Ravi Shankar.

But the real power of this film is in the groundbreaking (and career-making) performance by Ben Kingsley. He not only looks remarkably like his character (check out the fantastic newsreel footage of the real Gandhi on the disc), but he infuses him with the kind of quiet dignity, fierce determination and cheeky sense of humour which defined the man himself. A bonus interview with Kingsley is included, and while this is certainly interesting in itself, his performance speaks louder than any interview could.

Surprisingly, for a film which so championed the struggle of an indigenous people, it’s the bankable stars from the time (like John Gielgud and Candice Bergen) who received the next top billing spots over Indian actors like Roshan Seth, who plays Nehru; despite the latter having considerably more screen time. Two supporting performances to look out for though are famous anti-apartheid playwright and actor Athol Fugard playing apartheid architect Jan Smuts; and Edward Fox, who is truly chilling as the ruthless General Dyer.

Apart from the interview and newsreel footage, the DVD includes a selection of thoughts from Gandhi’s writings, a photo gallery chronicling the production of the film, and cast and crew filmographies. But the real attraction here is the film itself, as powerful and moving a story as you’re ever likely to encounter. The combination of a classic film and extras that certainly enhance the experience make this not only great value for money, but arguably the best DVD release of the year so far.

Published February 7, 2002

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CAST: Ben Kingsley, Roshan Seth, Martin Sheen, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, Candice Bergen

DIRECTOR: Richard Attenborough

RUNNING TIME: 183 minutes (feature)

SPECIAL FEATURES: Original widescreen presentation, archival newsreel footage, interview with Ben Kingsley, photo gallery, the words of Mahatma Gandhi, filmographies, theatrical trailer.

DVD DISTRIBUTOR: Columbia Tristar Home Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: February 6, 2002

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