Filming history

Filming history

looking back

Filming history

Filmmaker Richard Attenborough’s phenomenal biopic ‘Gandhi’ won him accolades and put him on the Hollywood map. M Bhaktavatsala recalls the making of the landmark film, and the man behind the camera...

Richard Attenborough directed many movies and acted in many more, but he will always be known as the man who made Gandhi. That year, when the Academy Awards were announced, there was hysterics passing euphoria, otherwise one cannot really explain the impact the film made.

Richard had worked on making a film on Gandhi for a long time. He had not heard of Gandhi prior to the 1960s. On a train journey he met a man called Kothari who told him about Gandhi. Richard was immediately intrigued. He read whatever he could and decided that there should be a film on Gandhi. He went to his friend Lord Mountbatten for an introduction, with which he arrived in New Delhi to meet the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru liked the project and promised to get the Government of India to cooperate, but before anything concrete could be achieved, Nehru had died. 

Inspiration strikes

Then there was a cold spell of years when Richard got busy with some other films. He began thinking of Gandhi again in the 1970s and this time found Mrs Indira Gandhi even more helpful and enthusiastic than her father had been, and then again there was a rude halt due to the Emergency and the succeeding debacle. Richard did not even think of approaching the Janata Government. With Mrs Gandhi back in power, he returned and she asked him, “What is holding you back?”

G P Sippy and I had gone to meet him as emissaries of the Government. Mrs Gandhi had appointed us as ‘Co-ordinators’ on behalf of the Government of India which was investing 50 per cent of the cost of film. We had a clear mandate to also oversee the project. 

A cold evening in Delhi, we met Richard and his co-producer Rani Dube in a twin suite in a five-star hotel. To make our assessment, we asked Richard then, and we continued to ask him every other time these meetings were set up, for the script, the budget with the cash flow, a minute breakdown of the rupee part of the budget, and copies of all financial and marketing arrangements negotiated. What went on at these meetings is quite astounding. He enacted scenes for us of his meetings with Mrs Gandhi which, according to him, were almost every other day, and how she kept accusing him of not getting the project through fast enough. In other words, he was really trying to bamboozle us. 

Richard is an actor who continued to ham off screen. His bonhomie, surprises, shock and even tears were all dramatic. At one of the several meetings spread over months, I saw him flying into a rage with a manager of the NFDC colouring a bright-red in the face, flaying his hands, only to quietly subside and apologise a few seconds after. 

Richard never tired of telling us that he had a project worth $20 million. It was there for the asking. The Government can produce the film by footing the entire bill or invest as partners at least to the extent of the rupee expenditure of the project. It was not that there was a dearth for financial backing.

The project was too good for that. But what he wanted was moral commitment and what better thing than money to concretise morals? The Anglo-American financiers can hardly look at a project which the Indians themselves did not back, but at the same time he already had firm offers from various markets. A tiny thing like the US Cable Television had offered a million dollars and it was surely going up to two and a half millions by the time the project came through. So he was keeping all options open. 

Essentially Indo-British Film Ltd., the primary producer of the film, consisted of two partners — Sir Richard and Lady Sarah. The money was supposed to have been raised by international financial investors through a subsidiary of theirs, the Gold Crest International.  But it was obvious that the investment came mainly in the form of guarantees. Hence the insistence that the Indian investments should come in first. The film was being shot in India after all.  

The project rolled in November 1980 and pack up was scheduled for the first week of April 1981. I had met Terence Clegg at one of the meetings. He was to be production-in-chief. Here was a mind which worked like a computer in a body solid as a machine. In any assessment, Gandhi will figure as one of the biggest film projects handled ever since films began. Consider this — the entire cast and crew needed for this project had to be shifted to an alien country of unfamiliar environment. Add to this the opposition of simmering dissatisfaction surfacing here and there in the country throughout the execution of the project. Terence was the man for the job and he proved that. 

Landmark film

The ultimate tribute to the success of the job of management of the project was that while the project plan had allowed a contingency period of a month, on the date of the pack up, Gandhi was just three days behind schedule! Post-shooting work took all of a year, almost wholly in England. Richard and Jake came back to India for a short spell and did some patch work around Bangalore. These were to be views from a train compartment that Gandhi rode. They also brought the young music director who did the incidental music while Ravi Shankar did the bulk of it. That night at dinner, Jake told me that the film is so exceptional that they would like to hold up the release till Oscar nominations. Particularly Ben Kingsley, who played Gandhi, Jake thought, would be top draw international star on release of the film.

A prominent aid to choice for roles was the make-up mock-up album. The face, then sheet after sheet of shaded translucent paper that transformed the face step by step. This was the test. The genius of the visualiser of the mock-up is fully realised in the reality of the film. The marvel of Gandhi aging is technically perfect. It is not the technique, however, that grabs you. It is the young boy whom I never met who had sunk himself soul and all into another being. Would the film work? It would, of course, in India. But what about the rest of the world? Would they be interested in a story essentially about the Freedom Struggle of a remote country?

 Long long ago in Franco’s Spain, I was wandering in Andalusia, somewhere in the vicinity of Sierra Nevada. In a roadside grocer’s shop, I noticed that the bare wall held nothing but a faded picture of Gandhi. I could get nothing out of the grocer. He pretended incomprehension, which didn’t quite convince me. Later, on a slow train between Cordoba and Seville, I learnt the truth from a Barcelonan. The picture of Gandhi, in whatever form, wherever it appeared, was the silent language of resistance under Franco! 

The film was released and the miracle happened. From every corner of the globe, astounding stories began to surface. In Amsterdam, people stood up in silence, with tears streaming down their cheeks, as the end titles rolled. In most places, they waited till the end titles disappeared and then gave the film a standing ovation. In no screening did the audience leave the auditorium till the last title rolled by. 

And now, my experience. I have been a frequent visitor to New York on business. It’s the kind of city that can be termed a World City. Most are immigrants obviously with no time for you. But the worst of the lot were the blacks who marched down in groups passing unintelligible remarks and looking belligerent. Post Gandhi, the most noticeable change one discerned was among them. They only needed to be asked and they would go all out to help in whichever way they can, “Your Gaandhi, man,” holding their hand on their heart.

“Generations to come will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth,” said Albert Einstein at Gandhi’s death. In this century of mass culture and myriad questions, that “such a one” had done what million words or the myriad images put out by our Embassies and Consulates could not do all these years. And it was a man who obsessed overcoming adversities had triumphed over time itself who made it happen — Richard the Lionheart. 

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox

Check out all newsletters

Get a round-up of the day's top stories in your inbox