Gandhi, produced and directed by Richard Attenborough, is a 1982 biographical movie that traces the life of a prominent political activist Mohandas (later Mahatma) Gandhi, who led the campaign for India’s independence against the British colonial rule. The plot focuses on the key events that arguably led Gandhi to begin resistance and caused his movement for India’s independence to gain wide recognition. The film provides an accurate portrayal of the historical events surrounding Mahatma Gandhi’s life and his philosophy of peaceful resistance. Mohandas Gandhi played a prominent role in establishing the independence of India and its nationhood by becoming the face of the movement and uniting its citizens.
The film begins with a brief statement, “No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling” (Gandhi 1:10-1:29). The director likely includes this declaration to acknowledge that the life of Gandhi had many facets, being influenced by multiple events and people beyond those portrayed in the film. This statement also implies that it is worth getting deeply acquainted with Gandhi’s activism, urging the viewer to take proactive steps.
The director quickly grabs the viewer’s attention by showing the assassination and funeral of Gandhi. During his funeral in 1948, a reporter introduces Gandhi as “a private man without wealth, without property, without official title or office” and “not a commander of armies nor a ruler of vast lands [but a man] who led his country to freedom” (4:49-5:21). Following the opening scene, the director transfers the viewer to the summer of 1893, when young Gandhi is forcefully removed from a train in South Africa after refusing to leave the first-class compartment for being a ‘colored person.’ This altercation sparks Gandhi’s discontent with the status quo in South Africa, so he decides to begin a nonviolent protest, arguing that all British subjects should have the same rights, no matter their race. Though followed by violent encounters with law enforcement, the government complies with what the protesters were demanding. They grant some rights to Indians in South Africa.
Set in 1915, the next part of the film is concerned with Gandhi’s return to India. After achieving his goal of entitling Indians to more rights in South Africa, he is perceived as an Indian national hero. He is encouraged to “raise India from servitude and apathy,” i.e., support the effort for India’s independence (47:35-47:45). Gandhi first embarks on a journey to get to know his country. He then agrees to support the effort for India’s home rule. The campaign sees resistance from the colonial rulers, including numerous imprisonments of Gandhi, violence, and, most notably, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. All of the events of the campaign bring widespread attention to the cause and engage more and more people. Marches begin to result in bloodshed, so Gandhi goes on a fasting strike to appeal to the protesters to stop the violence.
Gandhi then embarks on the Salt March to show tax resistance to the British salt monopoly. Having walked 241 miles over the span of 24 days, he gains salt from the ocean via evaporation.1 This symbolic act sparks mass civil disobedience, subsequently growing into a nationwide nonviolent noncooperation resistance against the British. Gandhi is then invited to a conference in London to discuss Indian independence, but it yields no fruitful results. During the Second World War, Gandhi speaks against violence and is imprisoned for his opposition. Following the war, India finally gains its independence.
The independence comes with its challenge because of the differences between India’s Muslim and the Hindu population. The country is then divided into India and a new country for the Muslim majority, Pakistan. The tension between the Hindus and the Muslims of India escalates, resulting in nationwide bloodshed. Gandhi goes on a fasting strike, and the fighting eventually subsides. His efforts to unite both nations ultimately cause him to get assassinated by a dissident Nathuram Godse. Gandhi’s ashes are spread through the river Ganga. The film concludes with a voiceover statement from Gandhi, in which he professes what he believes in: truth and love.
Mahatma Gandhi was a remarkable individual, politician, and activist. He had a profound influence on achieving the independence of India and establishing its nationhood. The events portrayed in the film show that Gandhi’s philosophy was fundamental in fueling anticolonial, pro-independence sentiments. Through seemingly unsophisticated acts, he inspired millions of others to fight for basic human rights, such as dignity and freedom. For example, the Salt March showed the scope of implications of a seemingly symbolic. In addition to being a practical appeal towards the general anti-colonial belief, the campaign also shed light on other issues, such as heavily taxing a substance essential for life.2 The Indian public well accepted the idea.
In my opinion, what made Mahatma Gandhi so influential is his appeal to qualities fundamental to human nature. As mentioned in the film, he “made humility and simple truth more powerful than empires” (5:40-5:44). His ideas were novel at his time of warfare, practically being the sole means of international conflict resolution. Instead of engaging in a mutually degrading traditional warfare, he advocated for personal liberation by respecting oneself enough to stand the moral high ground. Gandhi acknowledged that such an approach was limited, inflicting pain and death on those who exercise it. However, he also pointed out that no cause is worth violence as ultimately it achieves nothing but destruction.
The impact of Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy was also profoundly influential beyond his direct participation in abolishing colonial rule in India. He advocated on behalf of the harijans, or the untouchables, against the rigid caste system in India.3 He argued that for the British to see Indians as their peers, the inequality within the Indian society should be eliminated. Following the division of India into India and Pakistan, Gandhi advocated against mutually disruptive strife by going on a hunger strike. He also recognized the horrible impact of poverty, saying that “poverty is the worst form of violence.” Overall, he contributed not only to the establishment of India’s independence but also to the improvement of its society from within the country.
The 1982 film Gandhi is a powerful cinematic piece that provides an account of the activism and life of Mahatma Gandhi. The events discussed in the movie show that his work helped to assert unity and nationhood against the alien regime. Mahatma Gandhi was an exceptional individual whose work has profoundly affected his country and the world in general. His philosophy and worldview were accurately presented in the film, helping share an inspirational and extraordinary story of an individual who saved lives by advocating for peace. The Indian society finally became liberated and, thanks to Gandhi’s efforts, become more conscious of its national identity.
Gandhi. Directed by Richard Attenborough, performances by Ben Kingsley, Edward Fox, John Gielgud, and Candice Bergen, Columbia Pictures, 1982.
King, Mary. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action. UNESCO Publishing, 1999.
Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action (UNESCO Publishing, 1999), 63.
Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action (UNESCO Publishing, 1999), 62.
Mary King, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr: The Power of Nonviolent Action (UNESCO Publishing, 1999), 77.