“It has always been a mystery to me,” Gandhi said after being pushed off of a sidewalk for not being white, “how men can feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings.”
It was the winter of 1962 when British actor Richard Attenborough first read those words, found in the pages of ‘The Life of Mahatma Gandhi’ by Lois Fischer. In Switzerland on a family ski holiday, the book had gripped him to the extent that he did very little skiing. The more he read, the more he felt the direction of his life was about to change.
A week earlier, Attenborough had been rudely woken up by a Motilal Kothari, who phoned him just after dawn. Kothari stated he was sick with heart disease, and before he died he wanted to see a film about Mohandas K. Gandhi made. More to the point, he wanted Attenborough to direct it.
The half-awake actor easily brushed him off. Attenborough had never directed anything, had no desire to direct anything; and knew very little about Gandhi. Kothari was insistent, so Attenborough agreed to meet him for tea before he went on his family ski trip. It was here the book by Louis Fischer was thrust into his hand by Kothari, who excitingly stated tht Fischer had given him the film rights to it. Attenborough reluctantly agreed to read it only if Kothari would stop bothering him.
Returning from Switzerland, it was now his turn to track Kothari down. Attenborough told him he absolutely had to turn this book into a film. Best of all, his best friend was screenwriter.
And because they were best friends, the screenwriter told Attenborough that he was “foolish” for even considering this. Actual directors — including David Lean — had been long been defeated in their quest to bring Gandhi to the screen. No studio would ever finance it; no actor would want to play the lead; and the government of India would never let you do it.
Agreeing with his friend’s assessment, Attenborough said he was proceeding anyhow. He even knew how to tackle the last objection. India’s last viceroy (before Gandhi drove the entire British Empire from India) was Lord Louis Mountbatten. Attenborough was actually friends with him, having portrayed him in the 1942 film ‘In Which We Serve.’ Not only was Mountbatten excited by the project, but he was on his way to spend a week with Jawaharlal Nehru — India’s first Prime Minister.
Who also thought it was a great idea. Soon Attenborough was in India visiting Prime Minister Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi (no relation). The three spent months hammering out filming locations and gathering biographical details from Gandhi’s associates. Returning to England, he even found a screenwriter, as well as an actor who agreed to play the lead (Alec Guinness).
Unfortunately, financing would elude Attenborough year after year. While he could always get someone from a variety of Studios to be interested (Paramount, Warner Bros, 20th Century Fox), all their ever-growing boards of shareholders, accountants, and lawyers always nixed the idea. Their logic being no one would ever pay to see a film about “the little brown man from India.”
Since no one was paying him to shop around his Gandhi idea, Attenborough took acting roles in various films, including ‘The Great Escape,’ ‘The Flight of the Phoenix,’ and ‘Dr. Doolittle’ just to earn a living. As the 1970s ended, Empress Studios stepped up and said they would produce Gandhi if he directed two films for them — ‘A Bridge Too Far, and ‘Magic.’ Attenborough directed both, but found Empress Studios’ promise to him broken.
By 1980 his heart was equally broken. Motilal Kothari, who started this whole thing, had succumbed to heart disease in 1969. Prime Minister Nehru had perished in 1964 (his daughter Indira would be shot to death in 1984). In the summer of 1979 Lord Louis Mountbatten was assassinated by the IRA, along with his mother-in-law and young grandson.
But later that year, a Canadian named Jake Eberts — who ran the American-owned Goldcrest Films — was in England producing a small film that no major studio wanted to touch either — ‘Chariots of Fire.’ He met with Attenborough and asked to see the Gandhi script. Flipping through it and only reading certain parts, he immediately told Attenborough that Goldcrest would give him whatever funding he needed.
By the time Attenborough arrived in Los Angeles to sign the contract, Eberts already had a shooting schedule and crew waiting. All that was left to do was cast the lead.
Alec Guinness (now a household name due to ‘Star Wars’) was still offered the part, but said he was “too old and too fat” to play Gandhi. Albert Finney, Peter Finch, and Anthony Hopkins all passed on it as well. British actor John Hurt was everyone’s favorite for the part; he was thin enough and had a darker complexion than most. But a lifetime of playing rugby had given him these massive thighs … it just wouldn’t work.
Attenborough’s son had seen someone in a local play who he thought would work. His name was Krishna Pandit Bhanji, and he was half Indian. Although he had never worked in film before, his audition jumped out at everyone present. He was hired on the spot, but first he had one request. Could he appear under his stage name — Ben Kingsley.
After a private screening for Prince Charles and Princess Diana, ‘Gandhi’ premiered in New Delhi in November of 1982. It opened across North America in early 1983, and then the rest of the world. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards (winning eight), and was one of the highest grossing films ever made.
Attenborough dedicated the film to Motilal Kothari, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Lord Lois Mountbatten. It had only taken him 20 years to make.