Attenborough's Thinking Behind Gandhi Film

Attenborough's Thinking Behind Gandhi Film by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Bonhams.

Actor-director Richard Attenborough took a leap of faith when he decided to make the 1982 movie Gandhi.  He knew he wanted to celebrate his character's courage and compassion and that was the intention when he made the award-winning film. 

Attenborough's storytelling sets the stage for Gandhi almost up front when the camera reveals a South African railroad conductor shoving Gandhi out of a train compartment for whites. 

The scene doesn't actually show up in Gandhi's autobiography.  But it clearly dramatizes Gandhi's heartache at the hands of discrimination. 

“It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow human beings.”
— Gandhi

Attenborough takes us by the hand in the film and shows us scene by scene how a humble, non-violent Indian leader changes the course of history.  

The film isn't about Gandhi's personal shortcomings by any means.  It's about his heroism in the face of unbelievable odds.    

"My notion of democracy is that under it the weakest should have the same opportunity as the strongest," Gandhi said.

In 1962 a London-based Indian civil servant approached Attenborough and asked the director to make a film about Gandhi.  Attenborough knew little about Gandhi at the time beyond his leading the Indian people's struggle for independence from Britain. 

The director read Louis Fischer's biography of Gandhi and Gandhi's own writings.  In his readings he came across a Gandhi quote sealing the deal.

"It has always been a mystery to me how men can feel themselves honored by the humiliation of their fellow human beings," Gandhi said.

The Indian leader made the statement after watching Indians forced to walk in the gutter so that whites could have full use of the sidewalk.

The next 20 years of Attenborough's career was shaped by his commitment to this project.

“I ...suffered all sorts of rejection in trying to raise the finance and very nearly bankrupt myself,” he said.  "Bills weren't paid on time, and I was often absent from home, either trying to raise money or doing lucrative acting jobs in distant places, just to keep the project afloat.” 

His commitment paid off.

The film premiered in New Delhi on Nov. 30, 1982.  In 1983 Gandhi won eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Attenborough and Best Actor for Ben Kingsley starring as Gandhi.  

"Movies have the ability to grant us, as no other medium can, a world-wide voice.  I have no interest in preaching to the converted.  I want to reach as wide an audience as possible, even the antagonistic.  This extraordinary art form offers me that choice," Attenborough said of work.  

In recent years Attenborough continued acting and directed other films, including Cry Freedom, Chaplin and Shadowlands.  He died on Aug. 24, 2014 at the age of 90.  Hundreds of people attended his service at Westminster Abbey.

On Oct. 21, Bonhams in London featured Richard Attenborough:  A Life Both Sides of the Camera on the block.  Included in the sale were numerous items pertaining to the filming of Gandhi.

Mahatma Gandhi  

Photographs; press and private; many featuring Attenborough's theater productions, presentation and award ceremonies, etc;  various dates;  $2,669.

Scripts; group from Gandhi film; including script with the title page printed Mahatma Gandhi, Screenplay by Gerald Hanley; dated April, 1964;  $4,766.

Glasses; group made for Ben Kingsley as Gandhi; accompanied by a script from the film;  $8,006.

Autograph Letter Signed; M.K. Gandhi to The Rev. Norman Bennet at the Parsonage, Lucknow apologizing for the delay in replying; Dec. 19, 1921;  $12,391.

Wooden Clapperboard; used during the Gandhi production; marked with the slate number 1051; and the take 3 in white chalk; 15 inches by 14 inches;  $22,875. 


Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

Maya Angelou Voice of a Generation

Maya Angelou Voice of a Generation

Jasper Johns Working Many Levels

Jasper Johns Working Many Levels