The world of cinema and stage loses a giant. India will grieve even more as it has lost a friend who defied humongous odds to present Mahatma Gandhi to the mahatma’s own people in splendid cinematic fashion.
Lord Richard Attenborough was an accomplished actor, who became known on the other side of the Atlantic only after his role in the World War 2 thriller The Great Escape, which came on top of having first made his mark in Britain playing a sociopath in Brighton Rock. We will always fondly remember the distinctive British personality as the maker of the eponymous Gandhi although he had earlier starred in Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players, acknowledging it with “I count working for Ray as one of the milestones of my career.”
So sold was Attenborough on making Gandhi that he pledged his London home and sold art to make the film budget work while joking that he had nothing left to pay for the heating. The film was 20 years in the making and was rejected often enough to have put off anyone except Sir Richard. Hollywood producers predicted there would no audience for a “little brown man in a sheet carrying a beanstalk”. Funded $10 million by Indira Gandhi in the last mile, the movie grossed about 20 times its budget of $25 million.
Beyond the box-office success, what captured our hearts was a sensitive and gripping portrayal of the father of our nation. Who can forget the judge’s sentiment as he sentenced Gandhi reluctantly or the string of cinematic gems that made the film Gandhi as much a part of Indian history as the man himself?