If I were to liken Attenborough's "Gandhi" to any other epic film, I would choose Spike Lee's "Malcolm X." Initially, of course, this may appear rather irrational, but just because Gandhi and Malcolm X differed in their methods (at least as historians and filmmakers would have us believe) their ends and many of their attitudes were exactly the same.
Both men believed in the dignity of their people (whether "their" was defined across racial or national lines makes little difference) and, consequently, both believed in their right to freedom, to liberty. Both served time in jail, both had religious revelations, or rather, so as not to insult their achievements, spiritual revelations. Malcolm X believed in separation of the black population from the white population, though he wanted blacks to retain and gain the same rights as the whites. Gandhi believed Indians should have sovereignty without British interference or control - and retain and gain rights denied to them by their colonial oppressors. Both Malcolm X and Gandhi were struck by social problems of their people, problems of poverty, hunger, degeneracy and loss of identity. This final problem occupied both Malcolm X's and Gandhi's philosophies. They recognized that foreign dominance over their people, i.e. English over Indian and white over black, inevitably led to an inculcation of inferiority in the minds of the subjugated people. In both cases it was institutionalized, socially and politically (not to mention economically). The blacks and the Indians were led to believe by their oppressors that not only were they not capable of having sovereignty, freedom and the rights their oppressors enjoyed, but even if they were, they were not worthy of them. Gandhi and Malcolm X both recognized this problem and tried to resolve it.
However, while both men fought to achieve similar goals, they differed in their means. Malcolm X advocated active resistance against the people he hated: the white oppressors. He was not afraid to say so - and employed the very racism that was meant to keep blacks down against the whites. He vehemently opposed the choice of many blacks to strive to gain rights within the existing system. Consequently he opposed people like Martin Luther King Jr. who, Malcolm X felt, pandered to the whites and made them all-too-comfortable. He, like Gandhi, fought for the dignity of his people and he made it very clear as to what this fight entailed.
Gandhi's approach is now famously described as "nonviolent resistance." While at first, this may seem too much like the methods of Martin Luther King Jr. of whom Malcolm X had a low opinion, Gandhi's nonviolence had little to do with negotiation and speech-making. The operative word is "resistance" and Gandhi inspired the Indian people to resist - and what makes Gandhi such an awe-inspiring figure, no doubt an inspiration for an epic film, is his innovativeness in not betraying his nonviolent, peaceful spirit in achieving Indian independence. From the emphasis on economic self-reliance, examples of which include cloth-weaving and illegal salt-making, to self-respect and respect and love for one's enemy, Gandhi's method was not only practical in the sense of economics, but also spiritual in terms of legitimating the goals and desires of the Indian people in the eyes of the British colonialists and, most importantly, in the eyes of the Indians themselves.
Both Gandhi and Malcolm X were assassinated not by their oppressors, but rather, by extremist members of groups to which they also belonged: they died as a result of internal politics and internal dissent.
Malcolm X did not exactly achieve a separate black state, or (even less so) a return to the traditional ways of African blacks, to the roots of African-Americans. He did not solve the social problems of blacks, especially in urban areas. Gandhi inspired his people to win Indian independence, but he also did not resolve impending social and ethnic dilemmas that erupted shortly after independence was achieved.
However, the world speaks more comfortably and openly about Gandhi than Malcolm X. No doubt, part of that stems from the fact that Gandhi's fight had a much larger scope literally - he occupied world attention. But, it would be wrong to deny that many people, historians among them, choose to put less emphasis on Malcolm X than, say, Martin Luther King Jr. because the former attempted to fight for rights more actively than other civil rights activists.
Who's to say he was wrong? Nobody. How do we judge men like Gandhi and Malcolm X? The reason I decided to compare the two films is not only because of the shared similarities in the characters they portray. I also chose the two films because of their portrayal: Richard Attenborough shows us Gandhi, like Spike Lee shows us Malcolm X, without compromises and judgments.
In "Gandhi" Attenborough, through the phenomenal (and I mean Phenomenal) Ben Kingsley, captures the beautiful spiritual clarity with which Gandhi spoke and, furthermore, which he embodied in his actions. The film does not vilify the British colonialists any more than their actions vilify them - it presents and it invites the viewer to judge. It is flawlessly directed and it is one of the few great epics ever made. It obsesses to perfection about whom it is about. In that it is comparable to the passionate portrayal of Malcolm X in Spike Lee's film. However, while "Malcolm X" ends with an unfortunate false note of "social importance," "Gandhi" transcends preaching and forced social commentary.
And, most importantly, "Gandhi" reminds us of people who come and go, who love humanity and are not afraid to fight for it on their terms. It reminds us of people whose vision of existence is not stale and full of the empty words of politicians, but instead spiritual and moral clarity. One only has to watch Gandhi's self-confidence in argument with the various British soldiers and politicians he meets - he doesn't have to prattle and propagandize. He has discovered truth and it gives him comfort, strength and confidence - he lets it speak for him. This clarity is something many of us thirst for every day - and "Gandhi" reminds us that it is achievable.
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