Over 300,000 extras appeared in the funeral sequence. About 200,000 were volunteers, and 94,560 were paid a small fee (under contract). The sequence was filmed on January 31, 1981, the 33rd anniversary of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi's funeral. Eleven crews shot over 20,000 feet of film, which was pared down to two minutes and five seconds in the final release.
Dustin Hoffman had expressed an early desire to play the title role in this movie, but was offered Tootsie (1982) the same year, and ended up taking the latter role. He eventually lost the Oscar that year to Sir Ben Kingsley, who played Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.
When plans for the film were announced, Sir Richard Attenborough held a press conference in Delhi for the Indian media. There was much concern expressed about how Gandhi, a virtual deity to many Indians, would or should be portrayed on-screen. One female journalist seriously suggested that Gandhi should only be shown as a brilliant white light moving across the screen. An exasperated Attenborough snapped back, "Madam, I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell!"
While filming in some of the more rural villages in India, with Sir Ben Kingsley in full make-up as Gandhi, some of the older members of the communities were confused as they thought they were seeing the real man again.
Sir Ben Kingsley learned to spin cloth in the same way that Gandhi did. He didn't find this to be particularly challenging. Instead, the real problem he encountered was to spin and talk at the same time, which he had major difficulties trying to master.
No studio was interested in financing this movie. Sir Richard Attenborough said that most of the financing came from: Joseph E. Levine, who agreed to finance in exchange of Attenborough directing A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Magic (1978), sale of his ownership share of "The Mousetrap", and Jake Eberts, a friend. The rest came from major companies in England, minus the BBC.
It was originally intended in the funeral scene to use a wax effigy of Sir Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. However, on the day, it was clear to Richard Attenborough that the wax dummy would fool no one, so Kingsley was asked to lie on the funeral pyre. He kept his eyes shut throughout, despite having petals fall on him constantly.
In 1962, Sir Richard Attenborough received a phone call from an Indian civil servant called Motilai Kothari, who was working with the Indian High Commission in London. Kothari was a devout follower of Gandhi, and was convinced that Attenborough would be the perfect choice to make a movie about him. Attenborough read Louis Fischer's biography of the Indian statesman and agreed with Motilai, though it would take him twenty years to fulfill the dream. His first act was to meet with the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, as well as Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Nehru approved of his plan and promised to help support the production, but his death in 1964 was just one in a long line of setbacks.
For the funeral scene, advertisements calling for 300,000 extras were either distributed in pamphlets and by newspapers in Delhi. Extras were not allowed to wear anything other than white and as part of security measures, turnstiles were built at selected entry points for crowd control. The crew bought any clothing that was not white.
Gandhi's funeral scene employed 300,000 extras, which makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest number of extras in one scene. This is a record that is likely to remain, as huge crowd scenes these days are largely done via CGI. The extras were not paid, they were all volunteers who came to honor the memory of Gandhi. This scene was shot on January 31, 1981, the 33rd anniversary of Gandhi's assassination, and employed nineteen different cameras.
At one stage, during the 20 year long development history of this movie, Sir Richard Attenborough offered Sir Anthony Hopkins the role of Gandhi. When Hopkins called his father to tell him the news, his father responded: "Oh, it's a comedy then, is it?"
Before filming, Sir Richard Attenborough turned down Geraldine James' request to have an audio recording of the real Madeleine Slade/Mirabehn as part of researching the role. Instead, she was told to play it straight like a normal English woman. Later, she discovered the reason: after filming she was allowed to listen to the recording (taped between Attenborough and Slade in Austria) only to discover that Slade speaks with an Indian accent, having spent thirty-four years in India speaking in Hindi as well. It was James' friend, casting director Susie Figgis, who recommended her for the role.
When this movie was released in 1982, there were some strong criticisms against this film. Richard Grenier wrote both an article and a book called "The Gandhi Nobody Knows (1983)" criticizing this movie and Indian government for portraying Gandhi as a saint. Grenier points out that the government of India openly admits to having provided one-third of the financing of this movie out of state funds, straight out of the national treasury. Grenier's book inspired Colonel G.B. Singh to write the book "Gandhi Behind the Mask of Divinity" and co-write the book "Gandhi Under Cross Examination" with Dr. Timothy Watson, which contains more criticisms against Gandhi. Timothy Watson also wrote couple of articles criticizing Gandhi being portrayed as a saint.
In the DVD director's commentary, Sir Richard Attenborough mistakenly says that Ian Charleson died of cancer. This is not the case, Charleson died of an A.I.D.S.-related illness in 1990, the first mainstream British celebrity to do so. Upon his death, Charleson requested that the full cause of his demise be made public in order to bring greater awareness of the disease.
Illness prevented cinematographer Billy Williams from completing this movie. Ronnie Taylor flew out from England to assist him and ended up completing cinematographic duties. Both men were awarded Oscars for their work on this movie.
By the late 1960s, Sir Richard Attenborough was still struggling to get this movie made. Figuring that David Lean might still be interested in the project, he approached the world-renowned director who agreed to make this movie, but then changed his mind to go make Ryan's Daughter (1970) instead.
According to Geoffrey C. Ward's essay about this movie in Mark C. Carnes' book "Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies", Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had told Sir Richard Attenborough in 1963 not to deify Gandhi, since Gandhi was too great a man to be deified. The essay makes the point that Attenborough turned it into a mantra that lost its meaning and that this movie essentially deified Gandhi, leaving out anything about his life that could be construed as negative.
During the funeral scenes, Sir Richard Attenborough sensed the estimated 300,000 extras were becoming bored and restless. He turned to his trusted assistant director, David Tomblin, and whispered "David, I think the crowd should spend a moment contemplating Gandhi's life and what his death means to India at this moment."Tomblin immediately stood up and bellowed in to his megaphone: "RIGHT. LISTEN UP!!! GANDHI'S DEAD, YOU'RE ALL SAD!!! ROLL CAMERAS!"
A duplicate of this movie's Best Picture Oscar is on display at the "World of Coca-Cola" exhibit in Atlanta, Georgia. Columbia Pictures, this movie's distributor, was owned by the Coca-Cola Company at the time.
Although this movie won several Oscars, many historians consider it propaganda. According to Ranjan Borra's article "Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian National Army, and The War of India's Liberation", Clement Atlee, British Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951, told P.B. Chakraborthy, who served as acting Governor of West Bengal and Chief Justice of Calcutta High Court in India, that India was freed from British Empire in 1947 primarily because the Indian Army and Navy personnel had become more loyal to Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose than to the British Crown. When Chakraborthy asked Atlee about the Gandhi's influence on the British decision to leave India, Atlee slowly chewed out the word, "m-i-n-i-m-a-l!" In a 1955 BBC interview, Indian politician Dr. B.R. Ambedkar said India's independence from the British Empire was a result of the efforts of Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian soldiers.
Sir Richard Attenborough, who was British, directed this movie about an Indian political leader. He appeared in Elizabeth (1998), a movie about a British political leader directed by Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur.
In 1952, Gabriel Pascal secured an agreement from the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, to make a movie of Gandhi's life. However, Pascal died two years later before preparations were completed.
Paramahansa Yogananda wrote a chapter about meeting Gandhi in "Autobiography of a Yogi." Some of Gandhi's ashes were given to him and are still kept today at Lake Shrine in Los Angeles. Yogananda reported that before he died, Gandhi forgave the gunman who shot him.
Sir Laurence Olivier was announced for General Dyer in 1980. Before Sir David Lean had to abort his version of Gandhi's life, Olivier was scheduled to portray the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten.