Review of Gandhi (1982)
Updated: Sep 24
Warning: This review includes spoilers.
(CHARLOTTESVILLE, DAVINCI) - The movie Gandhi was produced as a cinematic documentary of the man for whom it was named. It begins at the end of his life, opening on a scene in which an elderly Gandhi is being escorted by two women through a crowd of revellers. He’s dressed in white traditional Indian clothing, which includes a shawl and pants of wrapped cloth. A man in the crowd approaches Gandhi, and, after a respectful bow to him, the man pulls out a gun and fires. The scene then changes and the audience is taken to South Africa, with Gandhi, a twenty-four year old law school graduate, riding in a first class train car. The events that follow--the blatent discrimination against him for his skin color by the staff, despite the train ticket he possessed and the formal English suit he wore; his being kicked off at the next station to then be greeted by the impoverishment of non-white South Africans--these are the sparks that lit the flame of the “Great Soul”. These are the origins of the world famous Mahatma Gandhi.
The story then unfolds, and, with his protests and trials, his fasting and encouragement of peace, and his calls for unity between ethnic Indians, Gandhi’s saintly legacy is built.
It seems to me that the famous historical figures we are introduced to in school, the majority of whom are elderly men, become increasingly disappointing as I grow older. Each and every one of them--whether they advocate for peace, war, or another cause--are always revealed to be extremely misogynistic. Gandhi is one such man, and he too has let me down.
Watching the movie Gandhi, I was absolutely enamored with his character. He stood against the tyranny of the British, a feat that I commend, but was able to do so peacefully as well. The measures Gandhi took to free his country are monumental and whimsical, and they embody the greatest ideal I have for myself. As I saw the waves he made in the hearts of the people of the world, I wanted to be Gandhi; I wanted to enamor the world and lead us into a better age. The movie does such an amazing job portraying Gandhi as the ideal activist, that even when it finally ended I remained drunk on his perfection. That is, until I remembered that Gandhi is a movie, and that its namesake was by no means the “Great Soul” he is portrayed to be. This is, to me, the biggest flaw in the film.
In recent years, many difficult truths have been revealed regarding Gandhi and his legacy. It is now known that he had a very unhealthy relationship with sex and women, believing that sex should be for reproductive purposes exclusively, and that sexual pleasure was sinful. Because of this he had extensive guilt surrounding intercourse, and took a vow of celibacy (without consulting his wife, to whom he was married at the time). He became obsessive, so much so that after his wife’s death, Gandhi would test his control over sexual desire by sleeping naked with various women in his life--such as his doctor and his young grandnieces--so to prove he could resist them. As women in India, where there are especially strong and ongoing misogynistic ideals, how could they have possibly denied him? As women in the presence of a man so revered by the world, would they not have been ostracized or worse?
Not only did Gandhi’s objectification and exploitation of women play to his personal issues, he also had negative views on women’s roles in society. He believed women should have been tasked with raising their children and doing household tasks, and was against them embracing more Western fashions in an attempt to become more attractive to men. In addition, Gandhi shared his opinions on contraceptives to the 1930s birth control activist, Margret Sanger, saying that he believed women should instead resist the advances of their husbands, whilst they themselves resisted temptation, so that there was no need for contraception at all. Not only does this belief make it seem as though women have no sexual desire themselves, it is assuming that women are capable of successfully refusing a man sex if they so wish. Expecting this of women places blame, intentionally or not, on them if they are unable to keep their partners at bay. Carrying this over to the case of rape or sexual assault, one may then assign guilt to women for being unable to defend themselves and for “particiating” in sexual behaviors. Indeed, according to an article by the Guardian, Gandhi had written about an experience he had had with two girls. They’d been repeatedly assaulted by a man, and instead of having him take sole responsibility for his actions, Gandhi cut off the girls’ hair to keep the man from further temptation.
However, while Gandhi’s views on women would not hold up in the feminist wave of the 2000s, he was considerably progressive for his time period. He believed that women and men were equal and that women should pursue their own educations. In addition to these, on more than one occasion he rose women into influential political and leadership positions. However, I do wish more of these controversies were addressed in the movie, instead of placing Gandhi onto a pedestal he did not necessarily deserve. Not only would finally watching the humanization of such a revered man (personally) be intriguing to watch, but it would serve to better educate the populace of the imperfections of seemingly golden historic figures.
Not only did I dislike the portrayal of Gandhi in the movie Gandhi, but it is clear that there is a subtle bias against Muslims--as shown with the personification of Jinnah, who is one of the major characters and is a Muslim. Over the duration of the movie, Jinnah spends the majority of his allotted screen time sipping tea in the corner whilst glaring at the rest of the activists gathered. His most relevant appearances are during the major conflict between him and Gandhi over the partitioning of Pakistan. These scenes certainly portray Jinnah as the enemy, and he even insinuates that, if Pakistan were not to be separated from India, there would be a civil war. Not only was Jinnah’s character approached negatively, but there are very few other major Muslim characters to provide more positive perspectives on the events of the movie (and on Muslims).
This is not to say there are only negative portrayals of Muslims--only an uneven distribution of positive attention between Hindus and Muslims. There are scenes that display the Muslims as devout followers of Gandhi who are willing to give their lives for the cause, which is to say they are portrayed in a positive manner. So, overall, there is a lack of balance between the two religions, but the true “villain” in the movie remains the British.
By far my favorite scene in the movie is when Gandhi is in the midst of his fast against the division between Muslim and Hindu Indians. After coming to accept that their national savior would certainly die if they did not cease their rioting, the Hindus put down their weapons and visited Gandhi’s bed (located at a Muslim’s house to further his point) to beg him to eat. One Hindu man confesses to Gandhi that he had, in retaliation to his son being killed by Muslims, himself murdered a Muslim boy. To this Gandhi advises the man to find a little boy whose parents had been killed and who was the same height as his deceased son. But before the man could leave, Gandhi adds this: “only be sure that he is a Muslim, and that you raise him as such.”
This. This is beautiful. I cannot explain how much this exchange means to me. The change in perspective that the Hindu man must have experienced in that moment; the rift in the cycle that the Indians were caught in--if only more people had taken this advice to heart and learned what it would be to bridge the gap between their religions. If only we all could do something so bold as to raise the child of our enemy. I may hate the way Gandhi’s character is romanticized, but I must say this scene is what made the movie in my eyes.
Gandhi is a movie documenting Mahatma's (another name for Gandhi, meaning “great soul”) life. It covers the most important stances he made against the Raj, and successfully teaches its audience about his impact on both India and the world. However, biases within the movie dampened its overall accuracy and intrigue. The lack of Gandhi’s actual flaws are misleading, as well as the subtle negative portrayal of Muslims. Jinnah is antagonized, and few Muslim characters provide a dearth of varying perspectives. All things considered, I believe the movie Gandhi was well done and informative, but could have been made better by embracing the controversial aspects of Gandhi’s personality.