How a British director, with Indian help, searched for Mahatma's life

To millions of Indians he was known as the Mahatma or ''great soul.'' Yet even as Mohandas K. Gandhi's theories went on to help shape America's civil rights movement and African independence struggles, memories of his life and message have faded with the passing of time.

British actor-director Sir Richard Attenborough is about to change all that with his stunning biographical film set for international and American premieres this month. Entitled simply ''Gandhi,'' it spans 54 years in the life of the man revered by millions of Indians as a saint and the father of their nation.

During the course of the film Royal Shakespeare Company actor Ben Kingsley is transformed from a young frock-coated Victorian gentleman, fresh out of law studies at London's Inner Temple, to a stooped 78-year-old who spurned all clothing but the rough loincloths and shawls of India's poorest peasants. Half-Indian, half-British, the 38-year-old actor achieves a remarkable physical resemblance to the elderly Gandhi of the mid-1940s - enough to have left Indian spectators gasping and trying to touch his feet during location shooting in India.

The movie marks the fulfillment of a personal quest for Attenborough, whose ambition for the past 20 years has been to bring Gandhi's life to the screen. Initially inspired by a Louis Fischer biography of Gandhi, Attenborough found early encouragement from India's first prime minister and Gandhi's close associate, Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nehru - who is beautifully depicted in the film by actor Roshan Seth - did put in a word of caution, Attenborough related during the shooting in India last year. ''Whatever you do, do not deify him,'' Nehru once told Attenborough. ''He was too great a man to be deified.''

The Gandhi government's decision touched off enormous controversy in India. Cash-strapped local filmmakers contended that India's National Film Development Corporation should be subsidizing them rather than a foreign film company - although the government has pledged to plough all profits back into aid for local films.

And although no Indian filmmaker had tackled Gandhi's life and times in a feature film, many Indians disliked the idea of a foreigner trying first.

There was concern about how Gandhi and their country would appear through and to western eyes. Gandhi, after all, called off the independence struggle or started fasts to the death several times to halt outbreaks of violence among his followers. And the epic non-violent struggle he led ended in a frenzy of inter-religious slaughter among Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs during the partition of India and Pakistan.

Indeed, the film pulls no punches in depicting the violence of Indian against Indian as well as British against Indian. It portrays Gandhi's anguish at the partition of what he hoped would be a united independent India where all religions would co-exist in harmony. It shows him denouncing the dehumanizing practice of untouchability, still widespread in contemporary India. And it illustrates his dismay at the grinding poverty of India's villages.

But the Gandhi of Attenborough's film is no grim plaster saint. From the early days as a crusading lawyer in South Africa, where the film picks up his life, down to the assassination by a Hindu fanatic in 1948, Kingsley's Gandhi comes across as a warm, affectionate man who relished getting or giving a good tease. Gandhi's puckish sense of humor may be a surprise to viewers getting their first exposure to him via the screen, but it long delighted his contempories. ''My most frequent and natural memory of him is of a laughing, chuckling man,'' his grandson, Rajmohan Gandhi, has recalled.

For a brief moment in 1948, the world stopped to mourn the death of one of the most remarkable men of the century. Tributes poured in for the spiritual and political leader who had defied the might of the British Empire - and won - with his philosophy of non-violent resistance.

Gandhi fell as he often said he wished to die - calling out the name of God. ''The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere,'' a grief-stricken Nehru announced to the country by radio.

Moments later, he amended himself. ''The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light.'' A thousand years later, Nehru said, the light would still shine, ''and the world will see it and it will give solace to innumerable hearts.''

For the first time, on the screen, audiences who know Gandhi as little more than a name in a history book can glimpse what Nehru meant.

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