For years and years, whenever there was a question in a quiz that asked ‘Which film had the largest number of extras?’, there was only one answer – Gandhi. With a funeral scene that had over 400,000 people in attendance, this was an overwhelming experience for the man who played the role of Gandhi – Ben Kingsley. This was Ben’s first major role in a motion picture and when he landed the role, he felt like it was fate guiding him. “I was reading Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi when I got the role,” shared Ben during his visit to India in 1981.
Recalling his time shooting for the funeral scene, Ben had earlier shared in an interview with BAFTA on the 25th anniversary of the film that the scene was first being shot with a wax-like model but the look wasn’t right so director Richard Attenborough asked him to step in and lay down. Ben shared that for the first few minutes, the extras were throwing flowers at his face just to get a reaction out of him but he stayed composed. Soon, the crowd fell silent and all they could hear were the marching footsteps. Years later, in an interview with GQ, Ben said, “I think that the coincidence of loving (Gandhi) deeply as a man to portray, did empower me through those long demanding days in India. And people in India were enormously generous. You see, there was no CGI, can you believe that? That is four hundred thousand people at his funeral. That felt extraordinary to me.”
Ben’s portrayal of Gandhi won him an Academy as well as a BAFTA award but to play the role of a man who comes across as calm and peaceful, yet is quite strategic and methodical, required Ben to do a lot of homework. “I tried to find what his source of energy was. It was his unwavering faith in the power of truth to survive,” he shared with Indian news agencies on his 2009 visit to India as he participated in the International Film Festival of India, Goa. He added that his performance was fuelled by “anger and indignation.” “I had to find a consistency and it was deep anger and indignation at the manner in which his fellow countrymen were treated. This did not result in an angry performance but the performance that everybody appreciated was fuelled by that anger and indignation,” he said.
It’s no small task to play a man who led a revolution in India and became the international symbol for non-violence and satyagraha but his complex nature had to be understood in a simplistic manner for Ben to portray him on screen. “Gandhi was a very complex man. But, all complexities were held in balance. I had to find a way of simplifying the task because if I had a complicated view it would have been impossible for the performance,” he shared during his visit in 2009.
Apart from doing the work on his mind, the role required him to do some physical work as well and this is where yoga came in handy. “Yoga really helped to get to the essence of the man (Gandhi). It also helped me breathe better, keep calm and be relaxed even when demands are being made on me,” he had shared during his 1981 visit. Ben had an old hip injury that prevented him from sitting on the floor but as he started practicing yoga, he overcame that as well. During a chat at the USC School of Dramatic Arts in 2018, Ben had shared that after he had tested for the role once, Richard asked him to perform another screen test with make-up and he looked so much like Gandhi that Richard offered him the role on the spot, but he still had to give another screen test. “Physical resemblance was a prerequisite. I had Ben Kingsley in mind for five years, from the first time I saw him. Nobody struck me as Ben did,” Richard had shared in his 1981 visit.
Ben had the physicality and the mental make-up down but there was probably another experience from his childhood days that empowered him to play the role of a revolutionary. Born as Krishna Pandit Bhanji, Ben has Indian heritage from his father’s side and at the time when he was growing up, racism was prevalent in the UK and he too was at the receiving end of the same. In a 1991 interview on The Dick Cavett Show, Ben had revealed that a “steady stream of racial abuse that used to deeply sadden” him had occurred in his childhood. He recalled that he was called “woggy” (a derogatory and racially offensive slang) by some of the bullies but it is his belief that having those tough years made him a successful man later in life. “My gratitude to the child who cornered me and called me woggy and kicked me in the leg so hard that I couldn’t walk for half a day. I would like to say to him ‘Would you like to see my Oscar? Because of behaviour like yours, I am a high achiever, so thank you very much’.”
In the years since the 1982 film, many actors have portrayed Gandhi on-screen across many languages but Ben’s portrayal of the man has always remained the standard that is etched in people’s memory.