Richard Attenborough: The film bosses wanted Gandhi to be sexy ...
Daily Mail - UK
By Richard Attenborough, 03 September 2008
My father was the reason why it became so important to me to make a film about Mahatma Gandhi, the great Indian leader - so much so that I would pursue this quest for 20 years, suffer all sorts of rejection in trying to raise the finance and very nearly bankrupt myself.
The Governor - as my brothers and I always called my father - had always wanted me to follow in his footsteps and become an academic. When I decided on acting as a career I knew in my heart of hearts that he was disappointed. Even as an adult, I still desperately wanted to prove myself to him.
If I could make a film with something important to say, perhaps he would take real pride in what I was doing. So I was receptive when a proposal for a film on the Mahatma - a Sanskrit word meaning 'Great soul' - was put to me in 1962.
The charismatic Ben Kingsley who played the role of Gandhi in the 1982 film
Gandhi was someone the Governor held in very high esteem. Back in 1931, when I was eight years old, Gandhi had come to Britain to take part in discussions about the future independence of India . And we'd seen him together, the Governor and I, at the local cinema in some grainy black-and-white newsreel footage.
I remembered the sneer in the commentator's strangled upper-class vowels as he described the high hopes this small, nut-brown man had for his people. I remembered that Winston Churchill had famously shrugged him off as 'that naked fakir'.
I remembered Gandhi had taken tea with the King at Buckingham Palace , clad only in his loincloth and sandals. When reporters asked if he was under-dressed, the Mahatma retorted: 'I believe His Majesty was wearing enough for both of us.'
One American studio intimated it would back the film if Richard Burton played Gandhi because he was 'sexy'
All this came back to me 30 years later while I sat facing a man named Moti Kothari at the Waldorf in London as he earnestly explained his idea for a film to me. What I remembered with the greatest clarity was how the people around my father and me in the cinema had sniggered during the newsreel, and the Governor saying: 'They don't understand. Gandhi is extraordinary. He is truly a remarkable man.'
That was good enough for me. And so I acceded to Kothari's initial request that I should read a biography of Gandhi.
I didn't know Kothari at all. He had rung me out of the blue after getting my number from a mutual friend. He was very insistent and despite some misgivings, I agreed to meet him.
A grave, middle-aged Indian, he was a dedicated follower of Gandhi who had left India in disgust following the Mahatma's assassination in January
1948. Now he felt he had a mission to disseminate the story of his life.
His assertion that I was the person to make such a film took me by surprise. A screen actor since 1942, I had been fortunate enough to achieve star billing and all the trappings of celebrity. But I'd found myself typecast as the cheeky Cockney in stories which seemed to lack any real artistry or substance.
In an effort to achieve something worthwhile, I'd recently become an independent producer, but, at the time of my meeting with Mr Kothari, I could lay claim to only two low-budget films with a third in production. I certainly hadn't directed anything.
I began reading the biography and less than a tenth of the way through something knocked me for six. The young Gandhi, then a newly qualified lawyer practising in South Africa , was walking along a pavement with a friend when two white men approached from the opposite direction.
Gandhi's friend pulled him into the gutter to let the lordly pair pass unimpeded, as was customary at the time. After they'd gone Gandhi said calmly to his companion: 'It has always been a mystery to me that men should feel themselves honoured by the humiliation of their fellow human beings.'
I was thunderstruck. He was then in his early 20s and, for me, this observation demonstrated a perception far beyond his years - one that was, indeed, as the Governor had said, truly remarkable.
I rang Mr Kothari to ask if his project had any backers. 'Money,' I said. 'Have you got any money to make the film?'
He sounded bewildered. 'No, Mr Attenborough, I don't have any money.'
I took a deep breath and told him I would assemble the funding because I was determined this film would be made. What was more, I would direct it myself.
This was totally insane. Why would anyone in their right mind entrust the direction of a major production, set in a faraway land and no doubt costing a fortune, to an actor totally devoid of any relevant experience?
Award-winner: Richard Attenborough on the set of Gandhi
The only person who supported me in this patently absurd ambition was my wife, Sheila. She said if this was something I really cared about, then I shouldn't let anything or anyone put me off.
What neither of us realised was that the filming of Gandhi would impact on every aspect of our lives and those of our three young children for years to come. At that time, we owned our Queen Anne house in Richmond outright.
I had a Rolls with a personalised number-plate and Sheila had a Jag. We had the beginnings of an art collection. We had a nanny and a chauffeur. Bills came in and they were paid. All this, with one phone call, I was placing in jeopardy.
In the years that followed, bills weren't paid on time, and I was often absent from home, either trying to raise money or doing lucrative acting jobs in distant places, just to keep the project afloat.
At one point, I sold three paintings by Stanley Spencer, my pride and joy, for a pittance to tide us over.
From the start, I knew I would face enormous problems with the sheer logistics of the epic story I intended to tell. In India , I would need the co-operation of the government, the armed forces, police, railways and, above all, the huge and lumbering bureaucracy that we, the British, had left behind.
But I had contacts. I knew Earl Mountbatten of Burma , the last British viceroy in India , because my first film, In Which We Serve, was based on his wartime naval exploits. He put my idea to the present prime minister, Pandit Nehru, who gave approval in principle for the project. So I flew to Delhi to meet him.
Nehru was a revelation. In his office he produced an album of snapshots, his collection recording India 's long march to independence, and we got down on our hands and knees to pore over them.
Throughout he referred to Gandhi as Bapu, which, he told me was the respectful Hindi word for father. Here was a snap of Bapu spinning cotton at his ashram. There was another with the young Nehru himself, laughing together like naughty schoolboys. The prime minister told me priceless anecdotes. I was elated.
I paid Nehru a second visit months later, and he made two observations. The first concerned the problem of finding an actor to play Gandhi. I needed a trained professional, not just a lookalike.
The prime minister's own surprising choice was Alec Guinness, which took me aback because Alec was English.
'The nationality is unimportant,' Nehru declared. 'All that matters is that he should be very good. Besides, the idea of being portrayed by an Englishman would have made Bapu laugh a great deal.'
His second observation was the only injunction he ever issued: 'Richard, do not turn him into a deity; he was too great a man to be deified.'
But after this encouraging start came years of frustration. Four billionaire brothers, a maharaja and a maverick movie-mogul would let me down. And over and over again, Hollywood refused to invest a cent in my epic project.
The breakthrough came when Indira Gandhi, Nehru's daughter, was re-elected as India 's prime minister, and provided unstinting support. Not only would her government put up a third of the funding, but she miraculously opened doors that had previously been shut.
I couldn't count the number of times I'd flown out to India, totally broke, or the endless humiliating hours I'd waited in the stifling corridors of ministerial buildings, seeking permission to film in various places only to get bogged down in layer upon layer of bureaucracy.
But now there would be no more standing in corridors. I had an official letter confirming that I could call on the unpaid collaboration of all three armed services in India , the police and the entire railway network.
Although there was still more money to be raised, at last I could get under way. We made final decisions about location sites, built sets, amassed costumes and embarked on the thousand-and-one negotiations that would set the whole production in motion.
At this stage, I had no leading actor. Alec Guinness had long ago rejected the part of Gandhi, saying he was 'too grey-eyed, too heavy and just plain too old'.
Other stars had been approached or suggested. One American studio had intimated they might be prepared to back me if I cast Richard Burton because he was sexy - an idea so idiotic it was not worth further thought.
My own first choice had been Anthony Hopkins, who was really keen and even checked into a health farm, losing a couple of stone before concluding it would be physically impossible. Over the years, Dirk Bogarde, Peter Finch, Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay all excluded themselves for the same reason.
Finally, I approached John Hurt, who had just received rave reviews for The Elephant Man. He was interested but again doubted he could look convincing as Gandhi. So we agreed on a full makeup and wardrobe test.
I was in the process of setting this up when my theatre-director son Mike remembered a young actor who'd been a magical Hamlet some years ago at Stratford . His professional name was Ben Kingsley.
I went to see him in a play and thought him absolutely wonderful. I went backstage to ask if he would test on the same day as John Hurt. Ben, 36 at the time, believed my sudden appearance had some kind of mystical synergy because, only days earlier, his wife had bought him a biography of Gandhi which he'd just started to read.
It was only then I learned his name was originally Krishna Bhanji. He was the son of an English mother and an Asian GP; his father's side of the family had come from Gujarat - Mahatma Gandhi's birthplace.
As Ben Kingsley, he had worked his way up the ladder of the Royal Shakespeare Company from spear-carrier to leading man. However, his screen experience was limited to a few brief appearances in Coronation Street and one small part in a film.
We screen-tested John and Ben, with full body and facial make-up and clad only in the dhoti, a loincloth of white homespun cotton draped from waist to knee. After I'd seen the rushes, I invited John to view his test.
'Oh, Christ,' he said after a moment, 'I look like a bloody front-row forward.'
Then together we looked at Ben's test. Suddenly, here was a lithe Indian man, totally at home in his skin, who seemed to have worn a dhoti all his life. And he radiated a charisma that you instantly believed could bind millions to his cause.
It was John who spoke first. 'Dickie, my dear, you've found your Mahatma. Best of luck to you both.'
We began shooting in 1980, 18 years after that first meeting with Moti Kothari in the Waldorf. Kothari was sadly dead by then, but in tribute to him a Hindu priest blessed the camera. Then we set to work. The biggest scene we had to prepare was the reenactment of the assassinated Gandhi's huge funeral procession through Delhi , which we planned to film on the 33rd anniversary of the actual event.
Richard was inspired by his father, the Governor, in the Gandhi film
We researched everything meticulously. We even knew the exact number of uniformed guards lining the route.
What couldn't be counted were the people who'd packed Rajpath, the ceremonial avenue in Delhi , to pay their last respects. In the old newsreels we watched, they'd stretched as far as the eye could see. And somehow, long before the advent of computer-generated imagery, we had to recruit a similar mass of citizens, making sure no one was dressed inappropriately.
Rehearsals were held on a disused airfield. I mapped out in great detail each of the shots we needed.
We would get one chance at this. It would all have to be done during a single mile-long journey. Eleven separate camera crews would be needed.
We recruited 25,000 'front-line' extras, all of whom had to be rehearsed and costumed - and paid in cash. But there then remained the problem of attracting the mass of people required for the background.
That was why we chose to film on the anniversary, in the hope that this might bring out enormous crowds anyway. But, just in case, we also laid on trucks to bring in thousands more from the surrounding countryside.
On the evening before, we held a briefing for the camera units. I told them we had no idea how big tomorrow's unpaid crowd would be. It might only be a few hundred or as many as a quarter of a million.
Whatever the numbers, we only had permission to film for one morning, so we had to press on and do the best we could.
Work started at 3am. By sunrise, the actors in the procession were dressed, made-up and gradually moving into their allotted positions. And I was glad to see a tide of local people beginning to pour through the entry points, where wardrobe assistants were handing out suitable clothing to cover anything too modern.
For the master shot, I was with the crew of a remote-controlled camera positioned on top of a crane, which was to rise from the catafalque in one smooth movement, pulling back and back to take in the thousandstrong cortege, the troops, the horses, the honour guard, the massed crowd, and the domes and minarets of India 's seat of government.
Everything was finally in position and the whole area jam-packed with people as far as the eye could see. Watching what was being filmed on a monitor, I gave the signal. 'Action!' yelled the first assistant through his megaphone, and the procession began.
My excitement mounted with the crane arm. So far, the shot was perfect. But as the camera soared past the branches of a tree, a little Indian boy turned, looked directly into the lens and stuck out his tongue.
There was no time to reflect on this, no possibility of repeating the ruined shot. With only three hours remaining, we had to press on.
And we did, filming the procession for a few minutes from one position, stopping, racing to new positions and starting again.
It was clear at the planning stage that I couldn't direct this sequence from a distance. I had to be in the thick of it.
This is why a portly British general with overlong, white hair and horn-rimmed glasses makes a fleeting appearance in the finished film, walking backwards behind the bier.
Then suddenly, I realised the dummy representing the dead Mahatma lying there would not pass muster in close-up.
An urgent message was sent to Ben, the one actor who hadn't been needed and who'd been given the day off.
He arrived in the nick of time, taking the place of the dummy for our final shot, and lay exposed and motionless.
And then it was all over. We were inundated with calls from newspapers wanting to know how many people had turned up. We asked the police, who'd manned the entry points, and the figure they gave was 400,000 - the biggest crowd scene in film history.
I was back in my hotel room when a shaken Ben came to see me. On his return from the set, he'd been handed an anonymous letter, delivered that morning before we began filming.
It contained a threat to shoot him dead if he dared to lie on Mahatma Gandhi's bier.
This isn't b****y Tinkerbell!
Diana Hawkins, Attenborough's business partner, writes:
In an attempt to dispel widespread misconceptions about the film, Dick held a press conference in Delhi before we started shooting. The Indian Fourth Estate proved very lively - and the questions, though courteous, were all wide of the mark. Everyone, it seemed, had their own idea of what this film was really about.
The project was a political and religious football - and it was getting kicked all over the place.
I could sense Dick's frustration. Although a heroically patient man, there have been times in his life when the extreme pressures he places on himself make him go so red that he looks as if he's going to have a heart attack. I call these incidents the 'poppy-eyed screamers'.
As the news conference wore on, I could see the red tide rising in his face. One young journalist asked if he was willing to confirm that Ben Kingsley made his screen debut in a pornographic film. This was met with an uncharacteristically terse denial.
Then a middle-aged woman at the back of the room asked how we intended to show the Mahatma on screen. Dick relaxed as he enthused about Ben, the acclaimed actor whose meticulous research had included studying Gandhi's voice and gait in old newsreels.
The woman was unimpressed. This was sacrilege, she said. Richard needed to be aware that Gandhi was a deity in this country, not a mere mortal to be caricatured from newsreels. Dick said he was sorry she felt like this. How would she have him portray the Mahatma? 'Not at all. But if you must. .. as a moving light.' At this, Dick's patience finally snapped. 'Madam,' he riposted, 'I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell!'
• Abridged extract from Entirely Up To You, Darling by Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins, published by Hutchinson , released today at £20. © 2008, Richard Attenborough and Diana Hawkins. To order a copy for £18 (p&p free), call 0845 155 0720
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center , 325 E. 25th St. , Baltimore , MD 21218 . Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs