“Gandhi” (1982)

A classic, with Ben Kingsley and Martin Sheen. Originally released in 1982 to industry acclaim, it resulted in an Oscar for Kingsley and director Richard Attenborough. Here is a quick trailer;

*From my Spring 2009 in-class review

The Gandhi film, which features an Academy Award winning performance for Ben Kingsley, was a feat in itself to watch. I saw many parallels between what I saw onscreen and what we read in some of the chapters of the textbook. The concepts most clearly presented were those of satyagraha and ahimsa (soul force and nonviolent love, respectively, which I treat as one in this analysis), but also swaraj (Sanskrit for national self-sufficiency). I also will examine how power was exercised in the imperialism of Great Britain and how structural violence can be found in India’s early relationship with the superpower. Finally, I found Gandhi himself engaging in crisis decision making, which we also covered in the text.

The first concepts I will explore are certainly the most easily digested. Gandhi distilled in great detail the power of nonviolent love, or ahimsa, and its part in the organic systems of the world. He believed that this reality was apparent in things such as nature, saying it was “as old as the hills,” but also inherent in human interactions with one another. The right relationship with another is to be in a state of such nonviolence. When that state is threatened, it is through the power of a deep-rooted ‘soul force,’ or satyagraha, within each man and woman that would properly quell the turbulence of poor behavior on the part of some. He displayed his deep faith in this force throughout the movie, each time he refused to likewise return violent force with the same. Repeatedly, he was beaten physically as well as morally tested, but he remained true to his own soul force, inviting the Other to become one with him through a stubborn refusal to treat them in the way the world expected of him, which was to use violence.

Much of Gandhi’s patriotism stemmed from his understanding that India could and should be self sufficient. The Sanskrit word for this is swaraj, and is mentioned in the textbook on page 459. Gandhi had numerous conversations with national leaders, both British and Indian, in which he described India’s incredible determination and will for self-determination. He felt that things like salt and textiles could find a return for the Indians on a global market if only they would take initiative and remove themselves from under the dominion of the British. He refers to this as non-cooperation, the removal of consent of the masses to be governed illegitimately by an alien power. He reminded British leaders in both South Africa (Smuts) and India (Lord Irwin) that they tentatively held power only so long as Indians, who outnumbered the British, granted it.

The noncooperation of Gandhi’s satyagrahi was in direct response to Britain’s inherent structural violence. We saw this in the scene where the Mahatma meets with local indigo farmers, who were effectively forced to grow cash crops instead of food. Such demands led to poverty and starvation. Worse, there were no legal protections for such farmers; their lot in life was even reinforced by certain tariffs and taxes that prevented them from growing much of anything outside of market demand, dictated thousands of miles away in Great Britain. Another form of violence found itself manifested in laws governing marriage. The British refused to solemnize anything but Christian marriages, meaning no Hindu or Muslim unions were recognized as legal. This criminalized many families, exposing them to harsh repercussions and reprisals. Gandhi lobbied for something quite profound in the face of such horrible social and economic demands. Instead of lashing out or returning evil with evil, he advocated a complete removal from the existing violent systems. Instead of giving India’s salt away for peanuts, they would (though symbolically) collect and refine it themselves. This effectively created a parallel and non-dependent economic system. The satyagrahi successfully stepped outside what MLK would later describe as the “descending spiral of violence,” creating instead a self-sustaining, upward looking system of self rule, taking the economic rug right out from under the Viceroy’s feet.

Finally, I sensed in Gandhi at least a bit of crisis decision making, which was outlined from pages 175-177 in the text. In the movie, during the scene at the beginning of the Salt march, the reporter poses a very serious question; “what if there is no response?” At first this is the case, but soon the symbolism of the action takes root and Gandhi is vindicated. However, I did sense a bit of hesitation and doubt, but in civil disobedience, there is no shortage of that. Even near the end of the movie, when their independence is assured, Gandhi still struggles to retain cohesion within his inner circle. Short term benefits are weighed against long term effects, personal stresses of all the parties weighed heavily on each, and some of the simmering ethnic nuances could not be overlooked or underplayed (which I personally thought was foreshadowed superbly in the movie). Gandhi, in the end, could not retain composure of the group. Dynamics and tensions overpowered his supreme patience and fortitude. As any great leader, he had his defeats, no matter how critically decisions were considered.

Throughout the movie, I was impressed with how well they followed the storyline of Gandhi’s life (and at a hefty three hours, they left out less than other biographical feature films). The list of concepts found both in the movie and the textbook could easily go on. Dependency theory could be explored in light of India’s relationship with Britain, I could look at terrorism from below and its effect on the civil disobedience of Gandhi, or one could consider the inevitability of violent conflict in our world, etc. No list would be complete, but each would be invaluable in its offering to our core concepts. I focused on much of Gandhi’s nonviolence (mostly chapter 21) because of my deep respect for his moral certitude and physical perseverance. It was difficult to pry my attention away from many other concepts that he pioneered, at least for our modert era. His most compelling contribution, in my mind, is his simple insistence that nonviolence is indeed as old as creation. It calls to something deep within me that summons echoes of the diversity and harmony of nature and its Creator. At the risk of usurping Gandhi’s religious foundations (or perhaps honoring his insistence that each must remain faithful to their own), I am forced to wonder if he has not displayed more moral clairvoyance than any Christian has ever legitimately been able to lay claim. I wonder if he has been the greatest follower of Jesus of Nazareth to which our common era has been witness.

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