Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi presents a realistic and mostly chronological account of the Indian political activist’s life. The film “Gandhi” begins at the end, however, and shows Gandhi being shot by an assassin at a public event. This is followed by a scene with thousands of mourners, making it clear that when Gandhi died it was a national tragedy. Following this introductory scene the film goes back in time and shows Gandhi as a young attorney in South Africa. He is riding on a train and although he possesses a first-class ticket he is ordered to go to third-class because of his status as a minority. He refuses and is thrown off the train. This is the first in a series of non-violent attempts at protest Gandhi makes throughout the film. After this, Gandhi is even more inspired to create equality and bring an end to racial oppression. After having some success in South Africa bringing about change he returns to India where he is greeted as a national hero. He attempts to bring the same kind of change to the people there but meets a number of challenges as the British authority tries to prevent him and his followers from creating a more equal society.
In the film, Gandhi is repeatedly jailed and grows increasingly frustrated as violence on both sides escalates. He eventually goes on a hunger strike after a brutal mass murder of peaceful Indian protestors and does again after witnessing the struggles between the Hindus and Muslims. This is one of the most intense scenes in the field as the director chose to show almost five full minutes of Indian civilians, many of them Indian women and children, being gunned down by a firing squad comprised of what appears to be Chinese or East Asian mercenary troops. The brutality of this scene in “Gandhi” is even further revealed when the lieutenant in charge of the act coldly defends his decision to fire and keep firing until over one thousand people were dead. Gandhi’s reaction is one of great sorrow and this event marks a turning point in the film. Although Gandhi achieves many of his aims at the end of the film, the India he imagined is still not quite present. While this film is not thematically driven since it is more of a visual biography, it does appear to want to reveal the extent to which the British were oppressive and unwilling to let go of their empire. It also tries to show how non-violent means, especially if they are enacted by a large number of people, can be effective. In general, the film seeks to present not just the life of the man but also attempts to reveal a great deal about the political history of late colonial India and the struggles therein.
Although the majority of Gandhi takes place in India, the beginning of the film is set in South Africa and there is brief interlude in London. It seems as though the South African and Indian landscapes are similar and perhaps the director chose to film them both in India (where, according to the credits, the film was shot). Both of these locations in “Gandhi” were depicted realistically with the appropriate buildings, architectural features, landscapes, and climate. The few scenes in London were written as to be suitable to be filmed on a sound stage since they took place inside of buildings and in front of a factory but these too were very realistic. The film takes place between the years 1898 and 1947, thus it covers quite a long span. The props were all suited to the time period, particularly the clothing and transportation. For example, for the early scenes in South Africa and rural India, rickshaws and other horse-driven transportation devices were used.
Not only were these historically correct but they all looked very antique, almost as though they were the real thing rather than props. Other props in “Gandhi” were historically accurate as well and changed as time went on. For example, the camera used by Martin Sheen’s character in the beginning of the film was quite old-fashioned and complicated compared to the one used later by Candace Berman’s character as she interviews Gandhi at the end of his life. In addition, the clothing was another central feature that gave definition to the diverse time period. This was difficult to see in the clothes of the Indians but with the British and other Westerners, it was easy to see great changes in attire from the beginning to the end of the film. Accordingly, the hairstyles and accessories changed too, which was especially apparent with Martin Sheen’s character who at first looks like a 1920s gumshoe reporter with slicked hair but in the end, later in life and in the late 1940s looks more like a man of his time in terms of style, not just because they added grey to his hair. It was difficult to find any props that did not work as this film put great emphasis on depicting history rather than simply telling a story to entertain an audience.
In Gandhi, clothing is a central issue, but not necessarily in terms of an American sense of popular culture, rather in terms of what clothing meant to the people of the time. It is significant that Gandhi puts great emphasis on clothing because he realizes its symbolic importance under colonial rule. At the beginning of the film when the viewer first sees him, Gandhi is dressed just like an ordinary Englishman. He has a high collar and suit that was fashionable and meant one was well-to-do at the turn of the century and also indicated that he was a man of importance. Unfortunately, this does not aid him on the train because of the color of his skin. As the film goes on, however, and Gandhi rejects the English style of dress, he is effectively rebelling against the popular culture of his time. By shedding the Western attire he was used to in favor of “homespun” and native garb, Gandhi is shedding the assumption that to be successful he has to look just like a white English man. In terms of popular culture during this time period presented, this was a revolutionary thing to do, especially since the way he dressed was the only way to signify his class and education to others. More generally, clothing is also important in terms of popular culture in this film because it says so much about the social standing of its wearer. For instance, even in scenes in “Gandhi” that show many groups of people, without thinking it is clear what the class of the people is. The crowds that line up to see Gandhi are often wearing rags and look tattered and do not have the sophisticated and elaborate wrappings and silks other Indians do. Conversely, those who have more clothing on and in brighter colors are richer.
The English people that are in the government are the most conspicuously dressed and wear very formal attire at all times, including stiff suits. All of these examples of clothing in the film are meant to signify important information about the society presented and thus clothing, especially in this film, is a very meaningful social statement. One of the more interesting examples of the mutable popular culture meaning of clothing in the film is when the daughter of a prominent British man, Miss Slade, comes to be with Gandhi. She has rejected the culturally appropriate garb of her father and country and has instead wrapped herself in cloth native to India. Through clothing alone she is making a very powerful social and political statement, just as Gandhi and his followers do when they use only their own cloth and in very simple ways. Through the example of Miss Slade it is also apparent that clothing can help people belong to or reject cultural groups. This, coupled with the fact that the cloth itself is something of political value, makes clothing a very meaningful theme in the film.