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How Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi brought out Indian talent to the world

Released 35 years ago, Gandhi featured Indian artistes like Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth, Saeed Jaffrey, Alyque Padamsee, Amrish Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Shreeram Lagoo, Supriya Pathak, Neena Gupta, Tom Alter, Dalip Tahil, Alok Nath and Mohan Agashe.

Ben Kingsley and Rohini Hattangadi in Gandhi (1982)

Sonal Pandya

Richard Attenborough’s epic historical film, Gandhi (1982), on the life of Mohandas K Gandhi a.k.a. Mahatma Gandhi, has remained one of the foremost cinema biopics. Shot extensively in India, even at real locations, it employed thousands of extras in its production. The film was co-produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC).

Gandhi was shot on glorious 70mm and won eight Academy Awards, including Best Director and Best Film. It had a grand premiere on 30 November 1982 in New Delhi and released around the world in December 1982.

By April 1983, it became the most popular foreign film at the Indian box office, especially at cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai and New Delhi, showing that international films could bring in audiences just as domestic films did. The film's success in India was largely due to its Indian cast and that the film was tax-free in Delhi and Mumbai. It grossed over Rs100 crore at the time.

For the first time, Indian artistes were hired to lead both behind-the-scenes and also in front of the camera. While the role of Mahatma Gandhi went to Ben Kingsley, a British man of Indian-origin, a majority of other roles were enacted by Indian actors and actresses.

Interestingly, Naseeruddin Shah and British actor John Hurt were also considered for Gandhi's role, but it was destiny that Kingsley, who had acted in previous Royal Shakespeare Company productions, was cast.

Rohini Hattangadi played Gandhi’s wife, Kasturba, beating out actresses like Smita Patil and Bhakti Barve for the part. Roshan Seth (as Jawaharlal Nehru), Saeed Jaffrey (as Sardar Patel), Alyque Padamsee (as Mohammad Ali Jinnah), Amrish Puri, Pankaj Kapur, Shreeram Lagoo, Supriya Pathak, Neena Gupta, Tom Alter, Dalip Tahil, Alok Nath and Mohan Agashe were also cast in the film, playing major to minor roles.

Hattangadi was an actress in Marathi theatre before she was cast in the pivotal role. The film showed the life of Kasturba from age 27 to 74. Hattangadi lost eight kilos and did a screen test with Kingsley in London before she was finalised by Attenborough.

Dolly Thakore helped Attenborough with the casting of around 430 speaking parts in the film. She auditioned hundreds of hopefuls from across India – from the National School of Drama to small theatre troupes — as the director wanted his actors to have theatre experience.

Filmmaker Kamal Swaroop was the assistant director, Govind Nihalani was the second unit director and cameraman, while John Mathew Matthan was the first assistant director.

Bhanu Athaiya became the first Indian to win an Academy Award with her trophy for Best Costume Design for Gandhi. She shared the honour with John Mollo.

Rohini Hattangadi picked up the BAFTA Award for Best Actress in Supporting Role, beating out her co-star Candice Bergen who played photographer Margaret Bourke-White, but sharing the award in a tie with Maureen Stapleton for Reds (1982). Hattangadi, too, became the first Indian to win a BAFTA. Roshan Seth was nominated for Best Actor in Supporting Role but lost to Jack Nicholson for his performance in Reds.

Through Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film, the Indian artistes received international exposure with their performances. Some like Amrish Puri and Om Puri used the platform to continue acting in other Hollywood productions.

Amrish was cast as the villain Mola Ram in Steven Spielberg's Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), while Om became a familiar face for international audiences with the 1984 television series, The Jewel in the Crown and with films like City Of Joy (1992), My Son The Fanatic (1997), East Is East (1999) and The Hundred-Foot Journey (2014).

Still from Gandhi (1982)

Today, many Indian actors have broken through internationally.

Irrfran Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Anupam Kher, Nimrat Kaur have all been working in global television and film productions since the last couple of years. Films like The Namesake (2006), Slumdog Millionaire (2008), The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) and Lion (2016) have been set in India and have performed well at the box office too. They also boast of having Indian artistes in key roles. But it all began in earnest with Richard Attenborough’s labour of love, Gandhi.