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PIFF 2019: I asked Attenborough about the absence of Bose before signing Gandhi, recalls Govind Nihalani

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The second unit director on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi discussed at the 17th Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) his experience of working on the acclaimed film.

Suparna Thombare

The Pune International Film Festival's Forum was kick-started on 11 January with a panel discussion with actress Rohini Hattangadi and filmmaker Govind Nihalani about their craft and work in Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982), a film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi.

The theme for this year's PIFF is 'In Search of Truth', to celebrate the 150th birth anniversary year of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was nominated for the Academy Awards in 11 categories. It won eight awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Attenborough, and Best Actor for Ben Kingsley.

Remembering the audition process for the film, Hattangadi, who played Kasturba Gandhi in the film, said, "To be very frank, I didn't know the magnitude of Gandhi when I was chosen. I was under the impression that I have to play this character from young [age to old], from 27 to 74. And I was excited since it was just my fourth film.

"The other two actress [vying for the role] were really well-known and good actresses — Bhakti Barve and Smita Patil. But according to Sir Attenborough — I used to call him that — I was the nearest looking or closest to the role, so he decided to cast me."

Hattangadi went on to win the BAFTA for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, becoming the only Indian actress to receive a BAFTA.

Nihalani, who was the second unit director on Gandhi and also filled in for the British director of photography for a few days when he fell ill, said he was lucky to have got the chance to work on Gandhi after directing just one film, Aakrosh (1980).

"Gandhi was a stroke of luck for me," the veteran filmmaker said. "I got to work on it when I had just done one film, Aakrosh. Richard Attenborough, since it was a co-production between UK and India, wanted Indian technicians to work on the film. Attenborough wanted to see the work of directors they had considered. They watched Aakrosh."

After watching the film, they called Nihalani for an interview. "The person who supported me and liked my work was the DoP of Gandhi, Ronnie Taylor. He mentioned a scene where he liked the photography and the lighting. I was really surprised because for me that scene was nothing special," he said.

"I guess they got the look and feel that they were looking for in Gandhi," he added.

Nihalani's involvement with Gandhi was in stark contrast with the films that he made. Nihalani's films have always depicted violence. Gandhi, on the other hand, followed the milestone events in the life of the Mahatma and his philosophy of non-violence.

Nihalani said he was first given the script and asked to go through it, before deciding if he wanted to be a part of the film.

After reading the script Nihalani asked to meet Attenborough before making his decision.

"I asked him something. I said, 'Sir your script is fine. But how come in the entire film about the independence of India, there is no Subhas Chandra Bose? Your script does not even mention him.' He said, 'I understand, you are right'.

"He said that while writing the script we realized that Subhas Chandra Bose was such a powerful personality that if we took him then we'll have to make an entire film on Bose. He can't be a secondary person," said Nihalani.

"So they put their entire focus on the philosophy of the non-violence movement by Gandhi," he said.

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Pune International Film Festival