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The ‘general’ who made Gandhi

- BACK TO A LAST JOURNEY WITH RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH
Richard Attenborough dances atop a steam train on location for Gandhi. Attenborough brought the film to fruition after a 20-year battle to raise money and interest often reluctant Hollywood producers, one of whom famously predicted that there would be no audience for “a little brown man in a sheet carrying a beanstalk”. Attenborough ended up producing it himself. Attenborough mortgaged his house in a London suburb, sold works of art and, as he put it, spent “so much money I couldn’t pay the gas bill”. The film had 430 speaking parts. No one expected it to recoup its $22 million cost, but it wound up earning 20 times that amount, according to The New York Times. Picture courtesy: BFI

KINGSWAY. NEW DELHI. EXTERIOR. DAY.

Close shot. Soldiers’ feet moving in the slow step, half-step, step of the requiem march….

Full shot. The huge funeral procession — crowds such as have never been seen on the screen massed along the route. People everywhere, clinging to monuments, lamp standards, trees — and as the camera pulls back from the funeral cortege it reveals more and more… and more. All are silent. We only hear a strange, rhythmic shuffling, pierced by an occasional wail of grief….

And finally we see Gandhi lying on the weapon-carrier, surrounded by flowers, a tiny figure in this ocean of grief and reverence.

*******************************

THE RIVER. EXTERIOR. DAY.

A helicopter shot coming slowly up the wide river, low, toward a barge and a mass of people in the distance….

From the screenplay of Gandhi by John Briley

What the screenplay did not mention was the fleeting appearance of a “portly British general with overlong, white hair and horn-rimmed glasses”.

In his own words, Richard Attenborough was “walking backwards behind the bier”, directing one of the most difficult crowd scenes ever filmed.

Attenborough died yesterday, just days before his 91st birthday. It is difficult to know where to begin the story of his life. Gandhi’s last journey in Gandhi, the film that took eight Oscars and probably defines Attenborough, as it does Ben Kingsley whom he cast as the Mahatma, may be one starting point.

The funeral scene, which used around three lakh “extras” and is unlikely to be repeated in the age of special effects, was shot in January 1981 — in fact some scenes were filmed on the actual death anniversary of Gandhi. The scenes unfold soon after the monumental movie begins and towards the end.

Mumbai-based Suresh Jindal, the associate producer of Gandhi, recalled on Monday: “The funeral scene was a logistical nightmare. We didn’t know how to get so many people together for one scene. We gave advertisements through radio and TV and it was amazing that around three lakh people turned up. Around 40,000 people were part of the cortege while the others formed the crowds at India Gate.”

“Our research couldn’t tell us how many people there were at Rajghat at the time. We knew that there were thousands. We paid up to 40,000 people in cash that day, but the unpaid ones just turned up for the shoot,” Jindal added.

In his book, Entirely Up To You, Darling, written with Diana Hawkins, his business partner, in 2008, Attenborough refers to his special appearance in the film. “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.”

For those who were watching the shoot, the enormity of the experience still lingers. “It was on such a large scale, yet there was no glitch. Richard was there on the ground marshalling his troops, and it was a miracle that all went so well,” said Dolly Thakore, one of the casting directors for the film.

One thing that was easily available to them was the permission to use Rajghat to shoot the scene. “Once Mrs Indira Gandhi was on board, all our permissions came easy,” recalled Thakore.

Govind Nihalani, now an acclaimed director, was the second unit director and one of the nine cameramen who shot the funeral sequence.

“He wanted military-like precision and all of us were called a day ahead for a meeting and all camera angles were finalised in advance. We shot on January 26 as we knew big crowds would come in at India Gate. We positioned three cameras on top of India Gate and the rest were on the ground. Once we shot the Republic Day Parade, we locked and covered the cameras. Then we started shooting again on January 30, the day Gandhi was assassinated, because we were sure to get huge crowds to see the procession. We did,” said Nihalani.

Jindal recalled the crew had just one morning’s permission to shoot the scene. “There was only one chance. With no special-effects technology at our disposal, we had to manage so many people by sheer planning. We knew we could not manage so many people again.”

Deft post-production work also played a role. “We removed the parade on the road from the January 26 shots but kept the crowds on both sides to act as background. Then we added the shots of the funeral procession from the January 30 shots on the road, giving us the complete scene,” Nihalani said.

The shot, Nihalani added, was an “awesome experience without any glitches”.

However, some glitches didn’t escape Attenborough’s eyes.

In his book, Attenborough remembered spotting “a little Indian boy” who “turned, looked directly into the lens and stuck out his tongue”, while the funeral procession was being shot.

But the man who thought his work was over when Gandhi breathed his last in the film was proved wrong.

“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 (Kingsley, who played Gandhi), 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,” Attenborough wrote.


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