London, Aug. 25: Richard Attenborough, who died yesterday aged 90, did so much in a long career as an actor and director and was such an all-round good egg that is difficult to know where to begin the story of his life. But Saeed Jaffrey probably summed it up most eloquently for The Telegraph: “He loved India.”
Saeed played Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel in Gandhi, a film that took eight Oscars and probably defines Attenborough, as it does Ben Kingsley whom he cast as the Mahatma.
“He has put Gandhi and India on the world map — a lovely man,” mused Saeed.
Kingsley, who won an Oscar for best actor for his portrayal of Gandhi, issued a brief statement: “He placed in me an absolute trust and, in turn, I placed an absolute trust in him and grew to love him. I, along with millions of others whom he touched through his life and work, will miss him dearly.”
Speaking from his home in the Cotswold, Saeed said: “Dickie was a Virgo — which means he was a perfectionist.”
He explained: “He was a gardening director — he knew how much water and sunlight to give each actor and then he left you alone. The best directors are those who have been actors themselves. He said to Ben Kingsley, ‘Ben darling, it doesn’t matter if it’s the 13th take or the 14th or the 15th. I won’t say ‘Cut’ until you are satisfied and I am satisfied’.”
Saeed’s wife Jennifer revealed that it was her husband who introduced Attenborough to Satyajit Ray, who cast both in his 1977 film Shatranj ke Khilari (The Chess Players).
By and by, Attenborough became almost a spokesman for India.
In 1998 —he had by then become Lord Attenborough of Richmond upon Thames — he gathered many of the cast members of Gandhi at St Martin’s-in-the-Field, a church in London’s Trafalgar Square, to mark the 50th anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination.
Making Gandhi was itself a labour of love. It took him 20 years to raise the money.
When he went to Hollywood, the money men were baffled: “You wanna make a film about an old man who walks around a lot making salt? So what’s the story?”
In India the project was cleared by Indira Gandhi, which is probably why he could get 500,000 “extras” for Gandhi’s funeral scene, according to Shama Habibullah, who was his product manager during the entire shoot. The film was a co-production with India’s National Film Development Corporation.
“We were wondering how we should commemorate him,” said Shama, whose brother is the film director Waris Hussein.
“The film changed my life and that of many of us who worked with him. I had lunch with Dickie (Attenborough) four years ago in London — he was still talking of making films and coming to India. He cared deeply for social causes, things like leprosy, and he was held in great affection. Don’t forget that he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in India.”
Shama added: “He gave us such loyalty and trust, and was so passionate about his vision that it really shaped the way we all continued in our endeavours in films and otherwise with a greater sense of purpose.
“The film itself, of course, lives on in India. It has been shown on almost every Republic Day ever since it was made, so whole generations in India know of Gandhi through Richard’s mind and heart.”
Ashok Amritraj is today a big name in Hollywood as a movie mogul but in 1983 he was just starting to make his way in Los Angeles.
Amritraj landed in London this morning to learn of Attenborough’s passing. When Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars in 2009, Amritraj’s mind went back to another night in 1983.
“Going to the Oscars for the first time, I saw Gandhi win the eight awards and my heart swelled with pride for being Indian,” Amritraj said today.
“I’ve spent a few pages in my book (Advantage Hollywood) on Dickie — he was a great inspiration.”
He also remembered: “The first set I went to was the first day of the Gandhi shoot; Dickie could not have been nicer in the midst of all the chaos.”
Amritraj added: “Dickie’s and my path crossed a few times over the last three decades. He always had such style and elegance with that great touch of fatherly sweetness. His extraordinary body of films is only surpassed by the respect of his peers. It is indeed a sad day!”
Martin Sheen, who played a sympathetic American reporter in Gandhi, takes this view of the man who won the best director Oscar for Gandhi: “The new generations of Indians had an opportunity to learn about Gandhi in a way they may not have been able to do before — in one way because it was done by an Englishman.”
“He (Attenborough) gave India an image that the whole world embraced about Gandhi and his mission of non-violence,” Sheen said.
“That same man was very instrumental in changing the lives of some of our leaders, specifically Martin Luther King Jr who had a profound effect on my nation as well.”
There were many tributes today to Attenborough, who was a Labour peer and involved himself in many aspects of the film industry.
Steven Spielberg, the Hollywood director who cast Attenborough as a slightly mad scientist in Jurassic Park, commented: “He made a gift to the world with his emotional epic Gandhi and he was the perfect ringmaster to bring the dinosaurs back to life as John Hammond in Jurassic Park.”
Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted: “His acting in Brighton Rock was brilliant, his directing of Gandhi was stunning — Richard Attenborough was one of the greats of cinema.”
A backhanded compliment was paid to Attenborough recently by the Daily Mail, which disapproves of the Gandhi statue planned for Parliament Square opposite the Commons.
It ran a vitriolic article by freelance commentator Stephen Glover, who complained: “Thanks largely to Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning film about him, Mahatma Gandhi is widely regarded in this country as an inspiration and a saint about whom it is impermissible to write even the tiniest, fleeting criticism.”