Viewer Guide: Gandhi and We Don’t Belong Here

November 22, 2019 | Richard Peña


Gandhi (1982)

This week’s classic is Gandhi, the extraordinary epic film from 1982 directed by Sir Richard Attenborough.  The film chronicles the unprecedented life and impact of Mahatma Gandhi, the legendary leader of India’s long struggle for independence from British rule.  Gandhi’s pioneering principles of nonviolent civil disobedience and his philosophical insistence on truth—which he referred to as satyagraha—would go on to have a revolutionary impact around the world, affecting other ground-breaking civil rights leaders including Martin Luther King in America as well as Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

A Gandhi project had in fact been floating around the film industry for years, and at various points been considered by directors ranging from Otto Preminger to Michael Powell to Dean Lean. A veteran actor of dozens of films but with only a handful of producing and directing credits, Attenborough had first been approached about a Gandhi film in the early 60s; upon reading Louis Fischer’s biography of Gandhi, Attenborough became passionate about the project, but even after having received the blessing of Indian Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, Attenborough found a tremendous resistance when trying to fund the project; some of the issues it would surely touch upon were still too tender too controversial, and many promising backers stayed away.  While vast in scale and scope, Gandhi turned out to be the ultimate independent film, financed without the upfront involvement of a major film studio.

Similar to Peter O’Toole’s meteoric rise to international stardom with Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Kingsley was another relatively unknown actor before being cast as Gandhi.  Born in England as Krishna Bhanji to a father of Indian descent and an English mother, he changed his name to Ben Kingsley early on in an acting career that began with stage roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.  Kingsley’s transcendent central performance ranks high on the list of movie history’s all-time perfect pairings of an actor and a role.

After all his hard work getting the project off the ground, Attenborough truly decided to go for broke: he begins with Gandhi’s career as a South African lawyers, and follows his from his earliest days in the Indian independence movement right up to the moment of entrance into history as one of the great icons of the 20th century.

With a script by John Briley, Gandhi features a diverse cast including Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth, John Gielgud, Trevor Howard, John Mills, Edward Fox, Martin Sheen and Geraldine James. Candice Bergen takes the role of LIFE Magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White and there is a special appearance by playwright Athol Fugard as South Africa’s General Jan Smuts.

Gandhi’s six month production schedule was grueling, and often proceeded in heat well over 100 degrees.  Produced long before the advent of computer generated special effects, thousands upon thousands of extras were often required, with over 300,000 utilized for Gandhi’s funeral sequence.  With the film’s British production profile generating some controversy inside India—the screenplay was literally debated by the Indian Parliament—the production team’s concerns over possible protests and interference never materialized, in large part due to the support of Indira Gandhi, India’s prime minister at the time. Yet while the film does, through Ben Kingsley’s extraordinary performance, offer us Gandhi the historical figure, I sometimes wish it had spent a bit more time giving us Gandhi the man. In his writings, Gandhi openly reflects on everything from emotional jealousy to sexual tension to the problems of getting old. Understanding these aspects of Gandhi’s life—which I only discovered after I saw the film—only made him an even richer, even more remarkable character.

Released to strong reviews in December 1982, the film was honored with 11 Oscar nominations and went on to win eight, including Best Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Picture.


We Don’t Belong Here (2017)

This week’s indie is We Don’t Belong Here, a family drama from 2017 directed by Peer Pedersen.

Catherine Keener stars as Nancy Green, a well-to-do widow living in an elegantly appointed palatial home.  Yet despite the trappings of material comfort, all is definitely not well in Nancy’s gilded world.  Narrated by her youngest daughter Lily, played by Kaitlyn Dever, Nancy turns out to be a sort of suburban Queen Lear, contending with the difficult and sometimes traumatic circumstances of her three daughters.  In addition to her struggles with Lily—who is in denial of her bipolar condition—Nancy is also semi-estranged from her daughter Elisa, a rising pop singer played by Riley Keough, who has her own problems with her  sometimes abusive boyfriend.  Only Nancy’s eldest daughter Madeline, played by Annie Stark, seems to be leading a stable life.  Yet when Madeline returns home in her family’s hour of need, with no job or relationship, her ability to remain on that even keel seems precarious at best.  And then there’s Nancy’s son Maxwell, played by Anton Yelchin, who is also wrestling with accepting his sexuality as well as a habit of drug abuse.  All these myriad plot line finally come together when Lily uncovers a traumatic secret from Elisa’s past. Blurring the boundaries between reality and hallucinatory visions, WE DON’T BELONG HERE also features SNL alumni Molly Shannon and Maya Rudolph, along with Austin Abrams as Lily’s boyfriend and Cary Elwes as a disturbing figure from the family’s past.

First-time director Peer Pedersen creates a narrative every bit as disjointed as the family he depicts; we often question the ordering of the scenes, seemingly switching between realty and hallucination, past and present.  It’s a bold approach to the material, but one that here leads perhaps to more shining individual moments than an overall sense of coherence. Filmed in 2014 but not released until 2017, We Don’t Belong Here marks the final movie released featuring Anton Yelchin, the Russian-born actor who plays Maxwell in the film, who died tragically in 2016. On a happier note, the film also marks the film debut of Glenn Close’s daughter Annie Starke, who plays Madeline; in 2017, Starke would play her mother’s younger self in The Wife.  Also claiming bold face name heritage is Riley Keough—the actress playing Elisa—who is the daughter of Lisa Marie Presley and the granddaughter of Elvis and Priscilla Presley.

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