All of my leisure reading is taken up with non-fiction, with the odd fiction classic thrown in just to clear the palette (Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Patrick O’Brian).
And as I read this history of Dunkirk or that Life of Lou Reed/Bowie/Dylan/Janis/McCartney/Barry White, my mind wanders into “Is there a movie in this?”
Chewing on the new “Critical Edition” (heavily footnoted) of M. K. Gandhi’s “The Story of My Experiments With Truth,” I see a movie that Richard Attenborough’s stately, epic of Gandhi’s activist years skipped past. That film, which is aging better than the highbrow critics of the day ever expected largely thanks to Ben Kingsley’s timelessly fiery, charismatic, righteous and above all else, wise and kind performance, picked up the Future Mahatma in South Africa, an activist/barrister seeking rights under Apartheid leading into World War I.’
But there’s an altogether different movie, I think, from the early years of the Hindu icon who made the Nobel Peace Prize pointless (He never was awarded it, which makes the Obama/Kissinger and other honors laughable).
Get past the autobiography’s wordy, pedantic forward/introduction by Trilip Suhrud, skim over the more or less Indian middle class childhood, and we find an 18 year old Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, married at 13, already a father, on his way to Victorian Great Britain, a quintessential “innocent abroad.”
He was a comically shy and naive lad studying to be a lawyer, a profession which rarely rewards the painfully introverted. He hid his marriage from the English, as was the custom of Indian students abroad in the late 19th century, making for awkward “set ups” and one misguided “Let’s take the Indian lad with us to the brothel” incident.
He arrived in the U.K. at the height of a Victorian era vegetarian craze, too shy to ask if what he was being served was free of beef or pork, but able to find whole restaurants devoted to vegetarian dishes in some quarters. And according to his narration, the vegetarians were prone to clubbing up and quarreling over degrees of righteousness, like apostles whose vegan messiah left their company too soon.
He moved in high circles, made a fool of himself in several “Passage to India” incidents, made lifelong friends and sometimes ill-chosen acquaintances. And he studied the law, which eventually served him in good stead as he went into legal battle on behalf of the oppressed in various corners of the British Empire.
He harbored guilt over his lust for his wife, doubled down on that guilt by missing his father’s death by squeezing in a little intimacy during a break from the old man’s deathbed sit, and started forming ideas about “bread labor,” a life of doing no harm to any living thing and the piety of peasant work. Gandhi was shrinking his carbon footprint long before Starbucks belatedly announced plans to ban the cursed plastic straws.
Get Kingsley, whose entire career — even his many memorable villains — was informed by Gandhi, to narrate from the playful early years of the autobiography. I’ve interviewed Sir Ben more times than I can count, and I dare say he’d be down for it. A gentleman, raconteur and a real sweetheart, with a life-affirming laugh and great sense of humor, it’s impossible for anybody born after the early ’80s to not think of him when they think of Gandhi. He’d make a voice-over sing.
A movie that humanizes people history has parked on a pedestal by visiting their awkward years makes for good drama, and often great comedy. Ask Shakespeare.
In terms of exposition, just let the comic misunderstandings that made the boy the man he became tumble by, hilarious, touching, dark and often delightful blunders on the way to global icon for freedom, justice and non-violence.
As someone who loves historical films and any movie that can purport to be “about something,” this is one I’d love to see, a comic Prince Hal prelude to the non-violent Henry V Gandhi was to become.