In the early years of the 20th century, Mohandas K. Gandhi, a British-trained lawyer, forsakes all worldly possessions to take up the cause of Indian independence. Faced with armed resistance from the British government, Gandhi adopts a policy of 'passive resistance', endeavouring to win freedom for his people without resorting to bloodshed.
The opening is noteworthy in that a white American introduces us to Gandhi, the West speaking of—and ultimately for—Gandhi himself. (Or, as the news anchor makes clearer in his peroration, this "little brown man".) We are thus introduced to the Western gaze that both mystifies and dismisses 'the East', a kind of Orientalism replicated at the level of this film's production. (Lest we think that America is racist, however, the film amusingly cuts to apartheid South Africa.)
Gandhi is unsatisfactory in one narrative and filmic perspective: the depictions of 'racism' are embodied almost entirely through cartoon racists hurling crass slurs at Ghandi in the street. The truth about racism is probably more complicated than this, with many other interests—economic, imperial, patriarchal, etc.—in play at any one time. This tic of the screenplay is thankfully dropped after a while, and Gandhi starts to get into its groove with a succession of scenes that are, in essence, different ways for Gandhi to voice some adage or aphorism towards its white audience. In this sense, it reminds me a bit of The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), although with a bit more of a liberal leaning. However, the British remain caricatured as moustachioed villains throughout and are depicted as constantly underestimating who they are dealing with. Given the durability of the British Empire at least up until the 1940s, it seems unlikely that they were lacking as much insight that the film implies. Still, even if this was a completely accurate depiction of India's journey to Independence and Partition (which I am reliably informed that it is not), it still doesn't quite make for a good piece of cinematic art.
One point not mentioned elsewhere that I can see is the film is curiously ambivalent about Gandhi's use of the press and the role of public relations. The importance of 'optics' is likely a bit of an anachronism which has probably been retrospectively applied to his life story, and the fact that Gandhi-the-film even exists is primarily due to its contemporary value Indian propaganda, so it's likely that the film will be somewhat evasive around this topic. But the film depicts Gandhi as being both oblivious and savvy about how to use the press, which feels a little disingenuous. At times he seems to be affecting a studious lack of concern about his portrayal, which is often a reliable sign that someone cares about it very much. This can be best observed in the latter scenes with Candice Bergen's character, who wants him to pose with one of his uniformed jailors, where Gandhi appears not to notice what she is doing. Moreover, the characters seem to feel that coverage of their struggle in British newspapers is paramount to their cause, heavily suggesting that if a certain news story was covered in the British press, then injustice would be 'stopped' due to the contemporary readers speaking out. I am not sure this is quite right, either. Although this is not quite my area of history, I imagine that a significant number of people in London were very much pro-Empire and were pleased when hundreds of brown-skinned men were murdered by the British.
I remain something of a fan of these David Lean-inspired epics, yet this film, just like Gandhi himself, runs slightly ashore when meeting the singular menace of National Socialism, and the film somehow seems to know it cannot continue to carry Gandhi's pacifist position here and so it quickly—albeit rather deftly—moves on. This revisiting of Gandhi by Reihan Salam of Slate is perhaps worth reading on a number of topics:
The truth is, Gandhi would have been a lot less boring if it had been a little less worshipful. But a more nuanced portrait would have undermined Attenborough's central point: that Gandhi shamed the British into quitting India. That's a somewhat-generous take. Some Britons embraced Gandhi's message of peace, love, and vegetarianism; at least one, Madeleine Slade, actually moved to India to be his personal assistant. […] Yet others cheered on the renegade general who gunned down more than 1,000 defenseless Indians in 1919. And then there were those, like Winston Churchill, who fought tooth and nail against independence, predicting (correctly) that it would lead to an unspeakable bloodbath.
A less-worshipful Gandhi would also have raised all sorts of uncomfortable questions about post-independence India. But for Attenborough to capture the country on the epic scale he wanted, he needed the cooperation of the Indian government. (When you consider that 400,000 Indians showed up to recreate Gandhi's 1948 funeral in the heart of New Delhi, you'll see what I mean.) So, did Attenborough pull his punches to make sure everything went smoothly? After all, Attenborough warmly cites Indira Gandhi's role in shepherding the project. And Indira Gandhi, lest we forget, was no mahatma. She was behind the suspension of Indian democracy in the mid-1970s and certainly shrewd enough to recognize that Attenborough's film would be a massive propaganda coup. Sure enough, Pandit Nehru—Indira's dad—is portrayed in the film as second only to Gandhi in the pantheon of heroic Indians.
… as is Gary Arnold's piece in the Washington Post on some of the factual flexibility of the movie, as well the observation that it borrows "the structural outline of Lawrence of Arabia".
And on Gandhi's influence, I'll let this stand as a final quote:
Of the faux-David Lean white elephants that proliferated in the early ’80s, Gandhi is less personal than Reds, but also less complacent than Chariots of Fire and less doddering than Lean’s own orderly post-colonial apologia, A Passage to India; it now exists in that dreary realm of antiseptic Best Picture Oscar winners, duly respected and revisited exclusively for school assignments.
— Fernando F. Croce (Slant)