Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning biopic on the Mahatma, continues to hold its magic for those involved in its making, even 30 years after it was first shot in various cities of India.
New York-based film critic Aseem Chhabra who enacted one of the “front-line” extras in the film, “Gandhi” reminisces about the cold freezing morning of Delhi in December 1980, where the film was being made.
“It was Attenborough’s hugely ambitious project and we were excited to be cast as front-line extras. We were given our costumes, white pyjama kurtas and a large group of us were bussed from Ashoka Hotel to a small railway station near Faridabad which doubled as the Sabarmati station,” Chhabra told PTI over phone.
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In December 1982, as a student at Columbia’s journalism school, Aseem Chhabra said his “heart leapt out” he saw “Gandhi” at Manhattan’s Ziegfeld theatre in the company of his Indian friends.
“I worked for four days for Rs 75 a day and earned Rs 300 on the sets. But, even 30 years later, my heart still skips a beat everytime I see myself on screen, as being practically immortalised as part of this immortal classic,” said Aseem Chhabra, who now also runs the New York Indian Film Festival.
Pablo Bartholomew, Aseem Chhabra’s classmate from Delhi’s Modern School and now a renowned photographer, also recalls the “phenomenal experience,” of working for Attenborough’s film.
Bartholomew was the stills man with the second unit of the the British director Attenbourgh’s production team.
“It was great working under the likes of Attenborough. He was a true professional and wanted perfect shots. His style gave us so many things to learn on the sets, in terms of shooting a film as well as well as working with brilliant international team that he had put together for this magnum opus of his,” Pablo Bartholomew said.
The over three-hour film was shot on different locations in India, in cities like Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai), Pune, and Patna among others.
Actor Ben Kingsley debut as the Mahatma won him an Academy Award in the Best Actor category, while the film won eight Oscars altogether including Best Picture and Best Director.
Fifty-something Robin Tekari in Patna still fondly recalls “playing golf with ‘Gandhi'” at the city’s colonial-era Golf Club.
“You recall the famous Koelwar Bridge scene in the film near Ara town. That time the cast and crew were staying in a famous hotel in Patna. I ran into Kingsley there (Patna), who had asked me if he and some of his crew members could play golf somewhere.
“Since, I am an old Patna Golf Club member, I arranged it for them. But, it was only when I later enquired that they told me that they were here for the film shoot. I didn’t know I was playing golf with a Gandhi. It was his first film. Who
knew Ben Kingsley then,” Robin said, with a laugh.
Bihar-resident Nath, who was present as an onlooker during a shoot in Patna said, Attenborough wanted to shoot Champaran scenes only in Champaran but ended up recreating some of the scenes in the city (Patna).
“The now famous ‘Gandhi Setu’ connecting the north and south Bihar hadn’t yet been built so it was difficult to take the huge cameras along with the crew to the other side on boat. Thus the Patna Collectorate was dressed up as Champaran Jail, where the character of C F Andrews’ is shown entering to meet Gandhi,” Nath said.
“Since they were also short on time so shooting in Patna saved time too…I saw Richard Attenborough, a quiet man instructing his crew for the shots, as a huge crowd had gathered at the Collectorate by then. But, he was a very focussed director,” he said.
According to actor Alok Nath, who played freedom fighter Tyeb Mohammed in the film, the South Africa Town Hall scene was actually shot in Fergusson College in Pune.
The actor, now popular for his fatherly figure roles in films starred in the Salman Khan 1989 blockbuster ‘Maine Pyar Kiya’ which made him a household name.
The assassination scene was actually filmed at Birla Bhawan where Gandhi was shot by Nathuram Godse on January 30, 1948 while some of the indoor scenes were created at the
National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is India headquarters here.
Teen Murti House (old name Flagstaff House) served as the Viceroy’s house in the film. In Pune, the iconic Aga Khan Palace was shown as a jail.
“After Sabarmati station shoot, the next two days, our bus took us to the Birla Bhavan. Attenborough had shot some scenes leading to Mahatma’s assassination, but due to changing weather conditions, he still needed to capture Gandhi’s walk to the prayer meeting, just before he was shot,” Aseem Chhabra added.
Theatre personality Amal Allana and her husband Nissar Allana worked in the art department for the film while filmmaker Govind Nihalani helmed the second unit as cameraman and its director.
“It was a good experience and a challenge creating and recreating the period look for possibly Atenborough’s most ambitious film ever,” Amal said.