The end of an era

With an illustrious career spanning over six decades, actor-director Richard Attenborough breathed his last on August 24, just a few days before his 91st birthday. Several Indian actors who were a part of Gandhi, reminisce about the man who put India on the world map with his epic saga on the Mahatma

Written by Farida Khanzada | Mumbai | Published: September 5, 2014 1:00 am
Richard Attenborough Richard Attenborough

‘He was a very patient and gentle man’

– Rohini Hattangady (plays Kasturba)

Dolly Thakore who was the casting director for the film Gandhi, asked me to meet Sir Richard. When I met him on July 12, he invited me to London for a screen test. Three pairs of actors—Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah; Bhakti Barve and John Hurst and Ben Kingsley and me— were shortlisted to play the role of Gandhi and Kasturba. We were given a scene that they filmed as a screen test on July 21, 1980. At that time, I did not even possess a passport and I had to obtain a temporary one that was valid for six months.
I had gone completely prepared for the scene that was set in South Africa in which Kasturba refuses to clean the toilet. For the physical preparation, I tried to give my character an authentic touch and had taken a plain khadi sari, a bandhgala blouse which I borrowed from a play that I was doing at that time, mangalsutra, kumkum and bangles with me. The first thing that I did after being confirmed for the role was go to Mani Bhavan and buy a copy of Gandhiji’s autobiography, My Experiments With Truth. At Mani Bhavan, there were several pictures of Kasturba in South Africa and the Sabarmati Ashram, which became my reference material. I also searched for books on Kasturba and managed to find two — Hamari Ba and Ba: Bapu Ki Sheetal Chhaya Mein. Besides, the little information available about her, I relied on the comprehensive and well-researched script that I was provided with.
As a director, Sir Richard gave complete freedom to the actors to work out how to play the character. We were given the script well in advance and the director expected us to do our own research and homework. Of course, if we had doubts, we could always approach him, but the script was written in such detail that it left very little room for us to flounder. I had to work on my physical appearance with the help of the make-up artist and the costume designer, and at the same time, I had to be clear about the particular scene that was being shot and act accordingly. These were real life incidents that were compressed together, for instance, incidents that happened six years apart were seamlessly woven into a scene. Otherwise, it would have become an eight hour film had we tried to depict each incident.
Sometimes, even I had to put in my so called expertise. For instance in a scene in which a man from Champaran comes to visit Gandhiji, Sir Richard wanted me to be present in the background and exchange glances with Gandhiji. Since the scene shows the man having food with Gandhiji,  I suggested that the only way I could be shown in the background was me making chapattis. So a chula and belan etc were provided for that scene.
Sir Richard knew Gandhiji  backwards. As a director, he was very calm, warm, helpful and gave us enough time and space to prepare for the shot. Since he was an actor himself, he understood the psyche of an actor and his motto was that, agar kaam karna hai toh shanti se karo. I was not really nervous at the prospect of working with him. In fact, I realised the implication and scale of the project after I saw its first screening. I never realised that Gandhi would become such a phenomenal film. The first thought that passed my mind after seeing it, was, ‘Oh my God, it’s an epic’. Before that, I looked at it as a chance to play a good character and work with a foreign director.
Working with Sir Richard changed the way I behaved with fellow human beings. We worked together for 25 weeks on the film. After Gandhi, I started giving a person a third chance when he made a mistake. In that sense, I became very accommodating and understanding.
In ’84-’85, I had gone to USA and had planned to spend a week in London and visit him, but when I reached London, he was in USA, so I could not meet him. Then again, he had come to Delhi to receive the Padma Bhushan,  but I could not meet him then too. When Gandhi completed 25 years, he had called me to invite me to attend a function in the USA, which I could not attend due to financial constraints. But every year, I would receive a Christmas card from him till 2012, when his health had completely deteriorated. He was a very warm and understanding man whom everybody loved.

‘Sir Richard put many on their career path’

– Dolly Thakore (casting director)

As soon as I heard about Sir Richard’s passing away, I decided to organise a meeting to commemorate his life. I got a film, The Making of Gandhi from the NFDC that was screened on August 28, at the National School of Performing Arts for the cast and crew of Gandhi. In fact, the next day, August 29 was Sir Richard’s birthday. I spent three days just trying to get in touch with the entire team that worked on the film. The contact numbers that I had of them were almost 40 years old, and at that time, nobody had houses, or telephone numbers and there were no mobiles too. I must say that Nina Gupta, the head of NFDC immediately agreed to give me a print of the film and K.N. Suntook gave us the Little Theatre free of cost, to screen the film.
After the screening, we all met at my place and shared our experiences of working with Sir Richard. It was the most touching and beautiful evening that one had ever had, because it wasn’t just the stars, but all the junior production assistants, too who came. Govind Nihalani, Rohini Hattangadi, Anand Desai, Alyque Padamsee, the second unit cameramen, assistants who helped in the making of Gandhi were present. Each one had something to tell about their experience. Rohini who was very quiet and reticent during the filming of Gandhi opened up and told stories about her experience. It was such a lovely way to remember a man who has put many people on their career paths, because a lot of them were theatre actors then, who had never acted in films. There was so much love, affection and respect for the director. All of us have grown in stature and owe our success to him.


‘It was a beginning of a great life’

Alok Nath (played Tyeb Mohammed)

Although my role was small, it was a brilliant experience working with Sir Richard. I was just starting out as an actor, and Gandhi was my first feature film. I was still a student of the National School of Drama, when Dolly asked me to meet the director. We are not allowed to work in an outside film, but since the film was co-produced by NFDC, I was granted permission. When I met him, he looked me up and said, ‘I am happy that you are a student of theatre, as my first love is theatre’. When he asked me whether I would work in the film, I was in no position to refuse. He asked Dolly to explain the role to me and I worked with him for three days—two days in Delhi and one day in Pune.
I shall never forget a scene that was shot in Pune. I had to deliver a six line dialogue before a huge gathering in Fergusson college. I play Gandhiji’s associate in South Africa where he is agitating with the coal miners. The entire atmosphere was charged, with the huge crowd screaming and shouting. And although, I had got the script three months in advance and I must have rehearsed the lines a thousand times, when I faced the camera, I was completely tongue-tied and began fumbling. With each retake, I became more nervous and felt miserable. It was then that Sir Richard walked up to me, and putting his arm around me said, ‘The best of us do it. It’s a birthright to forget, an actor must never get nervous about the lines, he must grow above them and just feel it. Relax and take your time, we are in no hurry’. I was almost in tears. This little gesture was a huge one and it really helped me not only deliver my lines but also served as a lesson that made me realise that one must help people who are struggling in life.
I shall never forget those moments, because however small my role was, it was a beginning to a great life.


‘He was like a father figure’

– Alyque Padamsee (played Mohammed Ali Jinnah)

He took great care of his actors and never allowed anything to bother them. A genteel human being, he had a great sense of humour, and even if anything went wrong, he would joke about it. I remember a scene in which Mr Jinnah is with Gandhi and Nehru and they are talking about the future of India. Sir Richard wanted the scene to begin with Jinnah lighting a cigarette, but unfortunately every time I raised my hand, my coat would come up and look very untidy. Since, he paid great attention to  details, he did not like it and asked his assistant director to sit behind me and hold the coat down when I raised my hand to light the cigarette. When the shot was being picturised, I lifted my hand to light the cigarette, but the AD pulled my coat so hard, that I could not raise my hand. When I told Richard that I could not lift my hand, he said, ‘Oh so Mr Jinnah is paralysed in front of Mr Gandhi, is he? And we all had a good laugh.
Sir Richard was always a very happy director and we never saw him frown. He always had a kind word for all his actors, technicians and was very much a father figure to us. I had only met him for five minutes when we had discussed about films. The next day, I got a call from him asking me whether I would play Jinnah’s character. I asked him when I should come for the screen test, but he told me that he had already cast me as Jinnah. When I asked him the reason, he told me that from the brief conversation that he had with me on the previous day, he realised that I would be the perfect man to play Jinnah, who was an autocrat. His observation was that I too commanded a lot of respect amongst people. I asked him, ‘Mr Attenborough I don’t know, whether I should be insulted or happy’, and he said, ‘You can be both’.


‘He pursued his vision of making the film’

– Govind Nihalani (second unit director and cinematographer)

I had never earlier experienced the scale on which Gandhi was mounted. Till then, I had done a film with NFDC and a couple of films with Shyam Benegal which were compact products, where we went on location, shot and came back. But with Gandhi, it was huge— so many people, technicians, crowd, various locations and city changes. In terms of management, it was a great experience. Mr Attenborough was very compassionate and gentle with everyone, and this quality rubbed off on all of us. For more than two decades, he was looking for funds to make the film and it was his determination that the project saw the light of day. He was so impressed by Gandhi’s persona, simplicity, the depth of his thinking and most important his philosophy of non -violence. Sir Richard was completely fascinated by the Mahatma. He was in fact, a Gandhi bhakt and his faith in the film was genuine. And like Gandhi, Sir Richard was a compassionate man who diligently pursued his vision.


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