August 25 2014
As a director, he brought the colossal figure of Mahatma Gandhi to life and made him more relevant and powerful to a new generation and one outside India itself…
SIR RICHARD ATTENBOROUGH was a remarkable man in many ways.
Actor, director and champion of many humanitarian causes, he died at a nursing home in London on Sunday, aged 90, just a few days short of his 91st birthday.
Perhaps most obviously to a South Asian audience, he will be remembered for his epic film, “Gandhi” which won a total of eight Oscars and brought two for him as a director.
Sir Ben Kingsley, who played the lead role of Mahatma Gandhi in the film, paid tribute: “He placed in me an absolute trust and in turn I placed an absolute trust in him and grew to love him.
“I along with millions of others whom he touched through his life and work will miss him dearly.”
Veteran Indian actor Anupam Kher, who played the father role in “Bend It Like Beckham”, tweeted: “Had the honour of meeting of Sir Richard Attenborough during the casting of Gandhi. He was a wonderful human being and a great director. RIP.”
India’s newest and most non-establishment party, Aam Adami (Common Man) paid its own tribute to Attenborough.
It tweeted: “Our tributes to Sir Richard Attenborough – thank you for bringing Gandhi to the masses with your epic film. RIP.”
Attenborough also appeared in one of Satyajit Ray’s last movies, “The Chess Players” in 1977 and stated that working for Ray was one of the highlights of his long career. It was a film about the political machinations of the early British in India and how they were able to put down the roots for colonialism (see below).
One of the most striking aspects of “Dickie”, as he was fondly known to those who knew him, was his versatility and range.
In the post-war period he was of one of the great young actors, having graduated from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) in 1941.
He served in the Royal Air Force before resuming his theatrical career.
Perhaps his most remarkable screen role, and one which continues to stand up well even today, was in “Brighton Rock” (1947).
Adapted from a Graham Greene novel, he reprised the role of the gangsterish and psychopathic ‘Pinkie’.
His unnerving characterisation: cold, detached, clinical and utterly ruthless, was a study in men who stop at nothing and for no one in their pursuit of power and money.
It was scintillating and led him to a succession of roles where he played shady and sometimes dangerous misfits.
“Séance on a Wet Afternoon” and “10 Rillington Place” were in a similar mode.
Yet the real Attenborough was kind, gentle and had time for most people.
He took on Hollywood roles, knowing he wanted to direct – there was most noticeably, “The Great Escape” (1963) alongside screen giants Steve McQueen and James Garner. Then came “The Flight of the Phoenix”, “The Sand Pebbles” and “Dr DoLittle”.
“Oh What a lovely War!”(1969) was his first outing as a director and it was a biting satire on the futility of World War I.
“Young Winston” (1972) and “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) followed and were generally well received but not box office hits in their day.
His passion and ambition as early as 1962 – was to make a film about India’s Independence leader, Mahatma Gandhi.
It had been suggested to him by an unknown figure, Motilal Kothari, and Attenborough had received the blessing of India’s first prime minister and one of the leading figures in the film, Jawaharlal Nehru, who urged him to depict Gandhi as a man and not a saint.
Attenborough faced many hurdles, not least the premature death of Nehru and others who had given their blessings, including the last Viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, another pivotal figure who featured in the final film. He dedicated “Gandhi” to Kothari, Nehru and Lord Mountbatten.
There was much controversy over who would play the lead role – in the end Attenborough found Ben Kingsley, who was actually of Indian and Gujarati origin (like Gandhiji himself).
It turned out to be the making of Kingsley, who won an Oscar and who has continued to build on that success.
One scene in “Gandhi” holds the record for the largest number of extras – Attenborough was able to assemble 400,000 for the funeral scene in the film.
David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, also paid tribute: “His acting in ‘Brighton Rock‘ was brilliant, his directing of ‘Gandhi‘ was stunning. Richard Attenborough was one of the greats of cinema.”
After “Gandhi” Attenborough as a director made in 1985 “A Chorus Line”, a musical that failed to find an audience and is largely forgotten.
In 1987, he returned to form with another biopic, this time it was the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, with “Cry Freedom” based on the friendship between emerging black leader Steve Biko and liberal journalist Donald Woods. It has a powerful performance from a young Denzel Washington in the role of Biko – winning an Oscar for best supporting role.
There were other films that emerged after, but his star had somewhat faded as a director and he remerged as a figure in front of the camera again when Steven Spielberg coaxed him into a role in “Jurassic Park” (1993) and “The Lost World” (1997).
All during this time he was an active supporter of RADA, the British Film Institute and Channel 4, all of which he helped in one way or another to survive and prosper. He was also a champion of social causes and a prominent supporter of the Labour Party, being made a peer in 2003.
He was given the lifelong honorary title, President of Chelsea Football Club, among many others in his pursuits, outside acting and directing.
In 2008, he suffered a fall at his home inR Richmond, south west London and survived, but had to be moved to a nursing home alongside his wife. It is assumed his health was ailing and he leaves a son and daughter.
Richard Attenborough being awarded Oscars 1983 (Best Director & Best Film); a personal tribute to Gandhi and relating it to Martin Luther King and Polish leader, Lech Walesa and an eloquent statement of non-violence, from 8.00
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In Satyajit Ray’s “The Chess Players” as Lt General Sir James Outram from 2.12