I met Ben Kingsley once at a film festival in Vlissingen, Holland where he was being honoured with a lifetime achievement award.I asked him which aspect of Gandhi’s life would he like to see made into a separate film, since he has already acted in a film that covered the vast expanse of Gandhi’s political life.He was at loss for an answer, and a few minutes later I bumped into him again at the party, and he wryly remarked that he is still thinking about my question.I think in that confusion lies the answer to tackling a great big life in a biopic format – what to leave out is more important than what you show.Any film that attempts a magisterial look at Nelson Mandela’s life must grapple with that conundrum.
One cannot help but compare this film to Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, which continues to be the gold standard on biopics of epic scale.I remarked once to one of India’s great film directors that Attenborough has bestowed a great gift upon the people of India by making that film, at least we have some audio-visual material to show our kids about Gandhi, in the only language which seems to appeal to them.He agreed with me wholeheartedly and we bemoaned the absence of a Indira Gandhi biopic.I seriously doubt this Mandela film will become that cultural jewel in South Africa.
The film is told almost entirely through Mandela’s point of view which is not the best idea when he spends 27 years behind bars, seeing little but thinking much.This robs the film of precious context which the makers may assume we all know, but then Mandela hung up his political boots much before the Twitter era.The film also flits between his personal and political life which makes coverage on both sides thin.Gandhi, the film, stuck largely to his public life despite the huge conflict in his personal life.
I was puzzled throughout the film, the origins of the Mandela doctrine of forgiveness stay stubbornly hidden while his indulgence in realpolitik is constantly highlighted.During his long incarceration Mandela must have done very deep introspection and as he gradually become a symbol of the evils of apartheid he must have constantly evaluated his prisoner status in terms of political capital.More importantly he must have tried to make his imprisonment a meaningful piece in the antiapartheid movement. Elliptical treatments are great and so is off-screen space in cinema but this film uses both these devices in a lazy way.What results is the portrait of a man who is leader by default.Important developments and divergent points of view like that of Steve Biko are ignored( Again it was Attenborough who made the powerful film Cry Freedom on the subject).The passivity of this Mandela is very frustrating to say the least.Yes, doing nothing is an action in itself, but this film does not contextualize his inaction adequately.
To his credit Idris Elba tries hard to make the most of the material at his disposal but ends up proving the maxim that the finest actor cannot do much when working with a poorly written script.
Because Winnie Mandela’s character is written with more passion and clarity,Naomie Harris is able to light up the screen with fire in her eyes( a good example of why capturing the spirit of the character is more important than physical resemblance from a casting point of view).In fact a film about Winnie Mandela’s life while Nelson was in jail has serious cinematic potential.
Goodbye Bafana did a far better job of capturing Mandela as a political prisoner while Invictus despite being typical Hollywood drama, gave us a riveting portrait of a man who singularly focussed on the big picture and banished hatred from his heart.It is in symbolic actions like supporting the all white rugby team to win the World Cup, that Mandela made the common white man feel safe in the new south Africa.Now just contrast his actions with Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe who was once hailed as a great African leader.While Attenborough’s Gandhi clearly charts out the metamorphosis and evolution of a minority rights activist into revolutionary, politician, peacekeeper and philosopher, this film barely manages to give us a sketchy portrait of a very important man.
Perhaps the times have changed a bit, world leaders at Mandela’s funeral were in a convivial mood which is not the same as celebrating a great life(Exhibit “A”: Obama’s and his ‘selfie’ moment), the passing of Gandhi was a huge tragedy in the life of a young nation.There are montages of a world demanding his release and a particularly effective one of his birthday bash in absentia at the Wembley arena in London. Gandhi never had rockstar status like Mandela, but the creativity required to capture the zeitgeist of the 90’s, is missing here.
Seminal events like the Sharpeville massacre of 1960, are handled in a disturbingly aloof and tame manner and have a certain lack of density about them.By contrast an almost identical event, The Jalianwala Bagh massacre, as depicted in Gandhi has the power to frame the doctrines of nonviolence and nonco-operation perfectly.The similarities do not end there.Mandela, like Gandhi, too burns his pass but he does so with a detached wry smile, perhaps mulling the irony of the fact that Gandhi had done the same many decades ago.It just does not feel right.Mandela storms into a train and forces his way into a whites only carriage but the sequence ends with a chaotic exit, while Gandhi being thrown off the train in Pietermaritzburg became the films defining moment.Here Attenborough and his writer John Briley took justified artistic liberty, Gandhi in fact was not thrown off the train but shifted to a second class compartment in the next train.
The point here is not that Gandhi is a superior film,which it is by miles( it did beat ET to the best film Oscar, which was better according to even Attenborough), but that The Long walk to Freedom is a gigantic missed opportunity.And for all my criticism of it I am still glad I watched it, with my 6 year old daughter, no less, who had questions more interesting than the film to ask at the end of it.When films like this are made we owe it to ourselves to show up, with our children if possible.This film is well acted and is a good way to know something about Apartheid. I walked into this film with low expectations but a generous spirit.So what if the film had a negative buzz about it.A biopic of Mandela will have enough to make it worthwhile. After all is cinema not the art of choosing the best bits, even if it’s the life the of ordinary people, and transforming it into something extraordinary?By that scale it should have been impossible to make a dull film about Mandela, perhaps the greatest world leader born in the 20th century.
My blog entry paying a heartfelt tribute to Mandela before he passed away is here: