Actor producer Anil Kapoor symbolizes the sentiments of this generation when he says in his tribute to the legend who died barely days before he was to celebrate his 91st birthday, “I learnt more about the Mahatma from Attenborough’s Gandhi than the history lessons in school.”
The man who mortgaged his house, cars and other property to complete his dream project on the Mahatma finally proved all the doubting Thomases wrong that had been refusing to fund his film for almost 18 years and finally had the last laugh. Today Gandhi, which won him three Oscars, remains one of the best known films in the world.
Attenborough, the son of a scholar Frederick Levi Attenborough and Mary Attenborough, was born on August 29, 1923. He got his first brush with films while serving in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. He worked under Flight Lieutenant John Boulting in the RAF film unit.
Like many actors Richard started his acting career on the stage and one of his most memorable roles on stage was in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap which went on to become the world’s longest running stage production. Both Richard and his wife Sheila Sim were among the original cast of the play which is still running at a Theatre in London.
He started acting in films in 1942 and his roles were well applauded. No wonder in 1949 he was voted as the sixth most popular actor at the box office, which is not a small compliment. But he made his mark with the role he played in The Great Escape a Hollywood block- buster where he played the role of an RAF Squadron Leader. This was the beginning of a career where he excelled in films like Séance on a Wet Afternoon, Guns at Batasi, and Regimental Seargent Major. He won two back to back Golden Globe Awards as Best Supporting Actor for The Sand Pebbles and Doctor Dolittle.
His Indian fixation probably began with Satyajit Ray’s The Chess Players starring Sanjeev Kumar and Amjad Khan based on Premchand’s classic story where his role was critically acclaimed. His acting career was sporadic for a long period till he appeared in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in 1993. The film went on to become a hit the world over and in India its Hindi version became even a bigger hit.
For his five decade long contribution to cinema he was nominated to the House of Lords on July 30, 1993 where he remained till his death.
Much has been written about his interpretation of Gandhi’s persona which was always a touchy subject both for foreign and Indian audiences.
But a lesser known fact about how he managed to portray such a real and convincing character of the Apostle of Peace on screen is revealed now by a conversation he had with India’s first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru. It is learnt that after listening enthusiastically to his proposal about making the film, Nehru who was chosen by the Mahatma to become the first Prime Minister of independent India gave him the mantra, “Richard, don’t make him a saint.”
That seemed the magic formula which Attenborough decided to follow and which Ben Kingsley managed to portray so convincingly that it earned him the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Richard Attenborough was awarded the Padma Bhushan, third highest civilian award in India in 1983.
Tragedy struck him on December 26, 2004 when his elder daughter Jane Holland, her mother-in-law and Jane’s daughter Lucy (15) died in a tsunami while holidaying in Thailand when an Indian Ocean earthquake struck the holiday resort. He later described the Boxing Day in 2004 as the ‘saddest day in his life’.
Attenborough had been in hospital due to a heart condition since 2008 from which he never emerged. His wife was also diagnosed with ‘senile dementia’ in 2012. He finally met his end on August 24, 2014 leaving behind a rich legacy of work that would remind generations of his versatility and talent.