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When he whistled down the wind

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Rajdeep Pathak recounts his encounter with the phenomenal Lord Richard Attenborough

MY FIRST encounter with Sir Richard Attenborough was through his epic creation of Gandhi. A realistic film which captured the movement for the liberation of India under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi still holds the audience to their seats. No doubt the 1982 film won two Academy Awards in 1983, besides the prestigious Oscar, the film also won the world’s recognition acknowledging the director’s craftsmanship.

     In the years that followed, the movie always left a new – and deep – impression and insight. The socio-political message that the film carried had influenced many in the South Asian region to take up issues of social concern and rise against oppression. There was something different about the approach – and one can understand it as one would watch the film time and again – about the director’s craft of characterization through the episodes that unfolds slowly. The magnanimity couldn’t have been missed in this film at any point of time.

     It was his analytical approach to his thoughts and imagination that led Lord Richard Attenborough envisage in a research detailing his struggle to make the film “Gandhi” that finally took the form of a book “In Search of Gandhi”, published in 1982.

     The director in his long career that spanned more than six decades went on from achieving one milestone to the other. While Attenborough had been a prominent character actor in his native country since the early 1940s, he also achieved much as a producer, motion picture executive and cultural impresario.

     He was also the chairman of the British Film Institute, Channel 4, Goldcrest Films, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and Capital Radio and a director of the Young Vic and the British Film Institute. In the late ’70s, he helped preserve and restore London’s Duke of York Theater.

     Few would also remember this behind the camera genius as a leading actor in his early days. His best known films as an actor included Brighton Rock, The Great Escape and Jurassic Park.

     Despite more than 50 years as a stage and screen actor – including supporting roles in adventure pictures – The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966) and Doctor Dolittle (1967) – it was only in 1992 that Attenborough achieved widespread international recognition for his starring role in Jurassic Park – Spielberg’s monumental blockbuster based on Michael Crichton’s novel – the largest-grossing film ever at the time.

However it must be mentioned that it was in the 1967 big-budget musical Doctor Dolittle that brought Attenborough a “Golden Globe” for supporting actor. He further played Kris Kringle in John Hughes’ remake of The Miracle on 34th Street for the Fox Network, and over the next several years appeared in roles in Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, the Cate Blanchett starrer Elizabeth and telepic The Railway Children (2000). In 2006 he appeared in Welcome to World War One, a documentary about the making of “Oh! What a Lovely War.”

     Some of the other films that Richard Attenborough had acted in during the early 70’s were: David Copperfield, A Severed Head, Loot and the chilling 10 Rillington Place where he portrayed a serial killer John Christie and garnered excellent reviews. In 1977, he played the ruthless General Outram, again to great acclaim, in the Oscar winner Satyajit Ray’s period piece The Chess Players.

     More feathers were added to the directorial cap that he wore. These included A Bridge Too Far, Gandhi, and Cry Freedom, about the death of South African anti-apartheid campaigner Steven Biko. His other films included Chaplin, starring Robert Downey Jr, and Shadowlands, an adaptation of the stage play treating the relationship between Narnia author CS Lewis and Joy Gresham.

     He had a life-long ambition to make a film about his hero the political theorist and revolutionary Thomas Paine, whom he called ‘one of the finest men that ever lived’. He said in an interview in 2006: “I could understand him. He wrote in simple English. I found all his aspirations – the rights of women, the health service, universal education… Everything you can think of that we want is in Rights of Man or ‘The Age of Reason’ or ‘Common Sense’.”

     Between 2006 and 2007 Attenborough spent time in Belfast, Northern Ireland, working on his last film as director and producer, Closing the Ring, a love story set in Belfast during the Second World War and starring Shirley MacLaine, Christopher Plummer and Pete Postlethwaite.

     On the stage, Attenborough and his wife both appeared in the original production of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, which became one of the world’s longest-running theatre productions. From stage where he began his career in acting, to becoming an internationally acclaimed actor and director and an entrepreneur, Sir Richard Attenborough today is an institution in film, acting skills and direction.

     Born on 29 August 1923, since the early years, Richard Samuel Attenborough had a strong influence of the social and political conditions that was prevalent. He was a longtime advocate of education that does not judge upon colour, race, creed or religion. His attachment to Waterford was his passion for non-racial education, which were the grounds on which Waterford Kamhlaba was founded. Cry Freedom was an outcome of this passion.

     He was a frequent visitor to the Waterford Kamhlaba United World College of Southern Africa (UWCSA). With his wife, they founded the Richard and Sheila Attenborough Visual Arts Centre. He also founded the Jane Holland Creative Centre for Learning at Waterford Kamhlaba in Swaziland in memory of his daughter who died in the tsunami on 26 December 2004.

     The oldest son of an Anglo-Saxon scholar and university administrator, Attenborough was the eldest of three sons. Attenborough was married in early 1945 to actress Sheila Sim, with whom he had three children, Jane, Charlotte and Michael, all of whom worked in the performing arts.

     Attenborough also worked as the chairman of Capital Radio, the president of BAFTA, president of the Gandhi Foundation, and president of the British National Film and Television School. His death on August 24, a few days before his 91st birthday, has left a void in the world of international cinema. But connoisseurs of the world of arts and cinema will remember Attenborough for his memorable gifts to the world of cinema and human life, which he touched through all his magical creations.

     As he said once: ““I have no interest in being remembered as a great creative filmmaker. I want to be remembered as a storyteller.” He will indeed be remembered for everything he did to entertain us. Fare well to this master wizard. RIP, Sir.

*********

Recognitions for Sir Richard Attenborough in brief:

 Academy Awards

Best Director

1982 Gandhi

Best Picture

1982 Gandhi

 Golden Globe Awards

Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture

1966 The Sand Pebbles

1967 Doctor Dolittle

Best Director – Motion Picture

1982 Gandhi

Best Foreign Film

1982 Gandhi

 BAFTA Awards

Best Actor in a Leading Role

1964 Guns at Batasi ; Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Best Direction

1982 Gandhi

Best Film

1982 Gandhi

Alexander Korda Award for Best British Film

1993 Shadowlands

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