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Looking Back at Richard Attenborough's Quest to Make 'Gandhi'

One day in 1962, the director Richard Attenborough received a mysterious phone call from an Indian man living in England who said he had an idea for the director’s next project: a film about the life of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

Attenborough agreed to meet with the caller, Motilal Kothari, a few days later. But the filmmaker was initially hesitant to take on the biopic of India’s independence leader because he knew that fellow directors Otto Preminger and David Lean had already attempted to bring Gandhi’s life to the silver screen with no success.

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There was also the fact that Attenborough was “utterly ignorant as to where [Gandhi] was born, where he had lived or the kind of life he had led,” as he later wrote in his book “In Search of Gandhi.” Kothari was undeterred, and asked his new friend to read Louis Fischer's biography of Gandhi before making his decision.

"I must admit to being totally enthralled from the word go,” Attenborough said about reading the biography.

That meeting started the director’s long journey to bring the life of Mahatma Gandhi to the big screen. “I would pursue this quest for 20 years, suffer all sorts of rejection in trying to raise the finance and very nearly bankrupt myself,” he wrote in 2008.

“Bills weren't paid on time, and I was often absent from home, either trying to raise money or doing lucrative acting jobs in distant places, just to keep the project afloat.”

The dream project would finally become a reality in 1980, when the Attenborough and his team were able to finalize the budget and locations. The director surprised many with his decision to cast the young Shakespearean (and half-Indian) actor Ben Kingsley in the title role. He went on to cast Candice Bergen, Martin Sheen, Daniel Day-Lewis and Indian actors Amrish Puri and Om Puri, among others.

Image: Gandhi
Ben Kingsley as Gandhi and Martin Sheen as a newspaper reporter in a scene from Richard Attenborough's 1982 biographical film, 'Gandhi'. Keystone / Getty Images

Among the film's most famous moments is its opening, set on the day of Gandhi's assassination in 1948. Attenborough enlisted over 300,000 extras for the scene, earning it a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Among the sea of actors, standing very close to Kingsley's Gandhi, was Indian Air Force Wing Commander R.C. Shrivastava, who happened to be on leave at the time and was invited to take part by a friend.

“We were made to dress up as middle class people and our role was to walk in pairs towards Gandhiji as he came out of his room to offer prayers,” Shrivastava recalled in an email to NBC News. “I was paid Rs 500/- per day which I then used to change all the four tires in my car.”

Days of heavy fog, Shrivastava remembered, postponed filming and produced unusable footage.

“The assassination scene took three days to be filmed,” he wrote. “On the last day, there were at least 10 takes/retakes because Ben Kingsley used to change his expression in anticipation before the shot was fired by [Gandhi’s assassin] Nathuram Godse. I distinctly remember Richard Attenborough telling Ben Kingsley ‘Ben, darling, you are anticipating the shot being fired, there should be no expression on your face before the shot is fired.’”

‘Gandhi’ would go on to win eight Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director for Attenborough and Best Actor for Kingsley. The director dedicated the film in part to Motilal Kothari, the man who first asked him to consider doing it.

As Roger Ebert noted in his 1982 review of the film, “Apart from all its other qualities, what makes this movie special is that it was obviously made by people who believed in it.”

Image: FILE - British Actor And Director Richard Attenborough Dies Aged 90
Acclaimed actor and Oscar-winning director Richard Attenborough, whose film career on both sides of the camera spanned 60 years, died on August 24, 2014. He was 90. Prime Minister David Cameron issued a statement calling Attenborough "one of the greats of cinema." Dan Kitwood / Getty Images