Gandhi: The Psychology of Protest

Intro by Brandon

So, be honest: how much do you know about Mohandas Gandhi? Mo-hon— Mo-han— How do you say it?


So, be honest: how much do you know about Montana Gandy? No—hang on


OK, Mohandas Gandhi: What do you know? Do you know things?

If you’re like me and you haven’t seen this film, you probably know he was known for being peaceful and was a political figure, and… that’s about it. Gandhi was, to me, a caricature or a meme online—not a real person who accomplished some great things in his lifetime. And that’s really unfortunate, because Gandhi was pretty amazing, but that was the extent of my knowledge.

The 1982 film Gandhi by director Richard Attenborough was a labor of love to pay respect to the man who ended British rule in India. The character of Gandhi is realized in a pretty brilliant way by actor Ben Kingsley, who poured himself into the role. And it all paid off: this film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Director, and four other categories. 

This is not a film we picked. It’s on our list because it’s the Best Picture winner for 1982. We’ve had some major flops in this category from other years, including Terms of Endearment, which won just the year after this one, so I was initially a little hesitant to watch this film, but this is a great film. This is a Best Picture winner that really was an amazing film, and we wouldn’t have seen it had we not included it in our list this way.

More than just the character of Gandhi, though, this film really summarizes effective protest and shows us how it should work, and why it works. Mental health may be a bit of a stretch with this one, but we do get into the psychology of protest, including why it works, why it often doesn’t, and what’s happening to protest in our current political environment. This film is a great primer to talk about that.

So get ready for us to talk about the film’s important achievements in cinematography, how the character of Gandhi is humanized but still revered, and what’s going on with protest in this episode of Peculiar Picture Show, the podcast that talks about movies, maladies, and mental health!

Show Notes

Overall Thoughts: This film gave us a respect for Gandhi

B: First time seeing this; didn’t know much about Gandhi before this film other than Weird Al and that programming error in Civilization II that made Gandhi super aggressive

Nuclear Gandhi

M: First time seeing all the way through (not in pieces); maybe we need a Gandhi figure in 2020?

Like: Subtle and complex, with a beautiful setting

B: Portrayal of non-violent protest; Kingsley’s performance of Gandhi was powerful, but not loud; characterization; really well done and surprisingly complex; sets and costumes; ending

M: Set design; epic and beautiful shots; acting; subject matter

Dislike: This is a very long movie

B: Really long and slow; had to watch it in three sessions

M: Seemed like move was made for people who already knew this story; slow in some parts and way too fast in others; dated; slightly reminded me of Terms of Endearment

Mental Health: Gandhi shows us how protest should be done, but the empathy behind protest is under attack

B: Psychology of protest

M: Caste system effects on mental health


B: There’s a part where Gandhi quotes a passage in the Bible about turning the other cheek, and he turns it into a statement of strength, not submission. That passage was originally meant to be one of civil disobedience and resistance to oppression, and over the years, it morphed into this statement of keeping your head down and passively accepting things.

B: The ending really elevated this film. This isn’t just a heartwarming story about a guy who really cared; it shows how ugly humanity can be, even after they’ve had oppression lifted from them. In the 80s era of blockbuster films, it would have been easy to try to shoehorn in a happy ending—especially after the really upbeat opening of the film—but this ends on a really dark note.

B: For many people, protest means spending an hour coming up with a Harry Potter pun for your cardboard sign, marching along a police-designated route, and going home afterward. That casual approach is based on the privilege of being able to ignore injustice when you go home. For many people, injustice won’t let them switch off after the march is over. Protest is more than a two-hour event—it needs to disrupt the social structure.

B: Effective protest should be impossible to ignore, but also impossible to blame. And as the film shows us, protest will probably be painful.

B: The point of protest is not to punish wrongdoing, it’s not to express anger; the point of protest is to expose a system of violence and oppression. It’s to say, ‘Hey, you’re being violent and oppressive and I’m going to protest to make you expose yourself.’

B: The only way people are able to take that casual approach to protest is if they have the privilege of being able to go home and switch it off. If they can ignore injustice when they go home, for them, protest is an event. But there are so many people for whom injustice won’t let you forget it exists, it won’t let you forget who it thinks you are, and it won’t let you switch off after that march is over. For these people—for the oppressed people, the marginalized people—protest is much more than a two-hour event. It needs to disrupt the social structure.

B: If you protest an oppressive regime or an unjust establishment, they will strike you, and that’s where that Bible passage comes in. They strike you, you don’t turn away, you persist and you force them to either strike you again, exposing their brutality, or they back down.

B: I think the driving force behind protest, which is empathy, is under attack. … Civil rights are being re-labeled by opponents as identity politics and PC culture. How many people do you hear complaining about ‘PC culture’ when really, they’re complaining about civil rights. They’re trying to nullify conversations around justice. There’s this backlash saying that the majority is now the most oppressed group out there. And even a lot of times when brutality is exposed, many people will defend the brutality, saying the victims had it coming. There’s this whole field of asshole apologetics for ignorance and hate. People are now boldly proclaiming, ‘I hold onto these values, these traditional values.’ Things like ignorance and hate are now considered values. We’re witnessing a decades-long propaganda effort, because, as I remember it, all the complaining about this started in the 90s and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger and bigger since then. It’s a decades-long propaganda effort to remove shame as a consequence for brutality and injustice.

B: If someone protests and exposes brutality, if there are no social repercussions, the protests are severely hindered. The reason the protests in [Gandhi] worked so well is because there is a social shame associated with injustice, and I think people are working systematically to remove this. To me, that’s kind of terrifying.

M: The Far Right have been really taking freedom of speech and turning it around on itself and saying, “Well, it’s freedom of speech, so I should be allowed to be a racist asshole!” Well, you are allowed to be a racist asshole—you’re doing it right now—but that doesn’t mean that you’re not going to be shamed or called out for it.

M: If we allow people to continuously do bad things without repercussions, how is anything going to change? This is when shame is a good thing.

M: I don’t see a problem with shaming people if they don’t do the right thing. That goes for you professionally and personally. If you don’t do the job you’re supposed to do or you’re not doing the right thing and causing harm to others, you should be allowed to be called out on it and feel shameful for your actions—they are bad, poor decisions. 

Next Episode

In our next episode, we’ll be talking about Juno.

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