Director Richard Attenborough's respect for Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) is revealed in this film's opening statement: "No man's life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one's way to the heart of the man."
1893-1914. Mohandas K. Gandhi (Ben Kingsley), a British-trained Indian lawyer, is thrown off a train in South Africa because he insists on riding in the first class section, which is reserved for Europeans. He spends the night on the cold station platform. At a meeting later, he learns that such humiliations are frequent occurrences for Indians in South Africa. Gandhi declares such discriminatory policies must be fought: "We are children of God and members of the Empire."
The young barrister helps organize the Indian Congress Party of South Africa and leads a public demonstration against the law requiring Indians to carry registration passes. As he tries to burn the passes, he is severely beaten by the police, but he refuses to fight back.
Gandhi's philosophy of Satyagraha or "soul force" begins to take shape through experience. With his wife Kasturbai (Rohini Hattangady), he establishes the Phoenix Farm ashram, and puts more of his theories about equality into practice. He shares his views with Charlie Andrews (Ian Charleson), an English clergyman, and Walker (Martin Sheen), an American journalist. He believes there is room in South Africa for all, and the Indians must refuse to submit to injustice but resist without using violent means: "There is a cause for which I would give my life but no cause for which I am prepared to kill."
Faced with new laws recognizing only Christian marriages, Gandhi urges fellow Indians at a town hall meeting to undertake a massive Satyagraha effort, including protest strikes. When mounted police charge an assembly of striking miners, the Indians lie down so the horses will not trample them. The workers and their leaders are arrested. In time, Gandhi is summoned from jail to meet with General Christiaan Smuts (Athol Fugard) who acknowledges the success of the Indians' campaign and agrees to change the laws.
1915-1918. Gandhi returns to India and is given a hero's welcome by the National Congress Party. At a reception, Gopal Krishna Gokhale (Shreeram Lagoo), a leader in the nationalism movement, urges Gandhi to learn as much as he can about the real India, to see "what needs to be said and what we need to hear." With Kasturbai, Charlie, and others, he journeys by train throughout the vast country.
At a meeting of the National Congress Party, Mohammed Ali Jinnah (Aleque Padamee), the leader of the Muslim League, demands that the British grant India Home Rule. Then Gandhi urges the surprised and increasingly impressed assembly to identify themselves with the masses in the villages where "Politics are confined to bread and salt."
At his ashram near Ahmedabad, Gandhi now lives a simple existence. When word arrives of the desperate conditions of the indigo farmers in the province of Champaran, he travels there to hear their grievances. The British officials, fearing his popular following, arrest him. In his jail cell, Gandhi resolves to win rights for the poor. His identification with India is so strong that he urges Charlie to leave: "I have to be sure that what we do here can be done by Indians alone."
1919-1929. The British have adopted the Rowlatt Bills, allowing for the imprisonment without trial of Indians suspected of sedition. At Jinnah's house, Gandhi meets with other political leaders, including Vallabhabhai Sardar Patel (Saeed Jaffrey) and Jawaharlal Nehru (Roshan Seth), to discuss this threat to their rights. He proposes they stage a Satyagraha campaign beginning with a national day of prayer and fasting, i.e. a general strike.
The British Viceroy (John Mills) responds by ordering Gandhi's arrest. His imprisonment leads to widespread rioting throughout India. In Amritsar, British General Reginald Dyer (Edward Fox) orders his troops to fire without warning on a rally. Within 15 minutes, 1,650 bullets have caused 1,516 casualties.
After the Amritsar massacre, Gandhi warns the British that they are trying to be masters in someone else's home. He plans further acts of nonviolent noncooperation.
At an open-air rally, he speaks to the masses, urging them to prove themselves worthy of independence by removing the stigma of untouchability from their hearts, by seeking Hindu-Muslim unity, and by rejecting European ways, thus returning to their national heritage, symbolized by the wearing of homespun cloth and a new emphasis on village crafts. Gandhi himself learns to use a spinning wheel.
The Mahatma's ideas now begin to attract world attention. Madeline Slade, the daughter of an English admiral, becomes a devotee, accepting the name Mirabehn.
Then violence erupts again. A peaceful demonstration for Home Rule turns into a mob attack on a police station in Chauri Chauru, Bengal. A distraught Gandhi decides to undertake a fast until the people understand that "an eye for an eye only ends up leaving the whole world blind." Nursed by Kasturbai and Mirabehn, he fasts until Nehru reports that the Home Rule campaign has been stopped.
The British now arrest Gandhi for sedition. Judge Broomfield (Trevor Howard) rises respectfully when the Mahatma enters the courtroom in Ahmedabad, and after sentencing him to jail, expresses his hope that the term will be shortened. Gandhi states in court that he must continue to preach noncooperation with an evil system.
Released from prison in 1926, Gandhi returns to his home state of Porbandar. When the journalist Walker visits, he and Kasturbai re-enact their wedding ceremony. Later Gandhi assures Walker that he will soon have a story for him.
1930-1931. Gandhi launches a new campaign against the British by staging a 200-mile March to the Sea. There in a symbolic act he will make salt, challenging the British monopoly of this vital resource and proving, once and for all, that "They are not in control. We are." Soon Congress Party members are distributing salt throughout the countryside. Gandhi is jailed again, but the campaign continues.
At the Dharsana Salt Works, the nonviolent movement faces a severe test. Six abreast, Gandhians march up to the gate, row after row submitting to a brutal beating by the police. None fights back. The women carry each group of bleeding men away and tend to their wounds. After watching this chilling scene, Walker files a story by telephone to the newspapers: "Whatever moral ascendance the West held was lost today. India is free she has taken all that steel and cruelty can give, and she has neither cringed nor retreated."
With world opinion shifting, the Viceroy Lord Irwin (John Gielgud), invites Gandhi to attend the 1931 All-Government Conference on the Independence of India in London. The British are concerned about protecting the different interests of the Hindus, Muslims, and the princely states. Gandhi, although treated well during his visit, even by the workers in England's textile industry who have suffered because of the Indian boycott of English cloth, returns home empty-handed.
1942-1946. Gandhi arrives in Bombay for a speech and the authorities, fearing he will denounce the war in Europe, arrest him at the train station. Kasturbai is also detained when she announces she will speak in his place.
Imprisoned at the Aga Khan Palace at Pune during World War II, Gandhi is visited by Life magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White (Candice Bergen). He explains the value of a simple life and introduces her to spinning. From Kasturbai and Mirabehn, the American learns that Gandhi has worked for the liberation of women, seeing them and the untouchables as victims of slavery. Later Kasturbai suffers a heart attack and dies in prison.
1947-1948. Lord Louis Mountbatten (Peter Harlowe), the last British envoy to India, arrives to preside over the peaceful transition of power. But the Indians are not united on plans for independence. Jinnah argues for partition of the country into India, where Hindus are in the majority, and Pakistan, where Muslims are in the majority. Gandhi is vehemently opposed to this plan and, in an attempt to appease Jinnah, suggests he become the first prime minister of a united India. Nehru and other politicians counsel that the people will not accept this plan, and Jinnah threatens that without partition they risk a civil war.
On August 15, 1947, as flags are raised in New Delhi, India, and Karachi, Pakistan, Mahatma Gandhi spins at his ashram beneath a bare flagpole.
Throughout the subcontinent, millions of refugees are on the move, Hindus moving to India and Muslims to Pakistan. Years of bitter communal conflict result once again in riots. Gandhi goes to Calcutta in partitioned Bengal to plead for peace. He vows to fast until death unless the killing stops: "I can't watch the destruction of all I've lived for." When he is finally convinced by Nehru, the Muslim leader of Bengal, and Hindus from the streets that the violence has been curbed, Gandhi breaks his fast.
On January 30, 1948, in New Delhi, Mahatma Gandhi entertains Margaret Bourke-White and then goes to lead evening prayers. A large crowd has gathered for the occasion. One man bows respectfully, then draws a gun and fires three times. Gandhi dies instantly.
The next day, a monumental funeral procession in New Delhi honors the man who worked so long and hard for independence and peace the Great Soul who deeply believed: "The way of truth and love has always won. There are tyrants but in the end they always fall. Think of it. Always."
Gandhi offers us a conscience-exercising, mind-stretching, and growth-inducing experience, as it teaches us about a heroic man who was an ethical giant and a visionary. The film vividly portrays how Gandhi's courage and determination united his diverse homeland of India under a banner of moral idealism and how his philosophy and personality left an indelible mark on his nation and the world.