300,000 extras appeared in the funeral sequence. About 200,000 were volunteers and 94,560 were paid a small fee (under contract). The sequence was filmed on 31st Jan 1981, the 33rd anniversary of Mohandas K. Gandhi's funeral. 11 crews shot over 20,000 feet of film, which was pared down to 125 seconds in the final release.
No studio was interested in financing the film. Richard Attenborough cited that most of the financing were solicited from: 1. Joseph E. Levine who agreed to finance in exchange of Attenborough directing A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Magic (1978). 2. The sale of the ownership share of "The Mousetrap". 3. Jake Eberts, a friend of Attenborough. The remaining of the money were solicited from major companies in England minus the BBC.
When plans for the film were announced, Richard Attenborough held a press conference in Delhi for the Indian media. There was much concern expressed about how such a revered figure as Gandhi, a virtual deity to many Indians, would or should be portrayed on screen. One female journalist seriously suggested that Gandhi should only be shown as a brilliant white light moving across the screen(!) An exasperated Attenborough snapped back:" Madam, I am not making a film about bloody Tinkerbell! "
For the funeral scene, advertisements calling for 400,000 extras were either distributed in pamphlets and by newspapers in Delhi. Extras were not allowed to wear anything other than white and as part of security measures, turnstiles were built at selected entry points for crowd control. The crew bought any clothing that was not white.
While filming in some of the more rural villages in India, with Ben Kingsley in full make-up as Gandhi, some of the older members of the communities were confused as they thought they were seeing the real man again.
It was originally intended in the funeral scene to use a wax effigy of Ben Kingsley as Gandhi. However, on the day, it was clear to Richard Attenborough that the wax dummy would fool no one so Kingsley was asked to lie on the funeral pyre. He kept his eyes shut throughout, despite having petals rain down on him constantly.
Ben Kingsley learned to spin cloth in the same way that Gandhi did. He didn't find this to be particularly challenging. Instead, the real problem he encountered was to spin and talk at the same time which he had major difficulties trying to master.
Gandhi's funeral scene employed 400,000 extras which makes it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest number of extras in one scene. This is a record that is likely to remain, as huge crowd scenes these days are largely done via CGI. The extras were not paid, they were all volunteers who came to honor the memory of Gandhi. This scene was shot on 31st January 1981, the 33rd anniversary of Gandhi's assassination, and employed 19 different cameras.
In 1962, Richard Attenborough received a phone call from an Indian civil servant called Motilai Kothari who was working with the Indian High Commission in London. Kothari was a devout follower of Gandhi and was convinced that Attenborough would be the perfect choice to make a film about him. Attenborough read Louis Fischer's biography of the Indian statesman and agreed with Motilai, though it would take him 18 years to fulfil the dream. His first act was to meet with the then Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter, Indira Gandhi, as well as Lord Mountbatten, the last Viceroy of India. Nehru approved of his plan and promised to help support the production but his death in 1964 was just one in a long line of setbacks.
Before filming, Richard Attenborough turned down Geraldine James' request to have an audio recording of the real Madeleine Slade / Mirabehn as part of researching the role. Instead she was told to play it straight like a normal English woman. Later she discovered the reason: after filming she was allowed to listen to the recording (taped between Attenborough and Slade in Austria) only to discover that Slade talks with an Indian accent, having spent 34 years in India talking in Hindi as well. It was James' friend, casting director Susie Figgis who recommended her for the role.
In the DVD director's commentary, Richard Attenborough mistakenly says that Ian Charleson died of cancer. This is not the case, Charleson died of an AIDS-related illness in 1990, the first mainstream British celebrity to do so. Upon his death, Charleson requested that the full cause of his demise be made public in order to bring greater awareness of the disease.
By the late 60s, Richard Attenborough was still struggling to get the film made. Figuring that David Lean might still be interested in the project, he approached the world-renowned director who agreed to make the film but then changed his mind to go make Ryan's Daughter (1970) instead.
Illness prevented cinematographer Billy Williams from completing the film. Ronnie Taylor flew out from England to assist him and ended up completing cinematographic duties. Both men were awarded Oscars for their work on Gandhi (1982).
In 1952 Gabriel Pascal secured an agreement from the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Nehru, to make a film of Gandhi's life. However, Pascal died two years later before preparations were completed.
Richard Attenborough, who was British, directed this film about an Indian political leader. He would later appear in Elizabeth (1998), a film about a British political leader directed by Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Although Gandhi (1982) won several Oscars, still many historians see this film as a propaganda. This is because Clement Atlee (British Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951 who declared freedom to India from British Empire) revealed to P.B. Chakraborthy (who served as both acting governor of West Bengal and Chief justice of Calcutta High Court in India) that the principal reason for the freedom of India from British Empire in 1947 was the erosion of loyalty to the British Crown among the Indian army and navy personnel as a result of the military activities of Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose. When PB Chakraborthy asked Atlee about the extent of Gandhi's influence upon the British decision to quit India, Atlee slowly chewed out the word, "m-i-n-i-m-a-l!" (Sources - Ranjan Borra's article "Subhas Chandra Bose, The Indian National Army, and The War of India's Liberation"). Famous Indian Politician Dr. B.R. Ambedkar in his 1955 BBC interview also revealed that the freedom of India from British Empire came as a result of the efforts of Indian leader Subhas Chandra Bose and his Indian soldiers.