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Ben Kingsley: A masterclass in eclectic character roles

As Sir Ben Kingsley turns 78, here’s a look into the veteran actor’s cinematic career and how he navigated a plethora of roles to global fame.

Shreya Paul
Dec 30, 2021
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Richard Attenborough’s 1982 film Gandhi was a watershed moment in British actor Sir Ben Kingsley’s life. On being offered the role, the actor was petrified. He was in constant self-doubt about whether he would ever do justice to the role of the global statesman. 

“I was standing at the foot of an enormous mountain and I made the mistake, chaps, of looking up,” he had said during a 2018 interaction. “If you look up, it’s crushingly impossible. If you look down, you’ll get dizzy. All you can do is look at the rock face in front of you … and ease yourself up.”

In a career spanning more than five decades, Kingsley has had several milestones. A veteran in the theatre circuit. Born to a Gujarati father and an English mother with Russian Jewish heritage, Kingsley was among four children. 

A generally guarded artiste, Kingsley has always been known to never talk about his personal circles or emotions. His slightly-intimidating persona also always preceded him, with rumours that the actor would insist on being called ‘Sir’ Ben, owing to the Knighthood he had been bestowed with in 2002. 

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“I told the Queen that winning an Oscar pales into insignificance—this is insurmountable. I'm fascinated by the ancient, by mythology, by these islands and their tradition of storytelling. I feel that I am a storyteller and to receive a knighthood is really a recognition of that,” he said of receiving the high honour. 

Despite these artistic quirks, however, the actor always remained steadfastly true to his craft of bringing out authentic roles on screen. The myriad racial vibrance that Kingsley was soon associated with, also has a fascinating backstory.

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In an interview, the veteran had once mentioned how his mother, Anne’s, constant lack of empathy drove him to the stage. A woman plagued by her own demons, Anne was known to have been conspicuously absent from Kingsley’s life. And this in turn, propelled him to find validation among strangers, through the art of slipping into myriad characters. 

Recalling a childhood incident that triggered his faith in the profession of acting, Kingsley stated that he had once gone to a Salford movie hall (aged about four or five) to watch a film titled Never Take No For An Answer.

The film, revolving around a young orphan boy in post-war Italy spoke about survival against all odds. The actor in Kingsley was so moved by the performance that he was convinced that he looked exactly like the boy on screen. 

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His doubts turned to facts when during his exit from the hall, the cinema manager promptly lifted him in his arms and exclaimed, "It's little Peppino,” referring to the child actor on screen. 

That moment of euphoria was a driving force for the actor-in-the-making. From that day on, Kingsley confessed, he was happily ensconced in his bubble – “I had an invisible film crew who were following me everywhere I went, hanging on my every gesture in close-up.”

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Apart from his famed role in Gandhi, Kingsley’s prolific film career had collaborations with noted directors like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Roman Polanski. And even though he could cinch only a single Oscar for his performances till date (he won for Gandhi), the actor has been nominated for an Academy Award for Bugsy, Sexy Beast, and House of Sand and Fog.

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A self-confessed theatre fanatic, Kingsley has often attributed his best years to his years of association with the Royal Shakespeare Company. His 1975 production, Hamlet, was billed by critics as one of the greatest retellings of Shakespeare’s works to date. 

Talking about the well-known performance, Kingsley had once said that he credited his director Buzz Goodbody for her ability to expose the “cracks in the armour” or the “flaws” in Shakespearian characters that modern audiences would immediately relate with. 

For Kingsley, Hamlet was a man whose life was fraught by the women in it. As a mother and a lover, his trust issues with the “fairer sex” only increased as the narrative reached a climax. “For Hamlet, the female is betrayal and loss,” Kingsley said.

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An actor par excellence, Kingsley’s rather esoteric niche gave way to more commercially viewed films in the latter part of his career where the actor was seen featuring in films like Iron Man 3, becoming a rather contentious supervillain against Robert Downey Jr. cult status.

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Kingsley’s filmography is a testament to his eclectic choices in characters, a feature he confesses was a conscious choice. That each of these characters connected with global audiences is further proof of his unassuming talent.


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