The prolific and versatile Ben Kingsley was pushed into the spotlight from semi-obscurity with Richard Attenborough’s epic Gandhi (1982). From then on, the skilled thespian has given several memorable performances. He can play just about any ethnicity. He can incarnate into an altruistic hero as smoothly as a deviant villain. Of course, Kingsley is totally unpredictable when choosing his roles. His choice to be part of Species, BloodRayne and Love Guru is definitely odd and surprising (nominated for Razzie awards too). But now it’s time to look back at the wide spectrum of quality acting and some of Kingsley’s finest performances.
15. Without a Clue (1988)
Thomas Eberhardt’s fascinating comedy adds a simple twist to the Sherlock Holmes premise. Here Dr. Watson (Ben Kingsley) is the real genius at Baker Street, and Holmes (Michael Caine) is merely an actor playing the role. To make things worse, the fake Holmes is actually a gambler, womanizer, and a drunkard. This comedy of mistaken identities has a tenuous mystery at its center. Yet, it largely works due to Caine and Kingsley’s masterfully funny performances.
14. Transsiberian (2008)
In Brad Anderson’s Hitchcockian thriller, Ben Kingsley turns up a terrifically keyed-up performance as an ambiguous Russian policeman. Kingsley’s detective Grinko is investigating a drug-related homicide. The film revolves around a married couple (Mortimer and Harrelson), who set off in Transsiberian express to reinvigorate their marriage. Instead, they get embroiled in a sinister plot. Grinko is a fine addition to Kingsley’s repertoire of playing different ethnic characters. By and large, he convincingly pulls off the Russian accent. Furthermore, Grinko remains pivotal to the claustrophobic pleasures of this entertaining train travel.
13. Oliver Twist (2005)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale doesn’t bring anything new. It lacks the visionary flourish, previously seen in the adaptations by directors David Lean and Carol Reed. Nevertheless, apart from the rich production design, Ben Kingsley’s Fagin is the film’s saving grace. As the villainous master who runs a gang of young pickpockets, Kingsley plays Fagin with a subtle depth. Wearing wickedly gnarled make-up, the actor even turns Fagin into a sympathetic and strangely endearing character.
12. Death and the Maiden (1994)
Roman Polanski’s adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s hit play was a claustrophobic work, almost limited to one setting. The film is set in an unidentified South American country after the fall of an authoritarian regime (probably Chile). The story begins with attorney Geraldo Escobar being appointed to head the investigations concerning human rights abuse. One day when Escobar gets a flat tire, a genial man named Miranda (Kingsley) gives him a lift. The lawyer’s wife Paulina (Sigourney Weaver) recognizes Miranda as the one, who kidnapped, tortured and raped her years ago. She seeks justice in her own way. Kingsley lends much needed genuinity and complexity to his character of a trapped rapist. Though the movie belongs to Weaver, Kingsley beautifully carries himself in a powerful scene towards the end.
11. Silas Marner (1985)
Ben Kingsley plays the titular role in this adaptation of George Eliot’s classic novel. Silas Marner is a weaver, who is falsely accused of stealing money from his church’s deacon. Banished from the town, he moves to a small, isolated community of Raveloe. Circumstances turn him into a miser and recluse. However, Silas’ life gets transformed with an arrival of an orphaned child left under his care. Kingsley is excellent as usual, effectively undergoing character transformations: from an angry hermit to a loving father. Notably, his scenes with Baby Eppie (Elizabeth Hoyle) are absolutely adorable.
10. Bugsy (1991)
Ben Kingsley plays mafia accountant Meyer Lansky in Barry Levinson’s gangster drama Bugsy (1991). The real-life Lansky inspired the Hyman Roth character in Coppola’s The Godfather: Part II. Kingsley’s Lansky is the childhood friend of protagonist Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty), a much-feared gangster in his day. Kingsley’s character is soft-spoken and emotionally detached compared to the other loud characters in the narrative. Accordingly, he gives an understated and dryly amusing performance. His low-key presence is almost contrasting to Harvey Keital’s (as Mickey Cohen). Interestingly, both actors were nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actor’ Oscar category that year.
9. Hugo (2011)
Ben Kingsley played silent cinema pioneer George Melies in Martin Scorsese’s passion project Hugo. Based on Brian Selznick’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, the adaptation marked Scorsese’s first attempt at a 3D project. Although the film was a tricky sell commercially, Scorsese gloriously used the new medium to tell this magical tale. The story revolves around a boy, who searches for a hidden message from his deceased father. His adventure also tells the story of the early days of filmmaking, led by genius innovator George Melies. Kingsley’s Melies in Hugo is a sad, waning man, who desperately tries to bury his illustrious past. Kingsley expressly conveys the man’s irredeemable sense of loss in a deeply poignant manner.
8. Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993)
Steven Zaillian’s kinetic drama tells the intriguing real-life story of chess prodigy Josh Waitzkin (Max Pomeranc). The 7-year old boy reveals his genius while playing ‘speed chess’ players at the New York’s Washington Square Park. Josh’s sportswriter father (Joe Mantegna) is in awe of his son’s gift. He takes Josh to learn the nuances of the sport from tenacious master Bruce Pandolfini (Ben Kingsley). Some great scenes in the narrative involve Pandolfini trying to hone Josh’s mastery. Kingsley plays the prickly, egghead champion with super intensity. The film boasts equally wonderful supporting performances from Laurence Fishburne, Joan Allen and Mantegna.
7. Turtle Diary (1985)
John Irvin’s uplifting drama tells the tale of two lonely people, drawn out of their shells. Ben Kingsley plays William Snow, a sales clerk in a London bookstore. He is divorced and lives in a drab boarding-house. Glenda Jackson plays Naera Duncan, an unmarried woman who authors and illustrates children’s books. Their mutual interest happens to be watching sea turtles at the London Zoo. Soon William and Duncan hit the road with a mission to save sea turtles. Part of the charm lies in watching these two consummate actors share the screen. Not to mention, Kingsley and Glenda flesh out a wealth of emotions through their effortless non-verbal gestures.
6. Joseph (1995)
Roger Young, who specialized in adapting Biblical stories for TV (Moses, Jesus, and Solomon), directed this 3-hour religious mini series, in which Ben Kingsley plays Potiphar, the chief steward at Pharaoh’s court. It is Potiphar who recognizes the genius of his Jewish slave Jacob. He is the exact opposite of Itzhak Stern. He is a man of absolute power, a narcissist and anti-Semite. Kingsley’s Potiphar starts off as a man we openly despise. But gradually we witness different facets of his personality which infuse certain respect for his character. Kingsley received a ‘Supporting Actor’ Emmy nomination for his role.
5. Betrayal (1983)
David Jones’ adaptation of Harold Pinter’s play is a semi-autobiographical tale of love, desire and betrayal. The film revolves around a woman’s extramarital affair with her husband’s friend. Interestingly, the entire story is told from the husband’s point of view in reverse chronological order. This clever approach often alters our sympathies and antipathies associated with each character. Ben Kingsley, who plays the husband (Robert), makes the most out of the drama’s nuanced shifts, skillfully portraying Robert’s understandable emotional changes. Despite Jeremy Irons’ robust, melancholic performance as Robert’s friend, Kingsley steals the show.
4. House of Sand and Fog (2005)
Ben Kingsley was adept at playing characters of different ethnicity. In Vadim Perelman’s devastating drama, he takes on the role of Massoud Amir Behrani, an ex-Iranian Air Force man. When Shah’s government fell, he and his family are uprooted to America. Behrani does menial jobs to ensure his family’s foothold in the land of dreams and hopes. One day he goes to Public Auctions and buys out a house for a little sum. That’s when his trouble starts with the house’s evicted former owner Kathy (Jennifer Connelly). House of Sand and Fog plays like a greek tragedy, enlivened by Kingsley and Connelly’s ferocious performances. Kingsley offers a deeply textured performance, particularly the closing scene, which renders us sleepless.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
There’s a certain mellowness to Ben Kingsley’s posture that renders intense dignity to his roles. After Gandhi, it was fully felt in his embodiment of Itzhak Stern in Steven Spielberg’s Holocaust epic Schindler’s List. Stern is a Polish Jew, forced to work for Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) during the beginning of World War II. Stern, the accountant, is given the duty to run Oskar’s factory that makes cooking pots. By the end of the war, Schindler with the help of Stern uses his factory to save the lives of 1,100 Jewish employees. Director Spielberg mentioned that ‘Stern is the conscience of the film’. Likewise, Kingsley was agile and perceptive as Stern, understanding the rigid constraints placed before the character.
2. Sexy Beast (2000)
Ever since Gandhi, it has been hard for Ben Kingsley to shake off public’s perception of him. Incidentally, Spielberg’s holocaust film further boosted his good-guy onscreen persona. In the mean time, he did play morally grey characters and even a mob boss (in Bugsy). But it was Jonathan Glazer’s riveting gangster drama that completely flipped Kingsley’s persona on its ear. In Sexy Beast, the actor occupies the screen for nearly 30 minutes. But his truly indelible, live-wire performance created a huge impact. Kingsley’s Don Logan is the perfect opposite of Gandhi. He’s a careening sociopath who exudes menace even while calmly sitting in a chair. The performance, full of suppressed and unpredictable rage, earned Kingsley a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.
1. Gandhi (1982)
Gandhi was undoubtedly Richard Attenborough’s masterwork, a purveyor of historical biopics. It also brought an actor of Britain Royal Shakespeare Company into the spotlight. A long list of white actors like Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney, and Dustin Hoffman were considered to play Mahatma. But it was Attenborough’s son, a theatre director, who recommended the then obscure actor Ben Kingsley. The daunting task before Kingsley was to make his eponymous character human. Subsequently, the actor’s preparation started from learning body language (through visuals). Kingsley, in order to understand Mahatma’s mind, was rumored to have read 28-plus books on his subject. His acute transformation from the belligerent lawyer to a spiritually-inclined political guru felt utterly compelling. Altogether, Ben Kingsley not only captured the spirit of Gandhi, but perfectly embodied the great leader.
By Arun Kumar