On 30 January 1948 after an evening prayer, an elderly Gandhi is helped out for his evening walk to meet a large number of greeters and admirers. One visitor, Nathuram Godse, shoots him point blank in the chest. Gandhi exclaims, “Oh, God!”, and then falls dead.
In 1893, the 23-year-old Gandhi is thrown off a South African train for being an Indian sitting in a first-class compartment despite having a first-class ticket. Realising the laws are biased against Indians, he then decides to start a nonviolent protest campaign for the rights of all Indians in South Africa. After numerous arrests and unwelcome international attention, the government finally relents by recognising some rights for Indians.
In 1915, as a result of his victory in South Africa, Gandhi is invited back to India, where he is now considered something of a national hero. He is urged to take up the fight for India’s independence, (Swaraj, Quit India) from the British Empire. Gandhi agrees, and mounts a nonviolent non-cooperation campaign of unprecedented scale, coordinating millions of Indians nationwide. There are some setbacks, such as violence against the protesters and Gandhi’s occasional imprisonment. The 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre is also depicted in the film.
Nevertheless, the campaign generates great attention, and Britain faces intense public pressure. In 1930, Gandhi protests against the British-imposed salt tax via the highly symbolic Salt March. He also travels to London for a conference concerning Britain’s possible departure from India; this, however, proves fruitless. After the Second World War, Britain finally grants Indian independence. Indians celebrate this victory, but their troubles are far from over. The country is subsequently divided by religion. It is decided that the northwest area and the eastern part of India (current-day Bangladesh), both places where Muslims are in the majority, will become a new country called Pakistan. It is hoped that by encouraging the Muslims to live in a separate country, violence will abate. Gandhi is opposed to the idea, and is even willing to allow Muhammad Ali Jinnah to become the first prime minister of India, but the Partition of India is carried out nevertheless. Religious tensions between Hindus and Muslims erupt into nationwide violence. Horrified, Gandhi declares a hunger strike, saying he will not eat until the fighting stops. The fighting does stop eventually.
Gandhi spends his last days trying to bring about peace between both nations. He thereby angers many dissidents on both sides, one of whom (Godse) is involved in a conspiracy to assassinate him. Gandhi is cremated and his ashes are scattered on the holy Ganga. As this happens, viewers hear Gandhi in another voiceover from earlier in the film.