FODDER AND SON
Thereâs plenty of raw material in the story of Mahatma Gandhiâs firstborn, but the finished product is a big disappointment.
AUG 5, 2007 – ITâS NEVER A GOOD SIGN in a movie â made with much passion, much commitment, and many, many good intentions â when your thoughts upon exiting the theatre centre on the wigmakers and the hairdressers, but thatâs all I could remember from Feroz Abbas Khanâs Gandhi My Father. Thereâs Harilal Gandhi (Akshaye Khanna, as the son of the more famous Gandhi, very nicely played by Darshan Jariwala) in his younger days, with a dashing fringe flapping over part of his forehead. There he is upon his conversion to Islam, with an intimidatingly lengthy beard â one thatâs all the more conspicuous due to the absence of a complementary moustache. There he is in his later days, a bedraggled beggar with filthy, matted hair covering apparently everything except his eyes.
But for all these physical transformations of a shadowy son forever eclipsed by a famous father, I came away with practically no insights into his emotional journey. The glacially-paced narrative â even the fade-ins and the fade-outs that punctuate the scenes appear to take twice as much time as usual â revolves around a powerful central irony, that the man who became father to an entire nation couldnât be a father to his own son. (The film comes off remarkably like a Raj-era Long Dayâs Journey into Night, which was also about a son trying to follow in his fatherâs footsteps, failing, and ending up a pitiful drunk. Alternately, you could think of the self-destructive father-son dynamic in Shakti.) In other words, Gandhi My Father attempts to treat the life of the Gandhis as a dysfunctional family drama â a fine idea in theory. Unfortunately, while thereâs a lot of dysfunction, thereâs very little memorable drama.
Scene after scene sets up what should have been seeds for powerful conflict â if not literally (that is, physically), at least in abstract, dramatic terms. Early on, Harilalâs wife Gulab (Bhumika Chawla) packs him off to South Africa â despite her staying back in India, despite her being pregnant â because, âBapu ko aapki zaroorat hai.â? And after this sacrifice on his familyâs part, how did Harilal feel when his father did not even come to the station to receive him? His reactions are dismissed with alarming casualness in a conversation that his mother Kasturba (Shefali Shah, swaying impressively between loyalty to her husband and love for her son) has with his father, and even then, itâs never really clear why Gandhi Sr. is so disapproving of his son.
One thing that the film does manage â and this is no mean feat, considering how fearful of sacred cows our filmmaking culture usually is â is to strip at least a few coats of whitewash off the Mahatma. When Bapu is leaving South Africa for good, the white-man speaking at his farewell remarks that the guest of honour isnât, as people seem to think, a saint who strayed into politics so much as a politician trying to become a saint â and I was reminded of Pauline Kaelâs scathing review of Richard Attenboroughâs Gandhi, where she remarked that Bapu had a âmanipulative genius,â? and that he employed âthe same diabolic tricks as the Jewish mothers that TV comics complain about.â? You could fashion a similar argument from this film, from the scene in court where Harilal happily accepts a prison sentence for civil disobedience; you could say that his fatherâs brainwashing â which is merely another word for âmanipulationâ? â has been completely successful.
Far more shocking is the hypocrisy apparently inherent in Bapuâs address about the need to make untouchables a part of society â this, after heâs publicly denounced his son (and, therefore, practically made him an untouchable in the eyes of the millions who slavishly follow the Mahatmaâs every word.) And after this, when Harilal becomes destitute and drops off the face of decent society, the director slyly tucks in a shot of the senior Gandhiâs âimprisonmentâ? at the Aga Khan palace, winking at the fact that even in his worst moments, life treated the father a great deal better than it did the son. So the problem with Gandhi My Father â a film that actually has the cheek to show us the Mahatma soaping up under a makeshift shower â isnât that it doesnât go out on a limb.
Itâs that it doesnât extend the same consideration to Harilalâs character. Thereâs a lot about the elder Gandhi here, and even if thereâs an equal amount thatâs left out, we know enough about the man to fill in the gaps for ourselves. But thatâs hardly the case with Harilal â unless youâve read Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalalâs Harilal Gandhi: A Life, on which this film is based. How did it feel, for instance, to be ticked off about even something as minor as your choice of light reading? (Gandhi Sr. takes in Harilalâs copy of Saraswatichandra and remarks that his time would be better spent poring over the autobiographies of great men.) What, other than storming off in a huff, was Harilalâs reaction to being denied a coveted scholarship to study in England, when his father picked someone else for the honour? (And, of course, it never occurred to Bapu that he was doing his son a disservice, because according to him, âIs basti ka har ek bachcha hamara bachcha hai.â? Harilal was merely one among those many children.)
But, most bafflingly, what are the reasons behind the on-again-off-again relationship between father and son? One minute Harilal rushes to touch his fatherâs feet; the next, he canât bring himself to look at the man. (This scene, at a railway station, is Akshaye Khannaâs finest moment; he registers beautifully the childish obstinacy that makes people believe that if they ignore a problem it will somehow go away. Itâs just too bad that the actorâs fine efforts are otherwise hemmed in by a script that keeps drifting off towards the other Gandhi.) By the end, watching Gandhi My Father feels like reading every alternate page of a novel; with its sudden transitions across time and place, mood and emotion, you donât quite get the sense of having grasped all there is to grasp about the story and the characters. And thatâs a shame, really. This little-known man â who failed in his studies, who failed in his business, who failed to keep his family together â continues his losing streak, failing to come alive in what would seem his best shot at being remembered by posterity. Itâs his story, and heâs still playing second fiddle to his famous father.
Copyright Â©2007 The New Sunday Express