Review: Gandhi My Father

Posted on August 4, 2007


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There’s plenty of raw material in the story of Mahatma Gandhi’s firstborn, but the finished product is a big disappointment.

AUG 5, 2007 – IT’S NEVER A GOOD SIGN in a movie – made with much passion, much commitment, and many, many good intentions – when your thoughts upon exiting the theatre centre on the wigmakers and the hairdressers, but that’s all I could remember from Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi My Father. There’s 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 – one that’s 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 – even the fade-ins and the fade-outs that punctuate the scenes appear to take twice as much time as usual – revolves around a powerful central irony, that the man who became father to an entire nation couldn’t be a father to his own son. (The film comes off remarkably like a Raj-era Long Day’s Journey into Night, which was also about a son trying to follow in his father’s 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 – a fine idea in theory. Unfortunately, while there’s a lot of dysfunction, there’s very little memorable drama.

Scene after scene sets up what should have been seeds for powerful conflict – if not literally (that is, physically), at least in abstract, dramatic terms. Early on, Harilal’s wife Gulab (Bhumika Chawla) packs him off to South Africa – despite her staying back in India, despite her being pregnant – because, “Bapu ko aapki zaroorat hai.â€? And after this sacrifice on his family’s 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, it’s never really clear why Gandhi Sr. is so disapproving of his son.

One thing that the film does manage – and this is no mean feat, considering how fearful of sacred cows our filmmaking culture usually is – 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 isn’t, as people seem to think, a saint who strayed into politics so much as a politician trying to become a saint – and I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s scathing review of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, where she remarked that Bapu had a “manipulative genius,â€? and that he employed “the 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 father’s brainwashing – which is merely another word for “manipulationâ€? – has been completely successful.

Far more shocking is the hypocrisy apparently inherent in Bapu’s address about the need to make untouchables a part of society – this, after he’s publicly denounced his son (and, therefore, practically made him an untouchable in the eyes of the millions who slavishly follow the Mahatma’s 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 Gandhi’s “imprisonmentâ€? 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 – a film that actually has the cheek to show us the Mahatma soaping up under a makeshift shower – isn’t that it doesn’t go out on a limb.

It’s that it doesn’t extend the same consideration to Harilal’s character. There’s a lot about the elder Gandhi here, and even if there’s an equal amount that’s left out, we know enough about the man to fill in the gaps for ourselves. But that’s hardly the case with Harilal – unless you’ve read Chandulal Bhagubhai Dalal’s 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 Harilal’s 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 Harilal’s 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, “Is 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 father’s feet; the next, he can’t bring himself to look at the man. (This scene, at a railway station, is Akshaye Khanna’s finest moment; he registers beautifully the childish obstinacy that makes people believe that if they ignore a problem it will somehow go away. It’s just too bad that the actor’s 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 don’t quite get the sense of having grasped all there is to grasp about the story and the characters. And that’s a shame, really. This little-known man – who failed in his studies, who failed in his business, who failed to keep his family together – continues his losing streak, failing to come alive in what would seem his best shot at being remembered by posterity. It’s his story, and he’s still playing second fiddle to his famous father.

Copyright ©2007 The New Sunday Express

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi