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CHENNAI, India — Feroz Abbas Khan’s “Gandhi My Father” tries hard to place son Harial on a lofty pedestal, but fails. At the end of the film, our sympathies are clearly with Mahatma Gandhi, whose lifelong obsession with truth and righteousness earned him the respect of millions, including the colonizing British, but could not stop alienating his son. The man became the Father of the Nation, but not of Harilal.
The movie’s highpoint is its foray into virgin territory. We have had features on Gandhi by among others Richard Attenborough and Indian New Wave pioneer Shyam Benegal, but none on Harilal. Yet, Khan’s work, despite great performances, may not ride the popularity charts, and the film may have to content itself with attracting limited arthouse audiences.
Though the father sometimes appears selfish in the cinema version, putting the interests of a nation before his son’s, Harilal never rises, either in our esteem or psyche, above Gandhi. Harilal’s frustration and disappointment at having to live in the elder man’s shadow translate into unlawful activities that include shady business deals and hitting the bottle. The movie’s attempt to show him as a victim of circumstance and parental neglect fails largely because Khan is unable to strike the right screen balance or time between the two men. Gandhi’s scenes are longer and a stealers. Harilal’s pales in comparison. It is Gandhi’s shame and sorrow at having failed to shape Harilal into a good human being that we remember, not the wayward son’s despair and dilemma.
Narrated in a series of flashbacks, “Gandhi My Father” begins with a dying Harilal in a Bombay hospital saying, to the disbelief of those around him, that he is Gandhi’s son. The movie takes us to Gandhi’s days as barrister in the early 1900s South Africa, where racism forces him into a lifelong battle against injustice. His saintly qualities of forgiveness, honesty, fairplay and duty to humanity — that compel him to overlook his son’s desires and ambition to the point of denying him a splendid opportunity to study law in England — have been captured in highly emotional scenes.
Harilal’s diffidence and his marriage to Gulab are juxtaposed with Gandhi’s own marital life with Kasturba. She invariably sees her husband’s folly in his relationship with Harilal, but chooses not to going beyond mild protest. The film comes a full circle with an alcoholic, penniless Harilal’s death five months after Gandhi fell to an assassin’s bullet in January 1948.
It is incredible how a flashy Bollywood star like Akshaye Khanna has been tamed into a mellow and shy Harilal. This is probably his best role to date. Equally amazing is the way Darshan Jariwala, known for his comic theater parts, has been moulded into an imposing, controlled Gandhi. The women have little to do, but Bhumika Chawla as Harilal’s wife, Gulab, injects a spark into her character that cannot be easily missed.
A trifle disappointing though is Nitin Desai’s propensity for glamorizing his sets, especially those in South Africa.
GANDHI MY FATHER
Anil Kapoor Film Company
Writer/director: Feroz Abbas Khan
Producer: Anil Kapoor
Director of photography: David Macdonald
Production designer: Nitin Desai
Music: Piyush Kanojia
Co-producer: Anil Gupta
Costume designer: Sujata Sharma
Editor: Sreekar Prasad
Harilal Gandhi: Akshaye Khanna
Mahatma Gandhi: Darshan Jariwala
Kasturba Gandhi: Shefali Shah
Gulab Gandhi: Bhumika Chawla
Running time — 128 minutes
No MPAA rating
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