On Mahatma Gandhi’s birth anniversary, a look at Feroz Abbas Khan’s 2007 film:
Gandhi My Father by Feroz Abbas Khan stands out for its attempt at brave and offbeat cinema. Based on the hugely successful play Gandhi Viruddh Gandhi, the film tells of the tragedy of Mahatma Gandhi’s (Darshan Jariwala) oldest son Harilal (Akskaye Khanna), whose life was blighted by his birth into the family of man who has already dedicated his life to the cause of the nation’s freedom.
Mahatma Gandhi’s wife Kasturba (Shefali Shah) and presumably, the other (unseen in adulthood) children understood that. Harilal’s defiance and rebelliousness just made him self-destruct. He died destitute in a Mumbai hospital a little after the death of his father—the film begins with a dying vagabond being brought into hospital, and goes into flashback. Mahatma Gandhi leaves Harilal in India when the rest of the family moves to South Africa; he opposes Harilal’s marriage to Gulab (Bhoomika Chawla)—not clear why. Later he refuses to send Harilal abroad to study law, which is his life’s ambition. His explanation is that he does not want people to think he is partial to his son, and also that there is more to life than formal education.
Again it’s not clear if Harilal had any talent at all—he seems to fail his matric all the time, even when he returns to India with his own, rather large, family. Later, Gandhi’s attempts at reconciling with his son fail repeatedly, as Harilal falls deeper into a cycle of failure and despair. His drinking, debauchery, bad business decisions, conversion to Islam all seem more like cries for help rather than revolt, but father and son just can’t reach each other, and Kasturba sorrowfully witnesses the widening gulf.
The film, like the many stage productions based on it, is strong at thematic level, and the period recreation top class. The point of view could have been sharper–did Gandhi’s control over his family’s fate border on cruelty? If not, then Harilal is just an idiotic loser with no skills—or why was he the only one who turned out this way? The lack of a contrast, or any connection with the other siblings, is a flaw. If Gandhi is not to blame for Harilal’s doom (which is what the original play suggested) then why are we supposed to sympathise with the son?
The frequent digressions to other significant events in Gandhi’s life (the old newsreel style black and white footage is excellently recreated in Forrest Gump style) take away somewhat from the conflict, so that the tragedy of the black sheep son never reaches the operatic heights it ought to have, to be really moving. Darshan Jariwala and Akshaye Khanna have roles to bite into, and they do well, but the women—Bhoomika Chawla and Shefali Shah really work wonders with their secondary parts.
After all these years, Gandhi, My Father remains a fine addition to the small list of films on the Mahatma.