Dir: Feroze Abbas Khan. Ind. 2007. 128mins.
'To his nation, he was a father. To his son, he was a father...he never had.' Thus reads the tag line for Feroze Abbas Khan's Gandhi My Father, a film which never seems entirely sure whether it wants to be a sweeping historical epic along the lines of Richard Attenborough's celebrated biopic of the Indian leader or a closely focused family drama. Rather it tells the sad, and very chequered, story of Mahatma Gandhi's son, Harilal who, overshadowed by his father, Harilal died as a beggar and alcoholic.
Well-written and exhaustively researched, it will tap into the huge curiosity that still surrounds Gandhi, a near mythical figure in modern Indian history. Some cinemagoers will be very curious about an aspect of Gandhi's life that (at least in the West) remains relatively little explored. Khan has also elicited two excellent performances from Darshan Jariwala as Mahatma Gandhi and Akshaye Khanna as his wastrel son.
But the attempts to trace Gandhi's role in modern Indian history inevitably distract from a full exploration of the father-son relationship. There is also sometimes the sense that the film-makers are pulling their punches. Early on, they infer that Gandhi has been a negligent father but they do not want to be too critical of such a venerated figure. Nor - despite Harilal's fall from grace - do they want to lapse too far into the real of melodrama.
The result is a film that often appears to be pulling in opposing directions. Overlong, sometimes repetitive and with only modest production values, Gandhi My Father looks like a tough sell beyond home crowds and sympathetic overseas audiences when it rolls out in the US, UK and India among others on August 3.
Gandhi My Father begins in June 1948, as a near-dead body is found in the driving rain. With matted hair and an unkempt beard, the man looks like a common beggar; in fact it is Harilal, a homeless alcoholic. No-one will believe that he is the son of Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated only six months before.
In flashbacks, we follow Gandhi's (Jariwala) involvement in the civil rights struggle in South Africa in the years leading up to the First World War. During this period, Harilal (Khanna) is a dutiful son, idealistic and doggedly loyal to his father but also under-fulfilled. His father is so embroiled in his political campaigning that Harilal has not received a proper education: he yearns to become a lawyer, but Gandhi is either unaware of his aspirations or does not think he is up to it.
Harilal's later problems - and many failed business ventures - are (the film-makers imply) rooted in this early lack of opportunity. The son feels shame and frustration that he is never given the opportunity to crawl from under his father's shadow. Harilal's mother (Shah), who remains devoted to him, tries to cajole her husband into helping Harilal with his career, but Gandhi's focus is elsewhere.
The scenes between father and son are well played. Darshan Jariwala portrays the Indian leader as a genial, cheerful but utterly determined figure. Meanwhile Akshaye Khann conveys the son's naivete, frustration and his weakness. As he says poignantly to his father at one stage: 'You cut my wings. How am I supposed to fly''
But once the action switches to India, the storytelling becomes less certain. Using archive footage and Zelig-like black-and-white reconstructions, the film-makers chronicle Gandhi's political battles against the British and his non-violence campaigns.
Meanwhile we are shown how Harilal disappoints his father. His business ventures invariably fail and his loyal wife (Chawla) has to hide him from his many creditors. He turns to drink: when he is at a low ebb, he continually uses his father's name to bail himself out of difficulty.
Initially, there is considerable pathos in his fall from grace, Harilal's overwhelming grief at the death of his wife and in the way his mother always tries to stand up for him. There is also a strong Oedipal strain to the storytelling. Harilal wants to defy his father and establish his own identity: when he converts to Islam, it is clear he is doing so not only for material gain but to infuriate his father.
However, just as Harilal taxes the patience of almost everyone who tries to help him, the story of his decline and fall makes increasingly heavy demands on audience patience. It is a grim saga which surely did not demand to be told at quite such length.
The film aspires for a David Lean-like epic quality but only fleetingly achieves it. Little details grate - for instance, the obviously false whiskers worn by General Smuts (Viljoen); or the big set-pieces in which there never quite seem to be enough extras.
Individual scenes - Harilal defiantly confessing to his misdeeds on a busy street as a theatrical troupe passes by or the sequence in which he runs alongside his parents as they sit feted by huge crowds in a train - are well handled but the pacing overall is slack.
Before making the film, Feroze Khan also directed a very well-received theatre play, Mahatma Vs Gandhi, on the same subject. On stage, one guesses, the story must have been more tightly focused. At its core, this is a family drama about the vexed and very complicated relationship between a father and a son. By trying to open up the drama, Khan risks weakening it: rather the film is at its strongest when father and son are together, not when it is striving to be a big-screen epic.
Anil Kapoor Films Company
Nitin Chandrakant Desai
Bonnie Lee Bouman