Gandhi, My Father

Gandhi, My Father


Reviewed by: Jeff Robson

Mohandas K Gandhi was undoubtedly one of history’s truly remarkable figures. A man who helped engineer India’s independence through a doctrine of non-violent passive resistance, his philosophy and personal example are a continuing source of inspiration throughout the world.

It’s easy to allow the iconic status of such people to obscure the fact they were also flesh and blood human beings, often with their share of faults. ‘Official’ versions of his story have skated over Gandhi’s troubled relationship with his eldest son and, in placing it centre stage, Feroz Abbas Khan has created a warm and moving film which easily stands comparison to Richard Attenborough’s 1982 epic.

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The story starts in 1906. Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala) has already become politically active in South Africa and has also founded the Phoenix farm settlement, an attempt to build a ‘model community’ based on ideals of equality, spiritual enlightenment and shared labour.

Harilal (Akshaye Khanna) joins him there, keen to share in his father’s work. But Gandhi is determined not to show any favouritism and believes a life of selfless devotion to the cause of freedom and equality must override any material ambitions and even family loyalties. So when a benefactor offers a scholarship for a family member to study law in England, Gandhi (despite knowing that his son wishes to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a barrister) sends one of Harilal’s cousins instead.

His decision marks the start of a gradual but increasingly bitter estrangement between the two. Harilal shuttles between India and South Africa, unable to settle in either country. He oscillates between fervent support for his father during his imprisonment by the South African authorities, ill-conceived business ventures and failed attempts to educate himself independently.

He is supported throughout by his wife Gulab (Bhumika Chawla), a childhood sweetheart whom he married without his parents’ consent, and his mother Kasturba (Shefali Shah), who constantly tries to reconcile father and son. But as Gandhi returns to India and begins his famous pro-independence campaigning, the shadow he casts grows ever longer. Harilal is increasingly plagued by opportunists keen to exploit the family name and when one of his get-rich-quick schemes results in financial ruin for scores of small investors Gandhi publicly disowns him.

In debt, and struck by a sudden personal tragedy, Harilal descends into an aimless life of vagrancy and alcoholism, even as his father is leading the nation towards freedom. Meanwhile, Kasturba continues to work towards a reconciliation...

Any film about Gandhi will inevitably invite comparisons to Richard Attenborough’s, but Khan (a noted playwright making his directorial debut) has created a much more intimate, low-key exploration of the man rather than the myth. Without being self-consciously revisionist or deliberately digging up dirt, the film suggests that the Mahatma was a difficult man to live with, one whose undoubted righteousness was mixed with a fair degree of self-righteousness.

Jariwala’s portrayal is just as convincing as Ben Kingsley’s and it is matched in intensity by Khanna’s performance as a man deperate to do what every son wants to do – measure up to his father – while increasingly aware that his particular circumstances render this impossible.

His efforts to come to terms with this, ranging from pathetic pleas for forgiveness to wilful acts of pique (such as converting to Islam and immediately making a public call for his parents to do the same) attain a truly tragic status, building to a moving climax.

A tighter focus on this central relationship might have made a truly classic movie. But in seeking to incorporate Gandhi’s campaigning and teaching as well, the film spreads itself too thin. Key elements such as the ‘spinning wheel’ movement and Gandhi’s heroic attempts to personally halt the sectarian bloodshed that followed the announcement of Partition have already been covered in Attenborough’s film and would be familiar to anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

This also renders the film guilty of the thing that plagued Harilal so much – being unable to resist the centrifugal pull of such an iconic figure. As a result the narrative flits wildly in time and place. Combined with the bewildering variety of directorial styles (Bollywood-esque set pieces, faux-newsreel scenes interspersed with the genuine article) it makes for an uneven end product that never completely nails the relationship at its heart.

Perhaps to ask a film to do that of any father-son conflict is asking too much. But this is still a fresh, compelling and moving take on the story of a man who despite (or perhaps because of) all his success as peacemaker, campaigner and politician was, for one of his children at least, a failure at the task of being a good dad.

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2007
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In 1906, Gandhi’s eldest son Harilal joins his father at his recently-founded communal farm/ashram in South Africa. But as Gandhi’s civil rights campaigning gathers pace, the relationship between the two men becomes strained.
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Director: Feroz Abbas Khan

Writer: Feroz Abbas Khan

Starring: Akshaye Khanna, Dharshan Jariwala, Shefali Shah, Bhumika Chawla, Vinay Jain

Year: 2007

Runtime: 135 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: India


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