Jugu Abraham writes about Indian director Feroz Abbas Khan’s 2007 Hindi/English film Gandhi, My Father
“The greatest regret of my life…. Two people I could never convince – my Muslim friend Mohammed Ali Jinnah and my own son Harilal Gandhi.”-Mahatma Gandhi
It was easy for Sir Richard Attenborough to make Gandhi (1982)-he was merely narrating a story of a great individual who walked on this planet not so long ago. Comparatively, it must have been a lot tougher for director Feroz Abbas Khan making his debut as a filmmaker to make Gandhi, my father, pitting a shriveled anti-hero against an international hero, both of whom were historically real individuals, and ironically father and son. The events in the film are mostly real. Mahatma Gandhi lived as shown in the film, setting high moral standards for the world to follow. Yet these very standards overshadowed the aspirations of his eldest son Harilal to be a lawyer of repute like his father, to complete his education and get a job in India and thus provide income for his nuclear family.
The film does not debunk Gandhi and his ideals. For Gandhi, his mission was larger than his family’s aspirations. He loved his family and cared for them, though his thoughts for their appeasement were blinkered by his ideal of caring for the masses. He stood for equality and dignity among all persons and in his view to give special undue advantages to his own son overlooking other deserving persons went against the basis of what he preached. The film looks at an unusual case of parenting-where an idealist parent places receding goalposts for a less-than-brilliant offspring.
The film presents an unusual scenario that really happened. A son marries his childhood sweetheart, upsetting his father. The father upsets his son’s educational aspirations at several key junctures. The fragile link between a devoted son and a father breaks, as the son wants to stand on his own feet and care for his nuclear family. While the father gradually becomes the father of a nation, the son stumbles in valiant quest for identity and survival. His marriage breaks and seeks solace in religion, buffeting between Islam and Hinduism. Through all his tribulations his link to his mother remains, until she chides him for being drunk.
Feroz Khan is essentially a director of plays making his foray into cinema. He wrote and directed the play Mahatma vs. Gandhi that had considerable impact on the Indian theater community. The play and the consequent film were based on two biographies, one by Chandulal Dalal and another by Nilamben Parekh, The success of the staged play was an evident reason for the commercial Bollywood actor Anil Kapoor to produce this noteworthy film. Every time a good director of plays attempts to direct cinema there is an evidence of a lack of confidence with the medium. Peter Brook is a great director of plays, but less competent as a film director.
The opening shots of Khan’s film promises great cinema-a derelict Harilal Gandhi is brought to Sion Hospital, Bombay (Mumbai) barely mumbling that his father is Bapu (the popular name of Mahatma Gandhi), father to an entire nation. The hospital authorities do not recognize him to be Mahatma Gandhi’s eldest son, dying in poverty and loneliness.
Apart from the dramatic opening, the film unfortunately merely presents a great story and some superb exterior shots of father and son meditating in silhouette. For an Indian film it does present some high production qualities that go hand in hand with a lack of interest for details (the clothes of most Indians in the film seem dust-free and freshly laundered, somewhat modern hairstyles of actors, and even Shefali Shetty playing Mohandas Gandhi’s wife a century ago with plucked eyebrows), the bane of Indian cinema. Since Feroz Khan is a theater personality, he has invested much more effort in working with the actors in developing the characters rather than on cinematic details, somewhat like Sir Attenborough another person who is also a product of theater (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts).
Knowing quite well that to criticize Gandhi in any manner was asking for trouble, even when there was no direct criticism in the film, producer Anil Kapoor took a remarkable decision of not putting up posters of the film at accessible heights in India, fearing that some one could tear the poster or disrespect it intentionally or unintentionally.
With all its mix of greatness and faults, Gandhi, my father throws several questions at the viewer. Is a mother-son bonding stronger than a father-son bonding in parenting? Is one’s immediate family less important than humanity at large? Does one seek refuge in religion and alcohol only when worldly troubles are encountered? In this film, Harilal buffeted by adversities runs from one religion to another, while his father quotes scriptures “Forgive them for they know not what they do” when beaten and thrown on the ground by a South African policeman, convinced of the value of religion and convincing others as well.
The film won the Best actress award at the Tokyo International Film Festival for Shefali Shetty (Shah) and an Indian award from critics. Feroze Khan and Anil Kapoor have handled a sensitive subject very well and elicited above-average performances from the ensemble of actors. I do hope the international success of the film paves the way for some able director to film another brilliant Indian play Girish Karnad’s Tughlaq some day meeting international quality standards.