Tragedy of an Indian family

I got into the presidential gala of Feroz Abbas Khan’s movie Gandhi My Father by default. I was offered some free tickets so I had no idea of what to expect and I was hoping it was not in vain. I was not to be disappointed.

Gandhi My Father is based on the private and troubled relationship between the public figure of the Mahatma, superbly played by Darshan Jariwala, and his anonymous son Harilal, played by Akshaye Khanna. The film is based on true events and is a refreshing take on Gandhi in that it focuses on Harilal’s life rather than his more famous father’s.

The film is historically set, and shot, in South Africa and India where a youthful Harilal looks up to his father as a hero. While Gandhi is busy being father to the nation, he neglects being a father to his son and the violence is committed when the Mahatma makes a political statement by overlooking Harilal for a scholarship meant for any one of his children to study in England and instead gives it to someone else in the commune he thinks is more deserving.

Gandhi’s ideological and principled beliefs come across as paramount for him in setting an example in his family for all of India to follow. For example there is a scene where he refuses to accept a free ticket offered to him by a train conductor. Unfortunately these principles and his emotional detachment are at great cost to his family. Harilal, then takes a downward spiral into a world of brothels, alcoholism, fraud and theft. To defy his father further he converts to Islam for a short period.

The son’s unrequited love eventually turns to hate when he blames his father for all his misfortunes. And the lid on this frustration eventually blows for Harilal one evening when he runs out on to the streets of India to publicly declare the burden of having Gandhiji as a father, “He is the greatest father you can have … but he is the one father I wish I did not have!”

The film must be commended for its superb photography, which exploits the richness and colours of India — textured with references to its many religious festivals and epics using its most ancient temples and mosques as backdrops. The editing is somewhat fragmented and transitional shots of sea voyages between India and South Africa would have been better left out.

For those not used to Indian-length movies it may be a little long. But this is not a Bollywood genre movie. It has a strong and original storyline and is a refreshing take on the role that women play in Indian society. Both Kasturba, Gandhi’s wife (Shefali Shah) and Harilal’s wife Gulab (Bhumika Chawla), play very strong roles that challenge the clichéd representation of the submissive Indian woman.

Gandhi My Father uses Indian news footage to reveal the tragedy of the partition of 1948, the source of much conflict between Hindus and Muslims.

Through this unconventional portrayal of Gandhi as a lead, director Khan has done a fine job of delving into tabooed areas of Indian life with his team of superb actors. It remains one of the most amazing historical connections that India’s icon of freedom was politically schooled in South Africa. To quote Essop Pahad, (who quoted Nelson Mandela) at the banquet following the event, “India gave us a barrister, and we [South Africa] gave India a Mahatma.”

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