Gandhi My Father
Cast: Akshaye Khanna, Darshan Jariwala, Shefali Shah, Bhumika Chawla
Direction: Feroz Abbas Khan
A train’s about to leave. Rushing to a compartment, a desperate man hands a shrivelled orange to his mother. She asks lovingly, “Where..where did you get it?” as if she had been handed manna from heaven. And then the man tells his saintly father, “You are what you are because of her..and her alone.”
That’s one of the searing moments of Gandhi My Father, which marks the debuts of actor Anil Kapoor as producer and theatre wunderkind Feroz Abbas Khan as writer-director. The painstakingly-mounted duel between the Mahatma (Darshan Jariwala) and his prodigal son Harilal (Akshaye Khanna) has its heart in the right place.
It tells us that blood isn’t thicker than water – not when the struggle is to guide a nation towards its independence. If one’s own son is left by the wayside, so be it. That the nation’s father lacerated his son emotionally – with tragic results – was scooped by the stage play Mahatma versus Gandhi directed by Khan himself about a decade ago.
Now Khan goes at the story, ascribed to various authors, with an approach that’s overwhelmingly elegiac, stating that a man must sacrifice his own family at the altar of the greater good. The screenplay, at times tends to be patchy, jumping cursorily between South Africa and India. Despite that, the vignettes add up to a work which reminds you of one of the nearly extinct principles of filmmaking – and that is the importance of being earnest.
<b1>The director cannot entirely give up a theatrical approach, what with far too many entries and exits, like a boy bicycling into the frame, colliding into buffaloes, muttering some heavy-duty dialogue and vanishing into the blue. The meeting between the ne’er-do-well Harilal and a gang of leery industrialists is extremely jejunely staged, with hackneyed mid-shots and close-ups.
Like it or not, the cinematic style is out-of-date, harking back to Sir Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Also, the pace tends to be much too stilted, at points making you wonder if editor Sreekar Prasad had gone fishing.
However, once you’ve adjusted to the tempo, there’s no denying the poignancy of an inflexible father who’s disappointed by every breath that his son takes. As for the son, he suffers under the proverbial shadow cast by the Mahatma. Follows Harilal’s descent into alcoholism, debauchery, a brief conversion to Islam and bouts of self-pity. Now, Promethean tragedy sees both the generations crucified – one on the cross of greatness and the other on self-destruction.
Frequently, there are excellent moments, particularly when Ba Kasturba (Shefali Shah) strives to play refere. In addition, you are moved when Harilals’s wife (Bhumika Chawla) has to ward off door-banging debt collectors, and earlier on you’re amused when barrister Gandhi’s icy-cold British secretary thaws on seeing the wedding photograph of her boss’ son. Lovely.
The black-and-white documentary footage (with some Forrest Gump-like morphing) is needlessly overused. And some script-related questions linger: How could Harilal expect a scholarship for higher studies in England without having cleared his school exams? And why are the siblings of Harilal invisible, but for a few stray dialogue references?
On the upside, Nitin Desai’s production design is extraordinary. Of the cast, Darshan Jariwala passes muster (why were his ears changing shape and size, please?). Bhumika Chawla exudes that quality of human kindness.
Akshaye Khanna is absolutely inspired and gives the complex part all his conviction and intelligence. His breakdown scenes are especially heart-wrenching. And Shefali Shah, as Kasturba, is magnificent. Hats off to her, Khanna and a project that cares to state that right can be wrong. Yes, Gandhi My Father is cinema of A-class quality.