Gandhi, My Father leaves you disappointed on many fronts. The film, looking at the stormy relationship between Mahatma Gandhi and his son Harilal Gandhi from 1906 to 1948, had the potential of being great – tackling a side of Gandhiji not seen – Gandhi, the father, the human being as against Gandhi the saint, the father of a nation. While the effort by director Feroz Abbas Khan and producer, actor Anil Kapoor, is sincere and there are some moments of brilliance with great performances and you are more than grateful that an attempt is being made to make a different, sensible film; the film ultimately fails to move you.
Slow moving and tedious, Gandhi, My Father comes across as a series of incidents and events strung together, giving it an episodic feel and an uneven flow. Consequently the film is unable to explore the father-son relationship convincingly and lacks that psychological layer to understand the characters better and give it the required depth. In particular, it is Harilal’s character that suffers. The film is called Gandhi, My Father and should have been an exploration from Harilal’s point of view but since he blamed his father for all his disappointments in life, the film could have shown Gandhi in more negative light so it appears the filmmakers have tried to balance out the film by keeping the viewpoint totally neutral by juxtaposing Gandhi against the freedom movement much more then necessary thus weakening the main focus of the film. Harilal’s character seems to lack a coherent graph especially since you see him often after passages of time, you are unable to undertsand his actions as their causes have not been built up sufficiently. For example his outburst at the Ramleela sequence; or him trying to get out of South Africa using forged documents. This comes out of the blue without any build up whatsoever; or even his conversion to Islam: was it an impulsive rebellious decision or was it due to something else? Many questions remain unanswered.
Even though the film’s focus is the relationship between Gandhi and Harilal, a lack of Gandhi’s interaction with his other children leaves a gaping hole in his character. It would have been interesting to see how the other children towed his line of treatment. But barring seeing them in an early scene in South Africa, it is as if they do not exist. We don’t even know the relationship between Harilal and his siblings to see how did the others view him and their father. Even separate scenes were not necessary and could easily have been incorporated with the structure of the screenplay. Hence we get a frustratingly incomplete picture of Gandhi, the father.
Given that this is an adaptation to screen, the potential is there to explore and open up from the play Mahatma v/s Gandhi (itself based on Chandulal Dalal’s novel) and by opening up one doesn’t just mean more physical locations. While the film has been shot all over from South Africa to Ahmedabad to Pune, few scenes have depth beyond a point of what they are trying to express. One rare such small scene is when Harilal hurts himself playing soccer in South Africa. Even as Gandhi attends to his physical wounds, he tells Harilal he is giving the scholarship to study in England to someone else thus hurting Harilal even more.
The film lacks a strong cinematic language and the material as it is has, in fact, not translated very well to screen. Many of the scenes, good as they might be, lack a proper entry and exit point. Transitions between scenes, so important in cinema for a smooth flow of the story, have not been worked out with the film having to resort a continual series of fade ins and fade outs to show passage of time. Dialogues are often informative in the worse sense of commercial Hindi cinema. Scenes of Gandhi asking Harilal to come with him get repetitive while some scenes like the one where the businessmen use Harilal or Harilal and his drunken friends are picked up by the police or even Harilal’s scene with the prostitute (what was that sleazy shot introducing this scene?) are cringe-worthy to say the least. Scenes that do work include the one when Harilal arrives in South Africa and Kasturba asks Gandhi why didn’t he go to recieve him. Harilal had been looking for him: it’s a summation of the relationship between father and son. Harilal would continue his entire life to search his ‘father’ – someone a tea stall owner claims as his own when he is assassinated. It is then that Harilal and we see that Gandhi transcends family, and belongs the nation.
More moments that the film captures quite well include Harilal’s meeting with his parents at the station where he gives his mother the orange ignoring his father and when he comes to her at Aga Khan Palace where she realizes he has been drinking and asks him to leave.
What lifts the film several notches are the four central performances. In spite of being handicapped with a sketchy role, Akshaye Khanna manages to breathe some life into Harilal’s role. True at times, the script defeats him and we are unable to understand his behavior but Akshaye captures the frustration, anger, helplessness and angst of Harilal’s life perfectly as he degenerates into becoming an alcoholic weighed down by the Gandhi name. Darshan Jariwala, to his credit, does try his own unique interpretation of a famous role. Shefali Shah is good as always as the woman caught between the two men. Hers is the more internal role as she silently suffers seeing what Harilal goes through. She makes the most of her two key scenes where she turns on Gandhi for not giving Harilal the scholarship and where she confronts Harilal after he has converted. Her death scene however loses its impact with poor make up. Bhumika as Gulab is efficient, leaving her mark particularly in the scene where she feels he is going astray.
Technically the film is middling. Compared to most Indian films, Nitin Chandrakant Desai’s production design and recreation of the period is a good effort. The camerawork by David MacDonald, who has shot for Ridley and Tony Scott, is brilliant in places and adequate in others. The framing – in particular the close ups – are too centrally composed, highlighting the difficulty of working in the CinemaScope format. The sound design by Resul Pookutty is efficient enough though one is rather disturbed by the low level and fluctuating levels of the dialogue track in many places. The editing looks inconsistent at times holding on to scenes too long or at times cutting them too early (the scene where Gandhi gets down alone at the station after meeting Harilal inside the train alone is a truly nice moment that could have been allowed to linger on) but here one can only say that the editor has fixed material to go by and Sreekar Prasad is an extremely experienced editor. Penny Smith’s make up for Jariwala and Shefali Shah over the years deserves a mention as in the aging process, even if Shefali’s make up towards the end is a little obvious. But how is it that Harilal and Gulab, in particular, hardly age throughout the course of the film? How old were they when introduced in 1906? And even if Gulab died young, surely there would have been some maturity on her face and body considering the life she had with Harilal and having given birth to 4 children. What is with our films that we can never get realistic enough wigs and mustaches? Background music is too conventional and ‘filmy.’
All in all, a film that one had really high hopes for but unfortunately is a disappointment.
Hindi, Drama, Color