Sunday, August 24, 2008

71. Indian director Feroz Abbas Khan's Hindi/English film "Gandhi, my father" (2007): A super-human father and his prodigal son

“He is the greatest father you can have, but he is the one father I wish I did not have”—Harilal Gandhi, son of Mahatma Gandhi

“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 film 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 to get a job in India and, eventually provide income for his nuclear family.

The film does not debunk Gandhi or his ideals. For Gandhi, his mission was larger than his family’s aspirations. While he loved his family and cared for them, his thoughts for appeasing their aspirations 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 wanting to make his own life away from his father's shadow.

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 keeping his own interests at heart. 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 essentially good son stumbles in his valiant quest for identity and survival. His marriage breaks down and he 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, when he comes to meet her.

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 a good 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. For instance, the British stage personality Peter Brook is a great director of plays, but less competent as a director of films.

The opening shots of Khan’s film promises great cinema—a derelict Harilal Gandhi is brought to Sion Hospital, Bombay (now 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 bathed in 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, actors have somewhat modern hairstyles, and even actor Shefali Shetty playing Mohandas Gandhi’s wife a century ago has styled 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 Richard Attenborough, also a product of theater (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts), who invested considerable attention to performances and detail and less on the virtues of the cinematic medium in his Oscar-winning film on Gandhi.

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 national award (2007) for best screenplay. Director Feroze Khan and producer Anil Kapoor have handled a sensitive subject very well and elicited above-average and worthy 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.

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