Fallibility of the father of a nation

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 September, 2007, 12:00am

New Delhi

As national figures go, no one is more revered in India than Mahatma Gandhi. The word 'mahatma' means 'great soul'. He's known as the 'father of the nation' who took on the might of the British. Every town in India has an 'M.G. Road' and a statue. His face adorns every rupee note, and Indian children refer to him simply as Bapu (father).

Indians like their heroes squeaky clean, pure and virtuous. They detest the sound of skeletons rattling in cupboards or any hint of character flaws.

Imagine then the jaw-dropping surprise of Indians on watching a new movie about Gandhi that portrays him as a failed father to his eldest son, Harilal.

Gandhi, My Father examines the relationship between the frail, half-naked ascetic who forced the British out of India with his ideology of non-violence, and Harilal, who looked up to his father, trusted him implicitly, and ultimately felt betrayed.

Harilal wanted to become a barrister, like his father. But he ended up an alcoholic, abandoned by his wife, disowned by his father, living on the streets like a tramp and dying alone in a Mumbai hospital.

The details about their unhappy relationship aren't well known to many Indians, despite Gandhi's status.

Harilal, played by Bollywood star Akshaye Khanna, was crushed when Gandhi refused to help him read for the Bar in London or secure his formal education. It shattered his self-respect and confidence. After following Gandhi to South Africa, where he'd gone to establish a law practice, Harilal tried to become a success in his father's eyes, but failed to emerge from his shadow.

Back in India, he eventually rebelled against him. The embitterment was total; the estrangement absolute. His child- like faith in his father having been destroyed, Harilal even abandoned Hinduism and converted to Islam to wound Gandhi, although he later re-converted.

Gandhi, My Father shows Gandhi as ostensibly benevolent and well-meaning to his son, yet singleminded and hard-willed, despite his wife Kasturba's attempts to soften his attitude. Anxious that, as a public figure, he shouldn't be seen to be helping his sons, Gandhi gave away a scholarship to read law in Britain to a stranger rather than to Harilal.

This made Harilal, the eldest of Gandhi's four sons, feel that he'd been sacrificed to his father's principles. 'You want to make saints of my boys before they are men,' Kasturba reproached Gandhi when she saw Harilal's dismay. Harilal himself later described Gandhi as 'the greatest father you can have, but the one father I wish I did not have'.

The film's script was written by the director, Feroz Abbas Khan, who based it on a play he wrote on the same subject, Mahatma v/s Gandhi. 'Mahatma Gandhi could transform the soul of a nation, but couldn't save the soul of his own son,' says Khan.

Although lengthy, the film is beautifully shot and boasts some superb performances. It's unlike most Bollywood films: there are no operatic scenes, high- pitched melodrama or song and dance routines.

Given the film's portrayal of Gandhi as a complex man who failed to save his son from a miserable death, criticism from his followers was inevitable. A group of Gandhians in Bihar protested about the film even before it was released, saying it was wrong to target Gandhi over his private life.

'Some people expected a movie about a failed father and that made them nervous,' says Anil Kapoor, the film's producer and a veteran Bollywood actor. 'But this is about a failed relationship. It shows him as a man with flaws but as someone who grew greater with time and became a mahatma.'

Kapoor says he has been overwhelmed by the critical and popular acclaim the film has received. It's playing to packed cinemas in India. Foreign critics have also praised it. The Guardian's Philip French hailed it as 'one of the most moving and courageous movies to ever come out of India'. At the film's premiere in Johannesburg last month, Nelson Mandela said it had moved him.

'He put away his prepared speech because he was so emotional,' says Kapoor. 'He spoke extempore about how Gandhi's ideals could still inspire. The reaction it's been getting has just bowled me over.'

Not only were Gandhi's followers silenced, but scholars called the film well-researched and insightful. Bidyut Chakrabarty, dean of social sciences at Delhi University and author of a Gandhi biography, says Gandhi was a product of his times. 'As a symbol to millions, he had to be very careful not to give his children any special treatment. In that sense, he wasn't at fault. The problem is that Indians treat their heroes like demigods rather than human beings with weaknesses.'

Even some of Gandhi's descendants say they have no problems with the film. A grandson, Tushar Gandhi, says it's historically accurate and fair. He wishes Indians would stop idolising his grandfather because idolatry usually results in mere lip service to ideas as opposed to real belief.

'If we understand a great person intimately rather than worshipping them, it's easier to emulate them,' he says. 'If even Gandhi failed to sort out this situation in his family, it makes us feel that even we, with all our weaknesses, can try to emulate him.'