Gandhi My Father Review
The life of Mahatma Gandhi is a topic that has, perhaps surprisingly, been documented sparingly throughout the years in mainstream Indian cinema. While he may be considered the Bapu (father) of independent India and has left a god-like legacy in the nation, Gandhi nonetheless remains a touchy subject to tackle for Bollywood directors eager for a hit at the box office. While Richard Attenborough doubtless proved with his 1982 Oscar-dominator Gandhi that a study of the Mahatma made riveting viewing for a Western audience, the majority of cinema-goers in Gandhi’s homeland tend to seek some pure escapism and frivolous entertainment. What they aren’t looking to experience is a reminder and/or discussion of many of its old wounds – British colonisation, Partition, Hindu-Muslim tensions – all of which Gandhi could be found at the centre of. Indian filmmakers additionally are reluctant to risk upsetting the Mahatma’s followers with any material that could be perceived as being derogatory to their idol – something that has ended up occurring after past instances of Gandhi-themed Bollywood productions. Actor/director Kamal Haasan’s dark drama Hey Ram drew criticism during its release in 2000 for its grisly re-enactment of Calcutta’s 1946 riots and its characters’ subsequent hatred of a supposedly responsible Gandhi. Even lighter fare such as 2006’s entirely well-intentioned comedy Lage Raho Munna Bhai drew complaints for its humorous look at the Mahatma’s teachings in what the easily-offended deemed a disrespectful depiction.
And so it is not without a great deal of courage indeed that Indian playwright Feroz Abbas Khan has brought his well-received stage production ‘Mahatma vs Gandhi’ to the big screen in this enlightening and accomplished cinema adaptation that holds little back in its illustration of Gandhi’s troubled family history. Gandhi My Father chronicles the life of Harilal Mohandas Gandhi, the eldest of the Mahatma’s four sons. Having led a destructive and failure-ridden life, Harilal (portrayed here by Akshaye Khanna) is shown at first united with his father (enacted by Darshan Jariwala) in Gandhi’s revolution against the racist and oppressive British in his South Africa days before a rift develops between father and son. Having married his childhood sweetheart against his parents’ wishes, Harilal’s relationship with his father is further tarnished when Gandhi stubbornly refuses to grant his son the Western education Harilal so desperately desires to become a barrister like his dad. Ultimately, numerous estrangements occur between Harilal and his family, including the departure of his wife Gulab (ably played by Bhoomika Chawla), who is exasperated at her husband’s botched attempts to make it in life through various crooked business schemes. As the years pass and his father becomes a national icon for India’s freedom and prosperity, Harilal’s life descends into a tragic mess of bankruptcy and alcoholism. A brief foray into Islam proves to be another false move and after converting back to Hinduism, a grim end looms for a destitute Harilal just five months after his father is historically gunned down.
As the one hour mark of this 140-minute biopic passes, Gandhi My Father has by that time given a fairly damning account of Mahatma Gandhi’s skills as a caring father. Though Gandhi’s well-documented accomplishments as a revolutionary advocate of non-violence are also given satisfactory screen time, it is his suffocation of his son’s dreams in favour of his own ideals that are on prominent display here. Given a commendable performance by actor Darshan Jariwala, Gandhi is shown in the film’s first half as so blinded by his own righteousness and borderline arrogant that he ends up as much of a hindrance to his son’s independence as he is an asset to his nation’s. This is a powerful and original take on an aspect of the Mahatma’s life that is rarely covered in any medium and has been given appropriately moody and bleak coverage here by director Khan and cinematographer David McDonald with a slow-burning, heavy-hearted narrative and at times sepia-toned, dimly-lit photography – quite the contrast to Attenborough’s colourful glorification of Gandhi. However, as I’ve hinted at, the picture takes a distinct turn in tone and objective post-intermission. While previously the majority of screen time was devoted to Harilal and his struggles (with Gandhi merely featuring to illustrate his poor choices as a father), the screenplay opts after this to shift attention away from Harilal just as he is entering the darkest years of his life to focus on the Mahatma’s most celebrated times as India’s most famous protestor. It is a disappointment that the film feels the need to build Gandhi up again as the revered figure he was and is at the expense of losing focus on what has up until that point been the most sympathetic character and focal point of the movie. As such, the emotional drama that has been building fizzles as the narrative eventually limps hazily to a less-than-moving conclusion.
Along with this play-it-safe strategy is further impediment by actor Akshaye Khanna’s increasingly one-dimensional performance as Harilal himself. Khanna has proven his worth in prior films (in particular, with his sensitive and heart-warming turn as a lovesick college graduate in 2001’s buddy comedy Dil Chahta Hai), but in GMF he falls well short of greatness by ineffectively showcasing Harilal’s pain and strife leaving the viewer never really feeling for him quite as much as we should. Still, this and the picture’s patchy narrative cannot completely overshadow the film’s many merits. The plentiful individual heart-to-heart scenes of the story’s two main married couples – Harilal with long-suffering wife Gulab and Gandhi with loyal-to-the-end spouse Kasturba (Shefali Shah) – are supremely engrossing thanks to some well-crafted dialogue and two affectionate performances from the female leads. Music composer Piyush Kanojia’s score is suitably atmospheric and pleasingly restrained by Bollywood’s excessive standards (no song and dance sequences here obviously). Much praise must also be heaped upon the exceptional special effects work given to several flashback interludes that merges genuine newsreel footage of the turbulent events in pre-independence India with new scenes shot of the actors. Fundamentally though, most impressive of all is the film’s overall drastic humanisation of Mahatma Gandhi – for despite the narrative’s eventual cop-out, it is a feat worthy of applause that does no harm to the man’s legacy but simply adds more fascination to it.
Something miraculous must have taken place at the authoring labs of distributor Eros Entertainment in the short amount of time between my last review for its release of Cheeni Kum and this DVD now of Gandhi My Father. Having long been churning out discs of an extremely low standard, Eros look to have finally turned a corner and are now outputting DVDs of a calibre comparable to even some Hollywood releases. GMF gives a good indication of this new-found quality control with an image that is free from the pixellating, ghosting and blurring headaches that plagued previous Eros DVDs. Here, the picture is clear, sharp and rock-steady with a print free from damage and grain, boasting top-notch colour grading that accurately represents the film’s muted colour scheme. A major plus is also the absence of any on-screen logos and watermarks which Eros have annoyingly insisted on burning into the frame in the past. Minor grievances can be voiced of some light speckles of dirt present at edit points and of the non-progressive video which can result in occasional aliasing when de-interlaced on an HD telly. These quibbles aside though, this is undoubtedly by far one of the finest transfers ever from Eros.
More major improvements are evident in the form of this disc’s audio, which like the video has again been spared the many screw-ups found on previous Eros DVDs. This time around, the Hindi 5.1 Dolby Digital track actually outputs each channel correctly with no garbled or muffled anomalies. The sound here is perfectly clear and while the low-key movie itself may not lend many opportunities for some dynamic rear speaker action, no complaints can otherwise be made of this high-quality mix (an equally satisfactory 2-channel downmix is also supplied on the disc). Optional English subtitles are available and these are likewise superior to prior efforts, offering very well-rendered translations with no spelling or grammatical errors. The DVD’s sole disappointment lies with its extras which are limited to a 20-minute promotional featurette made up of interviews (entirely in Hindi, no subtitles) with the cast and crew.
Overall however, compared to the pitiful excuses for DVDs that Eros Entertainment have been serving up for an eternity, this release of Gandhi My Father is certainly a revelation. Encouragingly, it also doesn’t seem to be a freak occurrence as further titles from Eros since such as Heyy Babyy, Bhool Bhulaiyaa and No Smoking have kept up this new criterion. So it is with both a delighted and dumfounded expression that I doft my cap to Eros and say on behalf of frustrated Bollywood DVD fans everywhere… keep up the good work!
NOTE: Gandhi My Father has been packaged for a limited time as a 2-disc set which includes the DVD disc as described above and also the film’s original soundtrack on CD.