A Humanizing Portrait of the Man Indians Call 'Father'

Darshan Jariwala, left, plays Mohandas Gandhi and Akshaye Khanna plays his eldest son, Harilal Gandhi, in the new film 'Gandhi, My Father.'
Darshan Jariwala, left, plays Mohandas Gandhi and Akshaye Khanna plays his eldest son, Harilal Gandhi, in the new film 'Gandhi, My Father.' (Anil Kapoor Films)
By Emily Wax and Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

NEW DELHI -- A man with long, shaggy hair and a thick beard, wearing a tattered overcoat, collapses in a rain-soaked alley. Soon after, he is lying on a gurney in a Mumbai hospital, shivering and moaning incoherently as a team of doctors try to find out who he is, asking him repeatedly: "What is your father's name?"

"Bapu," he whispers again and again. Bapu, or father, is the nationally recognized term of endearment for Mohandas Gandhi, the father of India. The medical staff at first take the man for a drunken, blathering vagabond.

That's the opening scene of "Gandhi, My Father," the latest blockbuster to hit India's cinemas. The rest of the two-hour film flashes back to the indigent man's life. He was, indeed, Mohandas Gandhi's firstborn son, Harilal, who spent much of his life in a love-hate struggle with the man who led India to independence in 1947. As a teary Harilal declares in one of the film's many flashbacks, "I am suffocating" -- forever unable to escape his father's shadow.

In the decades following his death in 1948, the man known as Mahatma Gandhi has become an icon. Photos of him at his spinning wheel wearing a white loincloth are as ubiquitous and globally recognizable as Bob Marley with dreadlocks or Che Guevara in a beret. Gandhi inspired civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. of the United States and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, among others.

Many know of Gandhi's courage and determination as a freedom fighter, but few know of his shortcomings as a father. In the film, Harilal views Gandhi as alternately aloof and domineering, stubborn and even selfish, traits that helped estrange his eldest son, even though firstborn males are traditionally the most favored children in Indian culture.

What makes the film significant is its humanizing portrait of one of India's most revered leaders, a depiction that would have sparked outrage even a decade ago. Released on the eve of India's 60th anniversary of independence from Britain -- being celebrated Wednesday -- it shows a far more vulnerable and even flawed figure than the saintly Gandhi portrayed in Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning film 25 years ago. Attenborough's deification of Gandhi was celebrated across India with packed cinemas, night after night, for years.

The new Gandhi movie is part of a recent trend in biopics -- including "The Motorcycle Diaries," about Che Guevara, and "Downfall," about Adolf Hitler -- that humanize larger-than-life historical figures, fleshing them out as ordinary people caught up, as if by accident, in extraordinary times.

"Sixty years after independence, the only Gandhi reference that we have is his political life, where Gandhi is a haloed demigod," said Feroz Abbas Khan, the director of the new Gandhi film. "But now with some distance, making Gandhi more human also makes him more relevant and real. I think that is very important in India today as we struggle to live up to and remember his ideals. We are growing economically, but we also have to lift millions out of poverty."

In his later years, Gandhi said his greatest regret in life was his inability to sway two people: Mohammed Ali Jinnah, whose push for a separate homeland for Muslims led to the partition of India and Pakistan soon after independence, and Harilal.

The film portrays Harilal as a bright, devoted son who is handed some bad breaks. First, his father holds him back from a law scholarship in London because he wants Harilal to join the protests against the treatment of Indians in South Africa, where they lived at the time.

Initially, Harilal supports Gandhi wholeheartedly in everything he does. He takes pride in being called Junior Gandhi.

But Gandhi criticizes his son's marriage, saying he should not worry about family life and focus on working. Harilal weds anyway, and back in India, after several of his businesses fail, he asks his father again to be allowed to go to London; later on, he asks for money. His father says no to both pleas, saying Harilal has to learn to stand on his own.

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