When Karan Johar forgets to be a gossipy old English lady, he’s quite entertaining. Like he was this past Sunday when he invited Anil Kapoor and Akshaye Khanna on his show to talk about their forthcoming movie, Gandhi, My Father.
Produced by Kapoor and starring Khanna as Harilal Gandhi, the black sheep of the Gandhi family who drank himself to an early grave, Gandhi… is directed by debutant director Feroz Abbas Khan. And if you put any value in pre-release hype (um, full disclosure: I don’t) then this is going to be one heck of a movie.
In a way, I’d really like this movie to succeed. The subject of Gandhi has been done to death – negatively, positively, patriotically, hypocritically, critically… just think of an adjective. Chances are, it’d apply well to the topic. But Gandhi, My Father actually manages to bring something new to the table: here is a movie that not only brings up a facet of Gandhi’s that very few know or have thought about, but also enters that long neglected realm of Indian filmmaking: the biography.
When one thinks about how difficult it must have been to live with a person of unbending principles, whatever they might be, one automatically thinks of the immediate family. But the tag “Gandhi” has been so thoroughly taken over by the Nehru-Gandhis that when one thinks of that name, the Mahatma’s own family plays a distant second fiddle. At the most, we might think of Kasturba Gandhi, a woman who (arguably) chose to live and die by her husband’s principles, but what of his children?
Harilal, the eldest, is the most interesting of the lot. Some amongst you will remember the crop of movies that sprung up one year on the life of Bhagat Singh. There is a poignant scene in one them (they all tend to bleed together in my mind, which doesn’t speak well of any of them, I guess) in which the young Bhagat Singh, who left school to show his solidarity with Gandhi’s Non Cooperation Movement, is shattered to find that Gandhi’s reaction to the incident at Chauri Chaura means that he, like so many of his young contemporaries, has been left up a creek without a paddle.
Watching that movie, I remember wondering about Gandhi’s own children. If Bhagat Singh, growing up far from Gandhi direct sphere of influence, could feel such anguish and dismay, what would have been the reaction of Gandhi’s own family?
Well, Harilal, who wanted to become a barrister like his father before him, got the kibosh put on his education. No son of Gandhi would learn the Englishman’s law. Instead, he became an alcoholic, estranged from his family. Eventually he turned to Islam for solace but religion was apparently not the answer to his troubles. He died shortly after his father, his life lacking the kind of neat resolution we love to give fictional characters.
These are the kind of details that a lot of people would either like to forget about the Mahatma or would like to obsess over, depending upon their feelings for the man. But these are also the kind of details that humanize him. A lot of people forget that Gandhi was a living, breathing human being the same as any one of us. That’s what’s so great about him. That’s why biographies are so fascinating to read: they remind us that we all come from the same stock, what matters is what we do with it.
A number of people, like Ramachandra Guha, have written about the woeful lack of biographies in India, Gandhi (and to a much lesser extent, Jawaharlal Nehru) being the sole exception. But somehow this intense preoccupation with the Mahatma has not translated to the big screen.
Part of the reason might be the shadow cast by Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. It’s not exactly my favorite film but I can imagine the hesitancy in the heart of a filmmaker who knows his work will inevitably be compared to a mammoth movie that will forever carry upon its brow the stardust of an Oscar win.
Another factor might well be that any Indian who tackles the subject of the Mahatma does so with the full weight of his nation’s history on his shoulders. It’s a huge task. But according to all reports so far, Khan is a director who’s up for the challenge.
We’ll all find out this August 3rd.