Classy production values and a textured lead performance by Darshan Jariwala are undercut by a lack of real drama in “Gandhi My Father,” a sideways look at one of India’s most iconic figures through his fractured relationship with his son. Pic has racked up only discreet business since its Aug. 3 release in the U.K. but would make a worthwhile addition to festivals’ slates.
Bankrolled by actor Anil Kapoor, this first film outing by noted legit writer-director Feroz Abbas Khan, here adapting his own theater piece, marshals a fine tech team, including top p.d. Nitin Chandrakant Desai (“Devdas,” “Lagaan,” “Salaam Bombay”) and editor Sreekar Prasad (“The Terrorist,” “Dil chahta hai”). But a lack of real spectacle to balance the intimate story and a one-note perf by Bollywood star Akshaye Khanna as the conflicted son never allow the movie to get its wheels off the ground and truly fly. It’s a thoughtful, well-written item that rarely grips emotionally.
In Bombay, June 1948, Harilal Gandhi (Khanna) is found disheveled and semi-conscious outside a railroad station and taken to a hospital, where he keeps muttering, to disbelieving staff, that his family name is Gandhi. Extensive flashbacks limn the story of him and his dad, starting when he was a young man in 1906.
That year, Gandhi (Jariwala), then a lawyer with a practice in Durban, South Africa, was obsessed with his Phoenix Settlement project. Already in conflict with his father, eldest son Harilal insists on marrying arranged bride Gulab (Bhumika Chawla) back in Rajkot, India, so Gandhi disowns him.
Under discreet pressure from his wife, Kastu (Shefali Shah), Gandhi finally relents, and both Harilal and Gulab sail to Durban, where Harilal trains as a barrister at his dad’s firm. Eager to earn his father’s respect, Harilal leads a demo by the Indian community against South Africa’s racist laws, and ends up in stir.
Pic’s main theme is how Gandhi consistently sacrificed the good of his own family to his own stubbornness and iron principles, and to his lifetime’s desire to see an independent, united India. Script doesn’t mince its words here, showing not only how Gandhi failed to see the country united religiously but also how he tragically hampered the career of his eldest son, who eventually turned to drink, petty theft and beggary.
By the time Gandhi leaves South Africa to help the struggle in India, Harilal, who left earlier to continue his education on his own, is already on the road to ruin. By 1925, after failing in business, Harilal is publicly disowned by his father. Ten years later, as Gandhi controversially argues for religious unity across the Hindu-Muslim divide, Harilal is rescued by the Muslim community and adopts the name Abdullah. As the father-son relationship collapses, India itself also slides into social chaos.
There’s enough material here for a powerful story of onstage/offstage family conflict, but the movie fails to build a dramatic head of steam across its two-hour-plus span. Individual scenes are fine, but there’s no overriding dramatic arc. Significantly, black-and-white docu inserts (both staged and genuine) are among the most powerful, with Piyush Kanojia’s impressively detailed, modally flavored score supplying most of the emotion through its chordal string writing.
Khanna draws a likeable enough guy who was fatally undermined by his father’s inflexibility, but it’s a one-expression, downcast perf that has no onscreen chemistry with Jariwala’s more subtle playing as Gandhi.
Lensing by David Macdonald bathes the movie in ochre colors that fit the period setting, and occasional bigger sequences are well handled within their limitations.
An all-English version was shot simultaneously, though distrib Eros Intl. wisely went for the more realistic Hindi one.