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Grade: CGandhi, My Father (2007)

Director: Feroz Abbas Khan

Stars: Akshaye Khanna, Darshan Jariwala, Shefali Shetty, Bhoomika Chawla

Release Company: Lionsgate Films

MPAA Rating: NR

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Feroz Abbas Khan: Gandhi My Father

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Mahatma Gandhi Indian Nationalist and Spiritual Leader Sailing from Boulogne to Folkestone
Mahatma Gandhi Indian Nationalist and Spiritual Leader Sailing from Boulogne to Folkestone Photographic Print
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With disciplined editing Gandhi, My Father could have been a much stronger film, but director Feroze Khan strays from his focus during the final third of the film to mirror Richard Attenborough's less watchable and doting Gandhi. Based on Chandulal Dalal's book, Khan's biopic originally sketches how Mahatma Gandhi's oldest son Harilal (Akshaye Khanna) grows increasingly resentful of his father's willful neglect but deteriorates into homage. Perhaps Bollywood couldn't tolerate such a pointed portrait of Gandhi (Darshan Jariwala) as parental failure, but suddenly Gandhi's screen time increases and the tone radically changes from painting Gandhi as asshole to saint in the final thirty minutes. It's like taking a machete to the film's structure and beating it into mush.

The brief flash-forward blips can be disconcerting as well. After beginning the film with an extended sequence of middle-aged homeless Harilal being hauled into a hospital to soon die (just five months after Mahatma Gandhi), Khan flips back to his hospital bed numerous times for a few seconds—unnecessary reminders that the narrative is formed from the eldest son's recollections of his famous father.

Thanks to Attenborough, newsreels, and numerous historical accounts, we're already familiar with India's iconic freedom fighter—how his high minded ideals of non-violent passive resistance won out in the end over Britain. What is most promising in this rendition is the unique perspective of the film's premise, a far less well known aspect of the Father of India—Harilal's strained relationship with his father and eventual alienation. Life can be difficult for the son of a "saint."

The patient pacifist is portrayed as tyrannical when it comes to his family, as Gandhi thwarts Harilal's dreams persistently. The patriarch threatens to disown his son when he decided to marry against his wishes, and then forces Harilal to abandon his new wife (Bhoomika Chawla) and family to join him in South Africa to fight for civil rights and freedoms. Although extremely proud that his son becomes the first passive resistor to be arrested, Gandhi continuously blocks him from pursuing his lifelong goal of studying law in England. The patriarch doesn't think his son is suited for academics and can contribute to Mother India in other altruistic ways. Twice the elder Gandhi denies his son a scholarship to England.

Gandhi's single-minded ideals of sacrifice don't sit well with Harilal, and he eventually becomes estranged from his famous father—using Gandhi's name to swindle the gullible, turning to alcohol, and even converting to Islam. While Harilal remains close with his mother (Shefali Shetty) and re-converts to Hinduism, alcohol leads to deterioration and ruin. Had Khan stayed with the protagonist, greater insight into his mental state would have been possible.

Instead the director takes the easy route, primarily switching to a routine biopic to illustrate the elder Gandhi's landmark efforts to gain India's independence, even inserting black and white newsreel footage occasionally. Acknowledging his poor parenting, Khan gives Gandhi a chance for redemption when he admits that raising his oldest son properly was one of his two greatest failures.

Thus, he transforms an intriguing and original premise into mundane, safe terrain that may placate the masses who revere Gandhi but will little more than bring yawns to arthouse devotees. Add to that the routine acting performances that never connect emotionally because the actors seem much more concerned with hitting their marks and doing their best Ben Kingsley/Gandhi impressions than digging deeper within themselves. A promising concept ends up devolving into the ordinary, very much like most Jesus flicks. To make a gripping film about a "saint" requires creativity and guts; unfortunately Gandhi, My Father fades into forgettable territory when it reaches the third act. (The first hour remains more interesting that Attenborough's epic biopic, however)

 


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