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Paying a price for being a hero's son

In 'Gandhi My Father,' a troubled offspring's actions conflict with the Mahatma's cause.

August 03, 2007|John Anderson | Special to The Times

If the sons of famous men live under shadows of expectation, and expectations of failure, what about the son of a saint? In "Gandhi My Father," theater director Feroz Abbas Khan explores the fate of Harilal Gandhi, offspring of the father of modern India -- a man apparently too distracted by quasi-divinity and his nation's independence to spare praise or attention for his troubled son. The question for audiences is whether there's real reason to care about one man whose fate might have been changed, but only to the detriment of millions.

As Harilal, whom we first see being taken off the street on a stretcher, Akshaye Khanna has a singularly ungratifying role: abject failure, one whose nearly every action runs counter to the welfare of his family, or his father's cause. Unfortunately, he also assumes a posture, and a haircut, that suggests a subcontinental Jethro Bodine. Hungry for the love and attention of his father (a very affecting Darshan Jariwala), he is not only deprived of any advantages to being Gandhi's son, he's also made to pay a premium for his dubious heritage: Even normal opportunity is denied him, along with education, dignity and family (a marriage is eventually undone by the elder Gandhi's single-mindedness and sacrifice of his son's happiness). But a movie that manages to rub the halo off the Mahatma doesn't replace it with anything encouraging, much less inspiring.

"Gandhi My Father" exposes director Khan's stage roots -- he has no feel for the close-up, although his use of the frame itself, and negative space, is occasionally thrilling. Large set pieces -- a train station through which the aging Gandhi travels, or a post-riot scene in a smoke-choked city street -- are both thrilling and artificial; Khan knows what's visually exhilarating, and that doesn't always mean naturalism. But there's also a sense that the actors are playing to the last row, so broad are their performances and wide the net of emotion they're attempting to cast.

There's also a certain inadvertent comedy attached to Harilal's misery.

Once the elder Gandhi's career in South Africa ends and he brings his fight for justice to India, Harilal's drunkenness, his defiant (if brief) conversion to Islam and his exploitation by unscrupulous businessmen make him an obstacle not only to his family's happiness but also to his nation's.

Repeatedly, his parents (Shefali Shah plays his mother, Kasturba) will retreat from some triumph or other only to see Harilal lurch into the room. Eventually, both the Gandhis and the audience give him the same lukewarm welcome.

"Gandhi My Father." Unrated. In Hindi with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 29 minutes. Selected theaters.

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