Mohandas Gandhi's son Harilal lies drunk and destitute on a dirty Mumbai street. A couple of passersby find him and cart him off to a nearby hospital. There a doctor prods him to name a family member they can contact. But Harilal can barely remember his own name. Eventually he whispers: "Gandhi." Impatiently, the doctor tells Harilal that Gandhi is father to the whole Indian nation. "What is your father's name?" he asks.
The poignant scene dramatizes the central tension in the new film "Gandhi, My Father," a gripping account of the stormy relationship between one of the world's greatest political icons and his rebellious eldest son. Based on the biography "Harilal: A Life," by the Gujarati scholar Chandulal Dalal, "Gandhi, My Father"—shot in Hindi and English—sheds light on the human side of the mahatma, whose nonviolent resistance to British rule helped win India its independence in 1947. First-time film director Feroze Abbas Khan and Bollywood star turned producer Anil Kapoor blend sweeping sets and colorful costumes to create an emotionally charged period piece that occasionally verges on melodrama but is also sprinkled with genuine moments of comedy. "This is a story about a clash of principles between father and son," says Khan, who first tackled the subject in his play "Mahatma vs. Gandhi." "Harilal carried his Gandhi identity like a curse around his neck. It was something that he just couldn't shake off."
The film recounts Harilal's lifelong struggle with his father's idealistic principles and refusal to favor his own children above anybody else's. Gandhi encourages his four sons, raised in South Africa, to explore a range of blue-collar careers, from farmer to weaver—only to be disappointed by Harilal's bourgeois desire to become a barrister like his father. The seeds of contention are further sown when Gandhi gives a distant nephew, rather than Harilal, a scholarship to study abroad. Determined to forge his own path, Harilal returns to India. But after he loses his wife and young son to cholera, his despair leads him to alcoholism, brothels and money laundering. In an act of rebellion against his Hindu father, Harilal converts to Islam, adopting the name Abdullah. Gandhi strikes back by publicly condemning and disowning his son. Later, Harilal converts back to Hinduism but continues to live the life of a derelict. He dies just five months after Gandhi is assassinated.
Veteran actor Darshan Jariwala gives a refreshing portrayal of a man whose cast-iron morality could transform a nation yet failed to save his own son. Shefali Shah ("Monsoon Wedding"), who plays Gandhi's wife, Kasturba, and Bhumika Chawla as Harilal's wife, Gulab, give powerful performances as women caught in the cross-fire between father and son. Bollywood star Akshaye Khanna, who lost 20 kilograms for the part, delivers a fine performance as the harrowed Harilal, stumbling from pillar to post, bottle to brothel, in search of his identity.
Not everyone is embracing Khan's debut as a filmmaker. Some Indians have called for a ban of the film—just weeks ahead of its scheduled premiere in Johannesburg on Aug. 3, which Nelson Mandela and South African President Thabo Mbeki are expected to attend. Protesters in the eastern state of Bihar have urged the Indian government to halt the film's release for fear of tarnishing their national hero's image. But Tushar Gandhi, the 47-year-old grandson of Manilal Gandhi, the second of Gandhi's four sons, says people should reserve judgment until they see it. "The film remains sincere to the subject," he says, admitting it made him shed a few tears. "It is as though somebody has understood the pain of what our family went through."
Khan is meticulous in his effort to deliver a balanced narrative, painting neither Gandhi nor Harilal as the villain. Previous films on the subject—like Richard Attenborough's Oscar-winning epic "Gandhi"—portray the great man as a political saint. "Gandhi, My Father" upends this notion, depicting the mahatma as a difficult patriarch whose ideals shaped a nation but hurt his family. As Khan points out: "He loved his son and family, but he loved the nation more." It's a distinction that makes for a compelling film.