The Mahatma and his son
Director Feroz Abbas Khan on the making of his first film “Gandhi, My Father”.
Emotional and real: The dramatic railway station scene;
Time does not dim creative talent. In 1979, I was spellbound by “Ekshuff”, a Hindi adaptation of Peter Shaffer’s psychological thriller, “Equus”, at Mumbai’s Prithvi theatre. A private screening of Anil Kapoor Film
Company’s first production, “Gandhi My Father” some weeks ago had the same impact. The common factor was Feroz Abbas Khan, a budding actor in the first and a debut director in the second.
Feroz, one of Mumbai’s well known theatre directors, was venturing into the unknown territory of cinema but he was excited at filming an emotion-charged real story. Five months after Gandhiji’s assassination, his eldest son Harilal died destitute in a Bombay hospital. The searing tragedy revolved around a father who could decide what was good for his country but sadly failed to understand the aspirations of his eldest son.
Feroz’s play, “Mahatma vs Gandhi” had already been hailed with the New York Times calling it, “the finest English play to emerge from India for a very long time”. Despite numerous books and documentary
films, details of Gandhi’s personal life, particularly his relations with his sons, remained unknown. His much-quoted autobiography hardly mentions Harilal. Except Richard Attenborough’s “Gandhi”, other presentations dealt with the Gandhi myth presenting him as a god-like personality.
Feroz learnt of the father-son relationship after a conversation with Gopal Gandhi, one of the Mahatma’s grandsons, and stored it away for future use. While the idea of the Gandhi film was germinating, Hindi actor Anil Kapoor — who had been watching Feroz’s development and was branching into film production — invited him to direct the film. “Feroz submitted the script to me and it bowled me over,” explained Anil Kapoor. “My wife shed tears while reading it and insisted that I produce the film.” Financial details were worked out without delay. “I then asked the creative people to take over,” smiled Anil and admitted he had to do some tightrope walking because he too was a creative artist.
Darshan Jariwala as Gandhi.
Feroz explained that the film was not based on the play, “Gandhi vs Mahatma” but on Chandulal Dalal’s biography of Harilal. Initially, he was not sure if he could direct a film, but felt more confident after completing the screenplay and the “bits and pieces fell into their places”. His film would not sacrifice the creative side to the commercial one. He would try and condense 50 years of turbulent history into two hours and be fair to both Gandhi and Harilal.
With Anil Kapoor’s backing, Feroz hired some of the best technicians in business. Chennai-based editor Sreekar Prasad, winner of six national awards for films in six different languages, pointed out that with two creative persons as producer and director, he could endow the film with a lyrical quality, never reducing it to the level of melodrama. Brussels-based cinematographer David Macdonald, fascinated by the Gandhi story, agreed with Feroz on the choice of locales. Shooting from dawn to dusk for 100 days, Macdonald opted for muted colours rather than the bright ones favoured by commercial Hindi cinema.
Since the film depicted an era of oil lamps, interiors were photographed with minimum feeble light with deep shadows left undefined. “Gandhi was pure cinema,” explained production designer, Nitin Chandrakant Desai. His research team carefully chose locales both in India and South Africa. The Phoenix Settlement came up in Mahabaleshwar and Desai recommended plain walls and narrow lanes (poles) of Ahmedabad for authentic effect. The dramatic railway station scene, featuring Gandhi, Kasturba and Harilal, was filmed at Rewadi railway yard near Delhi where four or five old steam engines were available.
Casting posed fewer problems. “This was not a film for star value and my lead actor had to be someone with the right body language,” said Feroz on his choice of Gujarati stage actor Darshan Jariwala as Gandhi.
Shefali Shah as Kasturba.
The film also brought to light the enormous, but underutilised, talent of Akshaye Khanna, a firm favourite with Anil Kapoor. Shefali Shah (Kasturba), also from the Gujarati stage, has won several awards for her roles in movies and TV serials while Bhumika Chawla (Harilal’s wife, Gulab) has been successful both as a model and an actor.
Feroz, claustrophobic inside studio sets, preferred outdoor shooting and the unit shot extensively in South Africa and locations in India. Shooting in the narrow lanes in the communally-sensitive Ahmedabad’s Khadia area posed no problems. The people were friendly and cooperated by switching off their telephones and washing machines so as not to disturb the soundtrack. On the first day in Ahmedabad, Feroz, on an impulse, went to the Sabarmati Ashram. “It was early morning, and Gandhiji’s room ‘Hriday Kunj’ was closed. But one of the attendants opened it for me and I asked for Bapu’s blessings. I think I received it because the shooting had no hassles.”
“Gandhi, My Father” is essentially a director’s film. Feroz saw the story as a classic clash of convictions, values and family aspirations. Every traditional Indian family has witnessed such clashes. While today’s generation may not accept Gandhi’s refusal to let his son study law, he felt that a western education was not needed to prepare for the sacrifices needed in the freedom struggle. This feeling prompted Gandhi to separate Harilal from his wife and children for long periods. On a more personal level, while Gandhi did not find anything wrong in Harilal’s conversion to Islam and re-conversion to Hinduism, the move affected Kasturba who was hurt by her son parading his religious flip-flops in public.
How did Feroz view his film: as an epic, a melodrama or history? “Any presentation of Gandhi had to have an epic sweep,” observed the director. “I had to be careful that the human interest did not degenerate into melodrama.” He cited the emotionally-wrenching death scene of Kasturba. The silence was deliberate, broken only by Sanskrit slokas. We are moved but do not become emotionally exhausted.
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