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Did the Father of the Nation fail as a father?

“You have instilled fear. I have never seen your love. Our morality is hypocrisy. You are a ring master in a circus treating us like animals” – these words were written by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s eldest son Harilal Gandhi in a letter to the Mahatma.

Director Feroze Abbas Khan’s new film Gandhi, My Father explores this smoldering conflict between the Mahatma and Harilal. The film portrays how a man whose cast-iron morality transformed a nation but failed to save his own son.

That brings us to the question that was asked on CNN-IBN show Face the Nation: Was the Father of the Nation a failure as a father?

On the panel of experts to discuss the issue were director of Gandhi My Father, Feroze Abbas Khan, actor Akshaye Khanna and historian Mridula Mukherjee.

Gandhi, more complex than a stereotyped saint

Feroze Abbas Khan had earlier done a play, Mahatma versus Gandhi, which was also on a similar theme as his new film, so what draws him to a theme of conflict between the Mahatma and Harilal?

Khan said that he was deeply moved by the fact that someone who could transform the soul of a nation could not save the soul of his own son.

“I was also moved by the fact that the people who want to reinvent society and people who want to ask for freedom and justice do have to make certain sacrifices and in this case or normally most cases it happens to be the family. Mahatma Gandhi was not only the one involved in the conflict. Even Nelson Mandela had recently commented on a father’s role in a family and said that there is a lot of sacrifice involved,” Khan said.

However, Akshaye said that Harilal was someone who was trying to make good use of his life and yet he remained an unfortunate person.

As the debate gathered steam, Akshaye said that the “very grain” of Feroze’s writing came from a source that was not judgmental.

“It came from a place of truth. When we were doing the film I didn’t have time to discuss with Feroze who was right or who was wrong,” said Akshaye.

Harilal took to alcoholism and converted to Islam while the Mahatma’s wife Kasturbha had to fight the emotions of dealing with a husband who had chosen celibacy all because he was the Father of the Nation. So did Gahdhi’s family suffer because of his sainthood?

“Most of the leaders do have troubled family lives because they actually expand their families and go beyond their immediate families. They do not have time for their children because there are larger issues they have to deal with,” Khan said.

Khan was of the view that Mahatma Gandhi could be nit-picked for not being a good husband or even a good father but what he did for the country, as a Father of the Nation was “commendable.”

But don’t people in search of truth or choosing renunciation and detachment impose a heavy cost on the immediate family?

Mridula Mukherjee agreed that they did. “I don’t think that there is an easy way out,” she said.

Mukherjee also said that people have their reasons for choosing renunciation or detachment but fathers also have their own side of the story. “They also feel pain to see their offsprings going wayward as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi whose son Harilal took to alcoholism.”

What still remains to be known is whether Harilal’s ways compelled the Mahatma to change.

At this juncture, Akshaye brought in an interesting fact, which is not known to many. “I do not know how many know but it was Harilal who introduced Gandhi to fasting as a weapon to fight against injustice. He was a very strong individual in his own right. I think that Gandhi at some level did have a certain amount of respect for his son and tremendous amount of love. They tried till the end to bring each other back in their lives but somehow it didn’t work,” he said.

In Lage Raho Munnabhai Gandhi was portrayed as someone completely different, but he was in a way a complex character.

Khan said that without mixing roles one had to realise that what he did for the nation was extremely important.
According to him, Lage Raho Munnabhai in a very entertaining way gave people ideas about his principles but Gandhi, My Father brought to the fore the pain that the Mahatma underwent and how regrettable he was for not being able to convince his son.

Gandhi was candid about his relationships that represented his flaws. Those were flaws that were present in him and yet all revered him. So, does it tell that one can be fallible and one cannot be perfect to be hailed as someone great?

Khan, who is in complete awe of Gandhi, said that it a was the greatness that Gandhi was made of. “He was an honest man. He informed his families and friends about anything that he did. He has hidden nothing. He only had two faces – the public and private face. And that was the very special thing about him,” he said.

Nation or family – Gandhi’s dilemma

Speaking about his role as Harilal, Akshaye Khanna spoke about the dilemma between the father and the son.

“This is a story that every father, mother, son or daughter will be able to identify with no matter where they belong to or what culture they follow. It is a transient story and because it is about Mahatma Gandhi, it has an epic dimension to it. It is actually a simple story about a relationship,” Akshaye said.

However, it has been seen that the founding fathers of the freedom movement have all pushed their families off the centrestage. The leaders have never encouraged their families.

To which Mukherjee said, “The leaders represented a genuinely modern revolutionary culture. They did in their lives live that new India that they wanted to build. They understood that in the traditional Indian society family culture was very important and they did show to the people of India that they were working for a different society. A society in which there would be a genuine equality for the ordinary people.”

After seeing a new facet of Gandhi in this film, would the audience be able to accept the Mahatma as a complex person rather than a stereotyped saint?

Khan concluded the discussion by saying, “The film would definitely make one realise that the relationship that he had with Harilal was a complex one and the film was about the eternal dilemma that children and parents share when it comes to ambitions and expectations.”

Results of the SMS poll: Was the Father of the Nation a failure as a father?

Yes – 81 per cent

No – 19 per cent