• SHEKHAR GUPTA: First of all, who is behind this film and its authenticity?
ANIL KAPOOR: Thank you for taking the time even after the film has been released. It feels so good to have such a large numbers of viewers. I first heard the story and I just loved it.
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: I don’t know where the journey started. The first time I heard about it (this subject) was when I was making Tumhari Amrita. Gopal Gandhi (Governor of West Bengal and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi), who was then head of the Nehru Centre in London, told me about this part of his life, about Gandhi’s son who converted to Islam and then to the Arya Samaj.
I later forgot about it. I was asked to do many films, but I couldn’t do films purely for the pleasure and fantasy of audiences. I wrote the screenplay and read out the script to Anil (Kapoor). Anil was crying when he heard it. His wife and daughter also loved the script. I also have to say that Anil and I are not producer and director. We are friends and go back a long way.
Then came the tough part. The story is complex, to say the least, and has to be understood in various dimensions. Our main source was a little-known book called Harilal Gandhi — Ek Dukhad Atma, by Chandulal Dalal, who also wrote the dinwari, or day-to-day account, of Bapu’s life. He also edited the diaries of Mahadevbhai Desai. Dalal is a brilliant scholar and his book gave us factual details. We also relied on our sources in South Africa and members of the Gandhi family.
It has been a very difficult journey. There are many personal issues I had to face. I had to think through whether it was going to be like a sting operation or a story about someone who feels the angst of both sides. The story is not about holding back; it’s about respecting privacy while understanding that he’s a public figure whose story needs to be told. There was personal anguish and a deep sense of responsibility, and the question whether I had the moral credentials to even question a man like Gandhi. Another question that arose was whether Harilal, with whom he had a failed relationship, was a yardstick to understand a great man like Gandhi.
The physical aspect was about getting the research right. Then I thought, ‘Do I make value judgments?’ In a play or a film you need an antagonist and a protagonist. I was taking this film against the training one gets in film or theatre. It was about respecting the dignity of people, respecting the fact that it (the relationship between Gandhiji and his son) was a tragedy.
What I have to say about Anil (Kapoor) is that a good film is not just about a writer; a producer’s power to destroy is lethal. I had wanted to scale down the film to make it cheaper. But Anil said that the integrity (of the story) in all its glory must be there on the screen. I’m grateful to him and my team. We shot once in Hindi and then in English; the English version is yet to be released.
Tridip (Suhrud) is a great Gandhi scholar, one of the few solid authorities on Gandhi. He has also translated Dalal’s book into English. It’s called Harilal — A Life.
TRIDIP SUHRUD: My journey to Harilal was through Bapu. It’s not difficult to go to Bapu when you live in Gujarat and come from a certain type of family, but it’s difficult to stay with him. I could not understand Bapu without understanding Harilal Gandhi’s life. I had to tell the story as told by Dalal, who was the most balanced and was compassionate to both Harilal and Gandhi. The language was very sparse and unadorned.
A very large and fine account of Gandhi’s life is Narayan Desai’s My Life is My Message. I thought that both stories had to unfold simultaneously. This was also my way of correcting my involvement with Gandhi and his ashram, because it was the ashram that perturbed Harilal the most.
AKSHAYE KHANNA: Mine will be the shallowest statement. Anil (Kapoor) called and I did it.
• SHAILAJA BAJPAI: What perturbed Harilal so much about the ashram?
TRIDIP SUHRUD: He never lived at the ashram, but at Phoenix and Tolstoy Farm, which were ashrams in the making. The ashram was a great experiment, an attempt to reduce gender inequalities, bring women to the political fore, and emphasise physical labour. What perturbed Harilal was the sense of righteousness, which he thought was hypocritical: people around Bapu were trying to be purer than was required.
What also perturbed him was that Gandhi would love all equally. Gandhi’s denying him the fellowship to England came as a breaking point. Also there was the denial of physical love. Harilal was passionately in love with Gulab. These were two young people deeply in love and wanting to express that love through their bodies. This is a great early twentieth century romance. The ashram was not kind to this. The body had to be imprisoned and had to be a satyagrahi body.
• LEHER KALA: Tridip, have you seen Lage Raho Munnabhai? What did you think of it?
TRIDIP SUHRUD: I’ll be honest: I have seen it in parts. Munnabhai is the model of how Gandhi gets reduced to 20 expected questions. He becomes palatable without his spirituality and deep politics, and without the sternness that comes with this. Perhaps it wasn’t meant to be more. He has a very minty flavour. He becomes a nice, cuddly grandfather.
• CHARMY HARIKRISHNAN: This is a fascinating story, sensitively portrayed. But I also have a criticism: where are Gandhiji’s other children in the film? There’s a chamber drama feel to the film. Did your (Feroz Abbas Khan’s) background in theatre contribute to that?
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: In the medium, we have to tell in two hours the story of 42 years. We had to have a focus. Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi hardly has any other freedom fighters, but it does tell its own story. As for the second question, it seems that it’s my familiarity with theatre that invites these clichéd responses. People have told me that the film is very quiet and non-theatrical. I have tried to draw from the sense of simplicity that comes from Gandhi. If something was happening well, I just let it be. There’s nothing like how a film has to be made. Woody Allen follows his actors around. Some people ham, and hamming is a very watchable art. So it’s a question of what works on film.
• UTSAH KOHLI: Akshaye, you portayed Harilal so well. How difficult was it? Did it affect you?
AKSHAYE KHANNA: My roles don’t affect me. That’s why it was acting. For me, it has always been doing it and getting out. I don’t relate to ‘getting into’ a role and ‘coming out’ of it. My style is just ‘there’. It’s about what comes to me. If it doesn’t come to me, it’s what my director says. The script needs to inspire me. It’s about being in the moment.
• SHEKHAR GUPTA: Did it worry you that it was a negative, deglamourised role?
AKSHAYE KHANNA: I won’t call it negative. But it was deglamourised. I was ecstatic to be in a dhoti. It was liberating, the wigs and costumes. It was wonderful.
• RIJU DAVE MEHTA: How did you go into the movie? Was it just the idea? Or did you think it would sell?
AKSHAYE KHANNA: I don’t think Anil thought about it like that. It was approached from not a commercial but an artistic point of view. For Anil and Feroz, the idea of whether they made or lost money came much later.
ANIL KAPOOR: It’s not an idea. Too many things are involved when you want to do a film. There are too many layers. I felt that I’d been working for so many years and with so many directors, but I’d never experienced this kind of an impact when I heard a story. I had certain expectations, but Feroz has gone beyond what I imagined. I mean it from the bottom of my heart.
• AMBREEN KHAN: What’s the pitch of the film? Is it patriotic? How have people responded?
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: There’s no attempt to be patriotic. The end shows Gandhiji saying that the greatest regret in his life was that he couldn’t convince two people — Jinnah and his own son. In the end, the man felt he had failed. Even in the end he tries to change society. Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote to me that there are difficult choices one had to make when one is a leader. Nelson Mandela says he sits back and questions the sacrifices one has to make. Making personal sacrifices is a very difficult choice.
• NANDAGOPAL RAJAN: As a director, you had the ability to choose what to depict, what to keep out. Are there aspects of Harilal’s life that you avoided?
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: There was no deliberate attempt to conceal. It was more about the aesthetics. There’s the scene with the prostitute. We could have done it in a sleazy way, but the point was we were trying to show the loneliness of the man.
• SHUBRA GUPTA: Anil, you said the financial aspect of the film was not so important for you. If you were to make another movie, how would it be?
ANIL KAPOOR: For me, films are either good or bad. I don’t believe in the concept of art film. I’ve worked with directors who have done an entire spectrum. Here, I genuinely felt I wasn’t going to think much about the money. And I never expected this film to make as much money as it did. Working honestly pays off a hundred times more; for those who think only of money, it backfires. After this film, there’s not a single person or corporate in the country who doesn’t want to work with us.
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: We often understand commerce in a myopic way. This film’s not a blockbuster but one with a long shelf life. TV channels across the world will want to pick it up. Also, it’s a companion to Attenborough’s Gandhi. That was about the Mahatma; this is about Bapu. For us, recovering the money was more than enough.
• TEENA THACKER: Anil, your daughter is making a debut, but in Saawariya, not this film. Is it because there’s no place in the real market for a deglamourised film? Why not your own daughter for a film that made you feel complete?
ANIL KAPOOR: At that time we didn’t know she wanted to be an actress! We used the people we thought would be best for the film. That’s why I’m not there in the film. Or else I could have used my charm on Feroz! This is a fantastic film for an actor. When you do this kind of film, it’s a win-win situation. I told Akshaye, ‘I envy you.’ My wife told him, ‘I wish my husband was there in this film!’ I made sure what I didn’t get as an actor I made sure I got as a producer.
• SHUBRA GUPTA: Was Akshaye your first choice for the film?
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: No (smiles). That’s because I didn’t want a star. It’s a real film about real people. Stars distract. I didn’t want a hot person on stage. But then theatre actors were just not happening. They were looking insipid. The camera is temperamental. It likes some people, and it doesn’t like some. Akshaye’s style is very understated. When I saw him, I realised he was it, he was the character. There were no other film actors (from whom Akshaye was chosen). I told him the process would be the de-Akshayeisation of Akshaye Khanna. I said, ‘Don’t make a single recognisable gesture you’re known for.’
• ANURADHA NAGARAJ: Anil, you said the film completed you. How difficult is choosing movies now?
ANIL KAPOOR: It’s not difficult, it’s an instinctive choice. I’m making a mainstream movie called Shortcut with Akshaye. Feroz has done more plays, which are very entertaining. You can’t take yourself so seriously. It’s always ‘work in progress.’
• NEERAJ CHAUHAN: How did the idea of casting Darshan Zariwala as Gandhi come to you? How did Harilal die in real life?
FEROZ ABBAS KHAN: We have done some plays together. He came with the culture and body language of a Gujarati. He did not need to make an effort or then he’d have become a caricature. He’s also one of the finest stage actors we have.
Harilal died of tuberculosis. I went to the hospital to see what happens to such patients. That’s why you see him gasping for breath in the end.
• SHEKHAR GUPTA: Tell us about you friendship with Nelson Mandela. Did the South Africa connection help you decide the script?
ANIL KAPOOR: The South Africa connection came later. I had already shot three films there, and was one of the first actors to shoot there. I have friends there who believed in me. Through them I met Nelson Mandela. Feroz and Akshaye were shooting the first time I met him. I told him about the film. He went into deep thought. It reminded him of his relationship with his son. As you know, his own son died of AIDS. He was very supportive, and while he couldn’t come for the screening, he sent us a special message.
(The discussion was anchored by Express film critic Shubra Gupta. The transcript was prepared by Neha Sinha. This is an abridged version. For the complete transcript, go to indianexpress.com)