The beautiful and depressing Gandhi, My Father was close to being very good. The performances were great, and of the four leads I can't even single out which was the most touching. The visuals (locations, sets, props, costumes) were rich and nuanced and felt very real. But there's just no sense of connection in the story. Over and over we are given evidence of the tragic irony that Gandhi was father to the nation but painfully mistreated his own son, but we never get any explanation or context. That Harilal is a repeated failure is all we know about Harilal; maybe there isn't historical evidence to tell us any more, but it leaves a hole in the center of the story. There's no real discussion of the revisited tension over MK not allowing Harilal to study to be a lawyer, but we see its effects in Akshaye Khanna's big, sad eyes throughout the film. We never understand why Harilal is unable to make good on the repeated offers of support from various communities. Some depiction of Gandhi's relationship with his other children would have helped give a sense of whether Gandhi was more broadly and uniformly not able to be a parent to his own offspring or whether there was something especially difficult in Harilal's own personality or especially troubled in the relationship between a very driven father and firstborn.*
I think it is much to his credit that Akshaye Khanna does so much with a script that leaves his character largely incomplete. As his physicality changes (so many hairstyles!), Harilal's sadness is constant but unfixed. There's no rigidity in his performance, no calcified bitterness. The character may sink overall, but he injects glimmers and wobbles along the way, suggesting that the story is more complex than just failure and that Harilal was at least sometimes connected to the people and world around him and able to participate in occasional joys and interests. He's really, really good - I'd say he's at his finest since Dil Chahta Hai.
Other than the one critical omission, the components of this movie really are excellent,** and I have no doubt it was made with care and love. Unfortunately the lack of why and how renders much of the movie almost pointless. For a more professional take on this problem, read Baradwaj Rangan.
A note on the DVD: I watched the "making of" section and could hardly keep from giggling at Anil Kapoor's stagey, meaningful-pause-filled commentary. This segment wasn't subtitled so I don't know what he said, but his expressions and posture came across as mock humble.
* I'd also like to know more about Harilal and Gulab's children (were there five, I think?). What happened to them? They're sent off to the Ahmedabad ashram, but that's the last we see of them. Do they also suffer from having a father who really isn't one?
** I'm not sure where else to put this comment, so I'll stick it here: I didn't like the music. It matched the subject but not the tone of the story - it was appropriately sad and thoughtful but just too heavy. It reminded me of the kind of music Hollywood uses for movies that are labeled "epic" and "sweeping," but one of the saddest parts of Harilal's particular tragedy was that he didn't have an epic and wasn't part of his father's - his life was mostly small and dirty and forgotten.