The families that gave birth to modern India

January 07, 1998|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

America has had its share of dynastic families over the past 200-plus years: the Kennedys, the Roosevelts, the Adamses.

But all of them pale in comparison with the Nehrus, the family that led India almost without a break through the first four decades of its existence as an independent state, and that still retains a strong emotional hold on a nation that includes one-fifth of the world's population.

That one family, beginning with patriarch Motilal Nehru, an Indian freedom fighter and early supporter of Mahatma Gandhi, and ending (for now) with the 1991 assassination of Motilal's great-grandson, Rajiv Gandhi, is the subject of a fascinating, if sometimes sketchy, three-hour documentary on PBS tonight.

"The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story" opens at the turn of the century with Motilal, a prominent attorney and member of India's upper class. Both he and his son Jawaharlal (born 1889) enter the 1900s as confirmed (and wealthy) anglophiles, content with the Indian colony's reputation as the jewel in England's crown.

But soon they come under the spell of Mohandas Gandhi and his determination to achieve Indian independence through non-violent means -- which largely consisted of simply ignoring the British (when the Prince of Wales toured India in 1921, few bothered showing up to greet him). Gandhi saw independence not simply as a matter of national pride, but also as perhaps the only way to improve the lot of India's poor, who were forced to endure both extreme poverty and frequent, devastating famines.

In 1929, Jawaharlal Nehru was elected to his party's leadership post and called for a revolt, an "open conspiracy" designed to force out the British. The following January, Gandhi cemented Nehru's leadership by calling for nationwide unity in heeding that call. Eighteen years later, the Gandhi/Nehru strategy worked, and India achieved its independence, with Nehru as the country's first prime minister.

In the half-century that has passed since, the Nehrus have rarely strayed far from positions of leadership. Jawaharlal remained prime minister until his death in 1964; two years later, his daughter Indira (who had married Feroze Gandhi, no relation to Mohandas), was selected to head the government. Save for a brief period in the late '70s, she stayed in power until 1984, when she was assassinated by two of her own bodyguards. Her son, Rajiv, took over almost immediately and led the country for five years, until a Watergate-style scandal led to his electoral defeat.

Rajiv was assassinated two years later, as he was campaigning to regain his seat. His widow, Sonia, has so far resisted attempts to draw her into politics, as have the couple's two children.

"Dynasty," which is broken into four 45-minute segments, is at its sketchiest in the first two, when the filmmakers are content simply to chronicle Jawaharlal's remarkable life rather than try to explain it. Little effort is made to help us understand the religious hatred that turned the Muslims and Hindus against one another and led to the partition of the Indian subcontinent into two countries, India and Pakistan.

While Nehru's stature as a founding father of India is not disputed, his decisions sometimes were -- most notably an ill-advised attempt to form an alliance with Mao's China. That "alliance" ended when China invaded India in 1962, then, on the verge of victory, retreated -- Mao having made his point, that he could do whatever he wanted with India whenever he wanted.

Things pick up when "Dynasty" turns to Indira and Rajiv Gandhi; you get a much better sense of how these people thought -- and how their insecurities helped ensure their eventual downfall.

There's plenty to like about "Dynasty." Several eyewitnesses to history are interviewed, from Jawaharlal's nephew and Indira's best friend to South Africa's Nelson Mandela and Britain's Margaret Thatcher. Vintage filmed interviews with all three Nehru-Gandhi prime ministers are also included. And Debbie Wiseman's music adds immeasurably to the documentary's appeal (thankfully, the filmmakers didn't simply stick a sitar on the soundtrack).

The main problem with "Dynasty" is that it assumes its audience already knows a lot about India. A little more background would have helped. Still, the film is an impressive achievement, a chronicle of a family whose triumphs and tragedies have mirrored those of the country it has led.

'The Dynasty'

What: "The Dynasty: The Nehru-Gandhi Story" (documentary)

When: 8 p.m.-11 p.m.

, Where: MPT (Channels 22, 67)

Pub Date: 1/07/98

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