GANDHI & SON A FAMILY TRAGEDY ; A Darker Side of Greatness ++ as the Saintly Father of Indian Nation, He Is Almost Universally Venerated. but Mahatma Gandhi Also Knew Bitter Failure as a Father. Now, to Widespread Outrage, a New Film Is about to Shed Light on His Relationship with His First-Born Child, Harilal. by Andrew Buncombe

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India is a country richly littered with sacred monuments, honoured traditions and shrines to the many gods worshipped by its people. But few things are held in such reverent awe as the memory of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation and the man rightly credited more than any other with achieving the country's independence.

On the occasion of his death, in 1948, Albert Einstein said of the man (whom he had never met but whose picture hung from his study wall): "Generations to come, it may be, will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked upon this earth."

Meanwhile, Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last British Viceroy of India and the man who oversaw the termination of British rule 60 years ago next month, said that Gandhi would "go down in history on a par with Buddha and Jesus Christ".

Now, nearly six decades after his death - assassinated by a Hindu radical, Nathuram Godse - Gandhi's life and personality are set to undergo an unprecedented and perhaps somewhat painful scrutiny as the result of a new movie that explores one of the more troubled and yet little-publicised aspects of the independence movement leader's life. The Indian film Gandhi, My Father, which opens next week, examines the troubled relationship between Gandhi and his eldest son, Harilal, who rebelled against his father and even converted briefly to Islam before his death as an alcoholic, shortly after Gandhi was shot dead as he walked in the grounds of Birla House in Delhi.

However cautious and honest the work, it was always likely there would be a backlash against any portrayal of a man whose memory for many should be beyond reproach. In India, where Gandhi was given the name Mahatma, or "great soul", as a mark of respect - he was actually born Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi - there have already been rumblings of controversy. Devotees have called for the film to be scrapped and boycotted.

Letters have even been written to the country's Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, as well as to the President and Minister for Information, demanding that they step in and stop the film's release.

Razi Ahmad, secretary of a museum dedicated to Gandhi in the Bihar city of Patna, said: "We strongly feel that the film should not be released. The name of Mahatma Gandhi or that of any other national leader should not be used for commercial purposes. It is against the law of the land. We are of the view that any attempt to tarnish the image of national heroes should not be permitted."

It is true that the controversy and disgruntlement have so far been limited. There have been no hunger strikes, no campaigns of civil disobedience or marches to the sea to make salt - all tactics adopted by Gandhi during the non-violent independence campaign that he led - but the concerns and comments of Mr Ahmad and those for whom he claims to speak are nonetheless insightful; for all the talk of a "new India" and for all the headlines one sees about its purported transformation into an economic superpower with its bright eyes fixed clearly on the 21st century, some things in this country remain fixed and unchanging.

"Gandhi wasn't the only driving force in Indian independence. However, he was the most loved because of his kindness to man and his courage of conviction," said one of Gandhi's biographers, the US- based Pat Marcello. "Neither the promise of imprisonment or death deterred him from making things right for his countrymen. Because of that, people trusted him and loved him. They believed that he cared so much. He was revered."

The film-makers insist they had no intention of doing anything to undermine such reverence and say that their movie does not portray Gandhi in a poor light - a view supported by a number of early reviews of the film. The actor Will Smith, who attended a screening, said he was "very impressed with the canvas of the film and the emotional intensity of the actors". …