Hindi Film 101: The Nehru-Gandhi Family, The 1st Generation and the Young Jawaharlal

Well, this is one I’ve been avoiding!  Because I know feelings run high on it.  And I know that, as a non-Indian, I have no right to talk about another country’s politics.  So I am not going to talk about politics, I am going to give as impartial a perspective as I can on the progression from Motilal to Jawaharlal to Indira to Rajiv to Sonia to Rahul.  Because as I discovered yesterday when looking at the posters for upcoming films, we are about to have a spate of Indira-era period pieces, and to understand them, you really need to know about not just Indira, but what came before and after.

Usual Disclaimer: I don’t know these people, I have no special knowledge, this is just what I have gathered from general sources.  If you are not Indian, or Indian heritage, it will be useful for you to know the basic outlines of this history.

IF YOU ARE INDIAN, OR INDIAN HERITAGE, DON’T BOTHER READING THIS!!!  You already know all of this, and much much more.

(I am going to use “Motilal” and “Jawaharlal” throughout, which feels terribly disrespectful, but also seems to be the only way to keep father and son clear)




The Nehru family began in Kashmir, thus the title of “Pandit”, a Kashmiri title, occasionally used for them.  But it was several generations ago that they lived there, they moved to Delhi in the 1600s, taking a house by a canal, which gave them the name “Nehru” for “canal”, instead of their Kashmiri family name “Kaul”.  By the time Motilal Nehru was born, they were well established in Delhi.  Motilal was born only 4 years after the revolution of 1857, the city was still unstable and the family had lost much of their wealth.  His father had died shortly before his birth, his much older brother Nandlal became head of the family.

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(Nandlal, 16 years older than Motilal)

Nandlal was intelligent and well-educated, and got a position as an advisor to the Raja of Khetri, a kingdom in Jaipur.  Motilal spent his childhood there.  When the Raja died, Nandlal lost his position and the family moved to Agra, and then to Allahabad.  Nandlal became a solicitor, specializing in large land suits, based on his experience managing the Raja’s estate.  The family prospered, and Motilal benefited by receiving an excellent education.  The British style of education was just recently available at Indian schools, and Motilal took full advantage of it, eventually qualifying as a lawyer through Cambridge.

Let’s pause here and talk about British/Western education, because this is going to come up a lot with the Nehru-Gandhis.  It’s not that Western education is better than Indian education, in a lot of ways it could be considered worse.  For instance, as I discussed in my posts both on Arijit Singh in concert and on the development of classical dance, the strong Guru-student relationship in the arts leads to unbelievable accomplishments, the kind you would be stunned to see from most music schools in the West.


Image result for karan johar ayan mukherjee

(that Guru-student kind of training is the same that Yash Raj and Dharma Films provide to their chosen directors today, it’s not about film schools and so on, it’s about one master of the craft passing on their knowledge to a chosen student over the course of decades.  Yash was a Guru for his son Aditya, Aditya was a Guru for Karan, Karan is Guru for Ayan Mukherjee, and so on and so on.  The point is, the system works!  A lot better in a lot of ways than the film school system)

The problem was, by the 1870s when Motilal was studying in India, this traditional method had been all but erased.  The British had spread distrust and distaste for traditional Gurus, and traditional schools.  Moreover, they had created a society that put value on such things as speaking English, knowing the Greek classics, understanding British rule of law, rather than being able to recite the Vedas.  Whether it is speaking English, or knowing Homer, it’s all just a different kind of “language” you have to learn in order to succeed in the world.  This is an issue that is still affecting India today, trying to find a proper value for education.  Heck, it’s an issue that you can see everywhere in the world.  But India has a particular framework.  Everyone knows that Hindi is just as good as English, Kalidasa is as good as Shakespeare, and so on and so on.  But in today’s world, just as it was 150 years ago, learning English and Shakespeare and everything else can help your child succeed, do you really want to try to fight against the realities of the world?

(Still haven’t seen this movie, have heard it is very good and probably gets at what I am trying to say.  The value of an education is about a whole combination of things)

And, 150 years ago unlike today (when you have to debate whether to send your child to some Model Hindi school, or to an English Medium), there were no good educational options, ones that would challenge you to think and grow, besides those English schools.  Oh, maybe a prince here and there might still have a high level classical tutor, but it wasn’t really available to a middle class younger brother of a successful attorney.  What was available to him were the new very high quality English language/style schools that were beginning to be founded in India in order to train a higher class of Indian bureaucracy to run their Empire for them, and to treat English culture and methods of life as superior to all else in the world.

(As I have said before, the movie Veer does a shockingly good job explaining this whole concept of conquering through education.  If you can dig through all the bad hair and costumes to find it)

And so Motilal got a very very good education, a very very Western education.  But the thing about a good education is, it teaches you to think.  And sometimes what you think turns out to be something your teachers never expected.

Image result for motilal nehru

(Motilal, a powerfully intelligent young man, who used his intelligence to build up a vast fortune by fighting cases in the British courts)

It took a shockingly long time for Motilal to slowly move towards rebellion.  Of course, you can’t just say that Motilal moved, the British moved as well.  Motilal was born in the midst of revolution, and over the next 60 years of his life, the British consolidate and consolidated and consolidated and wiped out every other little trace of rebellion.  There was a World War, other colonial states were freed or their status was changed, and India just became more and more controlled and abused.  By the time he was in his 50s, after a long and successful career as an attorney in the British courts, after raising a large family and building a large house, after educating his children in the same excellent Western way he was educated, Motilal started to think and decided he didn’t agree with a lot of things.

Motilal wasn’t exactly a wild-eyed radical.  He took the middle-path.  Not on the extreme edge calling for revolution and immediate Independence, but also not the moderate who argued for simple promotion and greater positions of power for native Indians within the British government.  In 1918, Motilal became one of the first wealthy leaders of the Indian National Congress (the generally accepted most recognizable group calling for Independence) to embrace Gandhi’s call for rejection of Western goods and practices.  In 1919, he had founded his own revolutionary newspaper.  By 1922, at age 61, Motilal was not only arrested during the non-cooperation movement, he criticised Gandhi’s suspension of the movement following the death of police officers, having became more revolutionary than Gandhi himself.

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(Motilal, a very very angry old man)

Motilal died in 1931.  He had spent the last several months of his life in jail, with his son, until his health became so weak the British had to release him.  He died shortly after, his son and Gandhi both with him at his deathbed thanks to the British having released them as part of a move towards a new compromise treaty.

Before moving on, I know the “Gandhi”-“Gandhi” thing is confusing.  Just to clarify, Mohandas Gandhi, The Mahatma, was also a British educated lawyer, just like Motilal.  But from Gujarat, not Kashmir by way of Delhi and Allahabad.  He was 8 years younger than Motilal, also able to take advantage of the new Western style education available. And the options to travel within the British Empire.  This education and travel taught the Mahatma all kinds of things that the British Empire was not expecting. While Motilal, and his son, would specialize in finding the moderate path, Gandhi was a little more extreme.  Most of the time.  Gandhi was also less of, how shall I say this, a political leader.  He was a true leader, a spiritual leader who inspired people to follow him.  But in the backrooms of the Congress party, it was Motilal and later his son who ran the meetings and directed the agenda, while Gandhi was there to provide much needed wisdom and a greater perspective.

Meanwhile, Feroze Gandhi is a completely different totally unrelated person.  His family was also from Gujarat, but he was born in Bombay.  And his family had a Parsi (Parsi=Indianized version of “Persian”, a Zoroastrian refugee community from Iran a thousand years ago) background, unlike The Mahatma’s family.  He became active in the freedom movement, a journalist and politician, and eventually married Motilal Nehru’s granddaughter, Indira.  Feroze isn’t that important really, he kind of faded into insignificance after a promising youth.  But thanks to the tradition of the wife taking the husband’s name, Indira ended up being a “Gandhi” instead of a Nehru, which also added a mind-boggling complication to talking about Indian history which I could really have done without.  Bottomline, “Gandhi” isn’t really that unusual of a name, this is no more remarkable than America’s 4th Vice-President and 42nd President both being named “Clinton”.

Image result for george clinton vice president

(George Clinton, forever overshadowed and confusing in the history books)

But before we get to Indira, we have to go through Jawaharlal Nehru.  Who was a truly remarkable person.  All of Motilal’s children were remarkable.  His daughters were as well-educated and successful as his sons, and so was his daughter-in-law.  Jawaharlal was the most successful (and the oldest, born when his father was 28).  The next oldest child, Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit, was also active in the freedom struggle, her husband died in jail in 1944 leaving her a widow with 3 children.  She went on to be her brother’s closest political and diplomatic advisor, India’s diplomat at large, eventually their delegate to the United Nations, and finally the President of the United Nations General Assembly.  Kamala, wife of Jawaharlal and daughter-in-law of the family, was active in the Indian National Congress along with her husband, and might have gone on to greater power and influence if she had not died young.  She had already organized groups of women picketers, read speeches in her husband’s place when he was imprisoned, and become an icon of the freedom movement for women throughout India, before her death at age 36.  And Motilal’s youngest child, another daughter, Krishna, became a writer, not a very common profession for a woman.

Image result for Kamala nehru

(Kamala Nehru.  Married at 17 after an education at home, a mother by 18.  Her husband’s comment on her was “I almost overlooked her”.  Which I am torn between considering an insult and kind of sweet, and am landing on sweet.  He certainly “saw” her in the end, finding her a strong and brave partner)

Jawaharlal was educated at home as a child.  His family was wealthy enough now to afford a private tutor.  But they were British private tutors.  Jawaharlal did not discover “India” until he was a teenager, when one of his British tutors introduced him to the theosophical society.  If you haven’t run across the Theosophists before, they were a group of primarily Westerners who became enamored with the idea of exploring obscure philosophies/religions, everything from Hinduism (which was obscure in New York, where the society was founded) to Kabala.  This sounds great, only it was all cloaked in secret passwords and strange symbols and candle lit rooms and rituals and so on.  It was as much about danger and excitement and feeling like you were somehow “better” than other people, in on some kind of “secret”, as it was about sincerely trying to build respect and understanding for new thoughts.  Jawaharlal, as a teenager, was at first enamored of the excitement (I suspect), but got out of it a sudden awareness that the Indian traditions had equal value to the Western traditions he was being taught in classes.  As I said, education is dangerous.  It teaches you how to think and you may not think the things your teachers want.  Jawaharlal went on to lose interest in Theosophy (what his tutor had intended to interest him in), and instead gain an increasing interest in learning about his Indian heritage.

Image result for theosophy

(See, this is what I am talking about.  The thought of the words is nice, but it has to be cloaked in all these symbols and things, instead of just taking the words at face value, because the thoughts alone aren’t glamorous enough.  Also, the Swastika isn’t quite right, although it looks very cool)

A series of other events throughout his childhood drove Jawaharlal on towards rebellion.  He was sent to Harrow at age 16, and while there, supposedly being trained to be a good loyal British subject, he won a series of books on the Italian revolutionary Garibaldi.  He read news reports on the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese War.  It all mixed in his mind and inspired him to question and hope and wonder what could be back in India.  All of this, by the way, before his father Motilal had truly begun his own journey towards revolution.

Jawaharlal studied in England from 1905 to 1912, going from Harrow to Cambridge and eventually to London to study law.  He gobbled up the great British thinkers of the day, Shaw, Welles, Russell, etc.  And he joined “The Fabian Society”.  Which proposed social change through slow incremental progress, patience and attrition.

Image result for railway children book

(Fabian Society, co-founded by Edith Nesbit!  Railway Children, woot-woot!  One of my favorite books from childhood)

In 1912, Jawaharlal returned to Allahabad, to join his father’s law practice.  But he quickly became bored and frustrated with dealing with legal suits when the whole country was suffering under injustice.  He joined the Congress party, like his father had, but was frustrated by how British it was, how slow, how seemingly unwilling to call for real revolution.  Not that anyone listened to him, or that he protested too loudly at this point.  After all, he was just a 23 year old kid, recently finished school, joining a group where his father was already a leading light.

This all changed after WWI.  The country was conflicted and divided over whether (and how much) to support the British cause.  When it was over, the Congress party and the country in general was ready to hear with Jawaharlal was saying.  And Jawaharlal was ready to say it.  He emerged as a bit of a super star.  Incredibly intelligent, brilliant really, a poet in his speeches, a wise voice in discussions, an inspiration to the crowds, and with dashing memorable looks.  At only 30, he was suddenly one of the leading figures of India.

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(Is it just me, or does he kind of look like Lawrence Olivier here?)


19 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The Nehru-Gandhi Family, The 1st Generation and the Young Jawaharlal

    • I’m glad! I was very nervous about writing it, because it’s not my area. But Baadshaho looks so Emergency focused, it kind of moves over into film area.

      On Tue, Jun 13, 2017 at 2:22 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  1. I encourage you to write more 101 posts like this for absolute beginners just to trigger them to reach for more info.

    There is no doubt Jawaharlal Nehru was a pioneer of politics. If not for his Non-Alignmemt policy cold war certainly might have escalated. China killed him (metaphorically – and USA president Nixon played his part in it).

    True attributions, if any to be given, are to be given to Mahatma Gandhi, for uniting India. He was a true saint. Before him India had all kinds of associations and parties and none of them are aligned with each other but all of them had same cause. British used it to their advantage. Gandhi united all those factions temporarily (except Muslim league which went on to divide separate country, now Pakistan) and India gained independence. United Congress didn’t dissolve and so conflicts ensued in which Indira Gandhi was just swirled into. If India didn’t go towards communism like China did, credit to Jawaharlal Nehru is due.

    Also Margaret you should do more posts like this, just avoid expressing opinions but state mere facts (putting pieces together) and ask people for their opinion. You will have immense knowledge and varied viewpoints. That’s what I used to do in my previous blogs before I deleted them.


    • I’m glad you liked this! And that’s the goal of my 101s, to as much as possible provide the bare facts of a situation. Of course, it’s still my own filter, in terms of which facts I find important, and reliable (when I talk about star bios, there is a lot of stuff to sift through in terms of gossip versus truth). But in general, I try to avoid opinion as much as possible here. Or at least make it invisible.

      And since they are 101s, I am just giving the kind of “intro” version of it all. I love it when commentators leap in and provide additional details or interpretations.

      Of course, I can’t really do that with film posts, because we can all watch the same movie, no point in my just giving a summary, there needs to be some analysis too. But it’s fun to take a break and do a different kind of analysis with these posts.

      On Tue, Jun 13, 2017 at 2:45 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Pingback: Tuesday Tamil: Velaiilla Pattadhari, Dhanush Explains Why I Started a Blog | dontcallitbollywood

  3. Margaret, good info! Certainly you know more about Nehru-Gandhi family than most Indians do. I guess you already watched the movie ‘Gandhi’. If not, it is a great movie to watch.


  4. Pingback: Hindi Film 101 One-Off: Box Office, What it All Means or Doesn’t Mean | dontcallitbollywood

  5. I know this is just part one of another Hindi 101 series but the ending felt kind of abrupt here. But the content was really interesting!


    • I know, I really wanted to go to at least 1947! But it was already too long, so I had to cut it off before everything started happening.


  6. Pingback: Hindi Film 101: A Tubelight Theme, India and China | dontcallitbollywood

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    • I didn’t realize when I was scheduling, but my “big” posts for the next couple of days are this, a post about how hot Madhavan is, the analysis of Sivagami, a Bahubali fanfic post, and a discussion of a classic Hindi film. Really not a lot in common there!

      On Fri, Jun 23, 2017 at 4:42 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  8. Pingback: Hindi Film 101: Nehru-Gandhi Family Part 4, 1984 | dontcallitbollywood

  9. Pingback: Hindi Film 101: Gandhi-Nehru Family Part 5, Rajiv, Sonia, and Rahul | dontcallitbollywood

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