Admiring portrait of Indira Gandhi shows rare family scenes

In an era which has produced such impressive female political figures as Eleanor Roosevelt, Golda Meir, and Margaret Thatcher, one of the most powerful - and most controversial - women in the world today is India's prime minister, Indira Gandhi.

Herself, Indira Gandhi (PBS, Wednesday, 10-11 p.m.) is just abo5zPx4oerful and controversial as the prime minister herself.

Produced and directed by Anne Drew, wife of pioneer cinema-verite filmmaker Robert Drew, ''Herself'' represents the first time that the very private Mrs. Gandhi has permitted American cameras to record intimate scenes of her family life as well as her public life. Filmaker Drew has managed to capture the poignant private sorrow of Mrs. Gandhi as she leans heavily for support on her surviving son Rajiv, who ironically retired from his job as an airline pilot to run for political office, after her son Sanjay was killed in a plane crash.

''Herself'' intercuts newsreel shots, home movies, and stills with candid footage of the Gandhis at home and politicking (themes which are sometimes combined at the dinner table). The relationship of Indira with her father, Jawahar Lal Nehru, India's first prime minister, is examined through film clips and diaries. (Mrs. Gandhi is not related to Eohandas Gandhi. Her family name was taken from her husband, who was not of the same family as the Mahatma.)

The philosophy of Nehru's daughter, who has suffered great personal as well as political disasters, comes across poignantly as she ruminates sadly: ''Nothing is sheer happiness; everything is mixed together . . . sadness and happiness. . . . Life is like sunshine and shadow - neither one without the other. . . .''

The film asks the inevitable question: will the more than 700 million Indians establish a Gandhi dynasty? If Mrs. Gandhi has her way, this film concludes, the answer would have to be yes. The final shot of the film, one of her grandsons opening a gate and slowly ambling into the sunlight of the family compound, is clearly meant to be symbolic.

Make no mistake, this is basically a political documentary, with the effect, if not the design, of presenting an admiring tribute to Mrs. Gandhi. There is no criticism of the luxury in which the family lives with servants constantly scurrying about, nannies caring for each grandchild, limousines purring at the doorsteps while millions of Indians live on the edge of starvation.

Ms. Drew's portrait of Mrs. Gandhi is almost worshipful in its totally admiring views of the prime minister on almost every level, making short shrift of her quietly overbearing style, her ''emergency'' dictatorship, her ousting from office in 1977, and her short stay in jail.

Although ''Herself, Indira Gandhi,'' purports to be merely an entertaining and illuminating electronic profile (and it is both), it is also adulatory propaganda. One hopes it is not a portent of the political documentary of the future. Meantime, however, it can be accepted for what it is - a delightful portrait of a woman who may be the world's most powerful woman. But is undeniably one of the world's most interesting women.

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