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18 May 2016

Hey Ram (2000)

Directed by: Kamal Hassan
Music: Ilaiyaraja
Starring: Kamal Hassan, Rani Mukherjee,
Shah Rukh Khan, Om Puri,
Saurabh Shukla, Atul Kulkarni,
Vikram Gokhale, Sowcar Janaki,
Vasundhara Das, Hema Malini,
Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah,
Farida Jalal
When the British left India after more than a century and a half of governing the nation, they left behind a fractured nation, weakly emerging from the privations of being ruled by foreigners, and bled dry from centuries of commercial exploitation. They also left us with a parting gift, a wound that still lies festering under our collective consciousness. In keeping with the 'Divide and Rule' policy they had followed while ruling their erstwhile colony (which, to be fair, they had forged into a nation state from disparate princely states), they split a vast nation into two bleeding halves before leaving – 'Hindu'-India and 'Muslim'-Pakistan. 

The mass migration of people during this period was the largest the modern world had ever seen. Millions of people were displaced from their homes; not all of them who were displaced chose to be so. As Hindus braved their way across the newly-drawn borders into the safe haven that was India, similar caravans of Muslims made their tortuous way towards the new 'Muslim' nation, one that they hoped, believed, would give them a place they could call home. 

This momentous event would result in scenes of extreme violence and cruelty. Generations of communities that had peacefully co-existed for centuries would rise up in arms against friends and neighbours. Sectarian violence became the order of the day. Scenes of carnage became common, the scale of which was unprecedented, and the consequences calamitous.

As nationalist leaders unsuccessfully tried to stem the tide of events, there were also people who stoked the embers, keeping alive the flame of enmity. No community was safe; no community was innocent. Massacres became common as mob frenzy took over, stoked by rumours of atrocities committed on their community by the 'other'. Men and children were murdered; women were abducted, raped, forcibly converted. Buses and trains were set on fire – with people inside. Hundreds of thousands lost their lives.

The Partition shaped the destiny of two nations – India and Pakistan. Since that date, more than seven decades ago, the erstwhile one-nation has been deeply polarised. The wounds lie deep, and fester, continuing to wreak havoc in both countries. 

Hey Ram begins on a hot sultry afternoon in Chennai. In a dark room lies Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan), old and ailing. He is dying. 
Keeping vigil beside his bedside is his namesake, his young grandson (Gautam Kanthadai). Also in attendance is Saket Ram Sr.'s personal physician, Dr Munawar (Abbas). To while away the time, the young Saket begins to narrate one of the stories that he had heard from his grandfather.(The film segues into flashback.)

Saket Ram is an archeologist working with the Englishman Mortimer Wheeler on a dig in Larkana District. Alongside is an old school friend, Amjad Ali Khan (Shah Rukh Khan). The year is 1946. Suddenly, they're ordered to pack up and leave. They have one hour to ensure the excavated artifacts are safe, and to leave the site. The situation is serious – there's talk of Hindu-Muslim riots. 

The dig packs up. When they finally reach Karachi, Ram and Amjad meet the Wheelers and the others at the club. Also present is Lalwani (Saurabh Shukla), a mutual friend. There's an undercurrent of worry about the political situation, but the friends make the best of it, even ensuring that they make fun of Ram when his newly-wed bride calls from Calcutta. 
As they spend their last night making merry together, they don't realise that this may be the last time they will ever see each other. 

The next morning Ram makes his way back to Calcutta, passing scores of Muslims coming out in support of 'Pakistan' and Mohammed Ali Jinnah. One man in the crowd catches Ram's eye - he's Altaf, a tailor. As Altaf talks to him through the closed windows of the taxi in which Ram is riding, the situation begins to deteriorate. Upon enquiry, the taxi driver informs him that all this is in response to Jinnah's call for Direct Action Day. Sohrawardy, the premier of Bengal, is complicit in the rioting, or so the driver says. (An opinion that is shared by Ram's neighbours, whom he meets in the lift.) 

Aparna (Rani Mukherjee) is not too pleased at Ram's 'surprise'. She's also upset about the telegram that's arrived for Ram: his father's unwell, and wants to see him married before he dies. He's even fixed up the girl. Ram has to come now! Aparna doesn't want to be 'one of his wives', she tells him. Ram is hard put to convince her that his parents' obduracy is the main reason he ran away from Madras to Calcutta. 
The evening passes, slowly, sensuously, happily. Ram gives her a 'Madras' mangalsutra, and anoints the parting of her hair with red ink; Aparna gives him her one of her toe-rings. Learning that there's no food in the flat Aparna has been subsisting on bread and butter for the past two days Ram decides to go to the market. Aparna refuses to go with him. She's afraid of the prevailing situation. 

It is late when Ram sets out on his motorbike and the roads are deserted. Just outside their building, he sees a Sikh girl in trouble, being chased by a mob. Thinking quickly, he gets her on the pillion, and drives her to safety. He also calls a British policeman of his acquaintance, only to be told that they cannot get involved. The Hindus want the British to get out of the country altogether; the Muslims want the British to give them the country. His hands are tied. 

Ram decides to return home. When he does, it is to find the security guard murdered, and a mob of men, including Altaf, trying to break into his flat. As he tries to stop them, Ram's assaulted from behind, and held down. When Aparna hears Ram's voice, she calls out to him, giving Altaf a way to get into the flat through the balcony. Tied up, Ram can only listen to her cries in impotent fury, as first Altaf, and then the others rape Aparna.
Ram is almost sodomised himself, but he manages to trick the men into untying his hands; the arrival of the police drive the others away, but Ram is too late to save his wife.

Scenes of violence and carnage are there all over the city. Even Ram is not free from the insanity – his rage at what happened to Aparna spills over into the need for vengeance. Bloody and limping, he wanders the city looking to avenge his wife's death. He watches dispassionately as a Hindu crowd throw a young Muslim child into a burning building; his humanity is dead inside him.

Away from the crowd, he spies a Muslim family escaping. One of them is Altaf. Now the shoe is on the other foot, and it is Altaf who is begging for mercy. 
Ram has none to spare. Coldly, calculatedly, he shoots the man dead, then turns around and shoots Altaf's father. Ram's blood lust is not quenched yet. As he turns away, he sees another Muslim being stabbed. The attacker runs away because Ram has a gun. Ram is about to put a bullet into the man on the ground when the victim welcomes him as a saviour, and asks his little granddaughter to come out of hiding. When Ram realises that the girl is blind, it sickens him and he stumbles away. 

Wandering blindly through the streets, Ram runs into trouble again
The situation is fraught until the man, who introduces himself as Shriram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni), notices Ram's sacred thread. Abhyankar invites him to join the 'hunt'. When Ram demurs, Abhyankar leaves, after anointing him with the sacred vermilion mark (that will identify him as Hindu). As Ram stumbles away, he notices that the madness is a contagion that has also spread to the Sikhs. The morning brings with it the wails of the women, Hindu, Muslim and Sikh, who have been widowed the previous night. Trucks carry mounds of corpses as they clean the streets. Everywhere that he turns, Ram can only see death.

Even as he cries, 'Enough!' he runs into Abhyankar again; the man is in hiding, the police are looking for him. 'How many did you kill last night?' asks Abhyankar. Ram is distraught. He's mustered up the courage to kill others, yet he doesn't have the courage to kill himself. Abhyankar may be killing for his faith, for his philosophy; he, Ram, doesn't even have a reason to live. His wife... 

Abhyankar interrupts. His sister was gang-raped by twenty men before they killed her. There are hundreds more like her, like Aparna. Who does Ram think is responsible? Bengal Premier Sohrawardy? Mohammed Ali Jinnah? No! Just one man Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. Had he not followed a policy of appeasement towards the Muslims, then that small sapling wouldn't have grown to be such a huge tree now.
Ram just wants to leave, to go to the police and confess his crimes. Abhyankar stops him; punishment is for crimes, not for doing one's duty. This is a civil war, and soldiers cannot be punished for killing their enemy. Spotting a police patrol, Abhyankar quickly escapes, leaving Ram with a book that he exhorts Ram to read. The last sight Ram has of him is of Abhyankar jumping into the river to escape. 

Heart sick, Ram flees Calcutta, returning to Srirangam, his hometown. 

Months pass. Ram is emotionally blackmailed into marrying again. All his protestations that both his wife and father passed away not so long ago, fall on deaf ears. Reluctantly, he goes to 'see' a girl - Mythili (Vasundhara Das). 
Cognisant of the fact that she's just a girl, he tries to ease out of the proposal, but the combined forces of his uncle and aunt, and Mythili's parents, are too strong to resist. 
Young as she is, Mythili is an odd mixture of innocence and maturity, and is unquestioningly accepting of her new husband.  However, little things remind Ram of Aparna, and of her horrifying death. His personal demons will never leave him, it seems. 

The next morning, the 14th of August, 1947, sees headlines indicating the independence of one nation, and the birth of another. Here, in this sleepy little town, which hasn't known the horrors of the scalpel that carved a new nation out of the womb of another, there's only jubilation at the news. The tri-colour flutters in every household in every street as they await the official declaration of independence.

Without telling anyone, Ram returns to Calcutta, alone. It's been a year now since the riots took place, and Calcutta seems to have returned to normal. Everything's the same – except for Aparna. Ram wanders around once-familiar places, including their old flat (now rented by someone else) feeling more and more lost. Everywhere he looks, he sees Aparna.
Fleeing from his own memories, he gets caught up in a crowd that are shouting slogans against Sohrawady and Gandhiji. When the Premier appears, Ram, an unexpected anger breaking his mask of detachment, asks him whether he's not responsible for turning ordinary men into murderers. Caught unawares, Sohrawardy stumbles, and then accepts responsibility. The crowd, until then, anti-Sohrawardy, begin to clap. Disgusted at how quickly the mob's sentiments change, Ram turns away, only to be accosted by an old acquaintance Abhyankar. 

Abhyankar had been jailed for eight months – for evading arrest. They couldn't pin anything else on him. Like Ram, Abhyankar is also disgusted, but his disgust is aimed at Gandhiji. How could the man trust a snake like Sohrawady? How is it that he is a 'mahatma'? As Abhyankar beckons Ram to follow, the radio is broadcasting Jawaharlal Nehru's speech about India's tryst with destiny. It's midnight. India is officially independent.

Ram returns to Srirangam, where Mythili is more than happy to see him. He gives her Aparna's painting of Durga that he had rescued from the flat as a peace offering. Mythili accepts it in the spirit it is offered, and presents him with a picture of Aandal that she had painted. She knows it's hard for Ram to accept her as his wife; couldn't he accept her as a friend? Touched, Ram agrees. It is the first time Mythili has seen him smile. It appears that they are closer to understanding each other than they ever were before.
Ram's relatives are sure that it is his job as an archaeologist, excavating the tombs of the dead, that have caused all his troubles. They decide he has to 'repent' Ram is furious. As he packs to leave, Mythili tries to remain understanding –  it's considered an ill-omen to ask a person who's leaving where he's going, so perhaps if he could tell the elders himself? When Ram responds that they are not little children who need permission to go anywhere, Mythili is pleasantly surprised that he is taking her with him this time.   

The elders are worried Ram is not in his senses; where is he taking Mythili and what if he leaves her somewhere? Even Mythili's father (Girish Karnad) is concerned, but her mother (Hema Malini) is practical – if Ram had wanted to desert her daughter, he would already have done so. In fact, he wouldn't even have agreed to marry her! 
On the way, Ram is made aware that his new wife may be very young, but she not only has her own opinions about things, but is also unafraid to disagree with him. He finds himself more and more drawn to her.  

At Poona (now Pune), they are met by Abhyankar, who's now going under the name Ramakrishna Pande. While Abhyankar is not too happy to find that Ram has married again, Ram is pleasantly taken aback to find that Mythili is not at all shy about expressing her opinions to Abhyankar, even debating the ethics of hunting. He finds her forthrightness very appealing. 

Abhyankar/Pande is there on behalf of the ‘Maharaja’, who has sent his own personal limousine to receive Ram. The next morning, Ram is introduced to the Maharaja (Vikram Gokhale), before they go hunting. On the way, they run into a paapad seller. Ram is shocked when he realises it’s his old friend, Lalwani. 
One of Karachi’s elite, he’s been reduced to this – his business, his home, have all been taken away; his wife was raped and murdered, he lost his older child to cholera in the refugee camp, the younger one was lost in a crowd. His parents? They were on a train – dead. Lalwani can barely hide his tears. Neither can Ram.

Encouraged by Abhyankar, Ram begins to drink again, despite Mythili's obvious disapproval. That night, caught up in the fervour of Dussehra, watching the effigy of Ravana burning, Ram is pursued by the demons he’d thought he’d left behind. As he struggles to compose himself, Abhyankar comes to him – the Maharaja wants to talk to Ram, in private.

The Maharaja makes his intentions clear – if the Hindu aatma is to survive, the Mahatma must die. It is a shame that the future of a Hindu nation is being destroyed by a practicing Hindu. As Ram stumbles in, it is to find an antechamber full of weaponry. The assassination should be a symbolic act, warns the Maharaja, as he draws two names to do the deed – Shriram Abhyankar and Saket Ram.
It’s a long night for Ram, for whom the lavani dancers, Aparna, Mythili, all merge into each other. As he takes Mythili away from the crowd, Abhyankar watches them, worried. As Ram finally consummates his marriage, his thoughts whirl in a kaleidoscope of images. 

The next morning sees Ram and Abhyankar on the polo field. A freak accident causes Abhyankar to take a fall, his horse landing on him. The horse, lame, is shot, even as Ram looks on unhappily. ‘This Kathiawar horse once was great and useful to me; now it’s a burden to itself and others. It would amount to kindness to put it to sleep, wouldn’t it, Ram? asks the Maharaja, and Ram knows what he’s alluding to.

Lalwani is going to be separated from Ram again – the Maharaja has got him a good job in Sangli. It saddens Ram to bid goodbye; Lalwani is one of his last ties to a saner world. As Lalwani leaves, Mythili breaks down and confesses her love for Ram. Ram is touched, but cannot bring himself to tell her that he loves her too. There's a lot at stake, and never has Ram felt so close to, and yet, so distant, from Mythili. 
The Maharaja interrupts them; Abhyankar wants to meet Ram. Ram slowly, almosts reluctantly, walks into the hospital room; Abhyankar is now a quadriplegic, he will never walk again. The man, however, is remarkably calm. He's lost his body, not his soul. Now, his soul is Ram's – Ram shall fulfil his duty, not just for Abhyankar, but for all of them, for the sake of the Mother Nation. 

Ram promises. Not just to fulfil the task entrusted to him, but to renounce all bondage, all relationships. When it is time, the Maharaja will send Ram a telegram. Until then...
What will happen next? Ram has renounced his Mythili, much as another Ram renounced his Sita for the sake of duty. Will he able to turn hunter again, and murder a man in cold blood, this time for a cause?  What other faces from his past will he meet on this journey towards self-extinction? What is in store for all of them Ram, Mythili, the Maharaja, the Mahatma?
Hey Ram focuses on events that lie between Mohammed Ali Jinnah's call for a 'Direct Action Day' in the aftermath of the Partition, and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi on January 30th, 1948. It is indeed Kamal Hassan's 'experiment with truth', as he narrates the events of those tumultuous days through the eyes of Saket Ram, a fictional character, whose grief turns into anger and thoughts of revenge, not only against the men who committed the atrocities against him and his wife, but also against their whole community, and the man he's brainwashed into believing bore responsibility for the outrage.  

So touchy a topic is the subject of Partition still that our films have usually steered away from venturing to tell the story of that blot on our shared history. While Garam Hawa, Train to Pakistan, and Govind Nihalani's TV film Tamas (based on a story by Bhisham Sahni) have dealt with the sensitive topic in a restrained manner, they remained niche films. Commercial films preferred to shy away from the topic. Offhand, in Hindi, I can only think of Dharmaputra, which dealt with this controversial subject until Kamal Hassan had the guts to not only make Hey Ram, but to deal with a much more controversial topic the role of the RSS and the Hindu Mahasabha in the assassination of the Mahatma. (Soon after this film came the jingoistic Gadar Ek Prem Katha, Dr Chandraprakash Dwivedi's Pinjar, based on Amrita Pritam's novel of the same name, and much later, Deepa Mehta's 1947 Earth, based on Bapsi Sidhwa's Ice Candy Man. Pinjar was bogged down by the controversy of being 'anti-Muslim', just as Hey Ram was criticised for being anti-Hindu, and specifically, anti-Gandhi.)

Kamal Hassan did not shy away from examining the nature of the communal conflict that afflicted a divided nation, or from examining the reasons that drove hitherto peaceful men into violence against what they come to see as the 'other'. Richly layered in its complex narrative, Hey Ram examines how religious identity shapes our politics, and how it can often be manipulated to turn man into beast. 

He also shines a light on how perceptions of loss affect men's actions. In one striking scene, when the Maharaja's car is held up at the railway gates, and the guard shows no inclination to let them pass, Abhyankar asks whether he should have the gates opened; the Maharaja lapses into Marathi as he mutters, ‘All the doors have closed for Rajas like me; what’s the use of opening only this door?’ It bespoke the frustration that led men like him to consider the assassination of the man they held responsible for their ills.
Headlining a stellar starcast that included veterans like Naseeruddin Shah, Hema Malini, Girish Karnad, Saurabh Shukla, Vikram Gokhale, Om Puri, Farida Jalal, stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee, relative newcomers like Atul Kulkarni and Vasundhara Das, Kamal Hassan also donned the hats of producer and director, whilst using the talents of Ilaiyaraja (music), Sabu Cyril (art direction), Tirru (cinematography), Renu Saluja (editing), and Sarika (costumes).  

Kamal Hassan's Saket Ram is a man trying to forget the trauma of the Partition. His journey finds him descending into madness, the same insanity that drove two nations to fall on their own brethren, until he too comes under the spell of a man who has thrown his whole self into the principle of ahimsa. This journey from hatred of the ‘other’ to the hatred of ‘self’ to remorse, traversing disparate regions and time periods, was ably charted by this veteran actor.

This is definitely one of Kamal’s best performances, but with Hey Ram, he also outdid himself as the director, keeping a taut hold on the narrative, and allowing his co-stars, especially Atul Kulkarni, the space in which to unfold his character's motivations. It says much for his reputation not only as one of the country's finest actors, but also that of a visionary, that so many successful names from the theatre, art, and commercial films agreed to be part of this journey.
Both Rani Mukherjee and Vasundhara Das had small but pivotal roles as Saket Ram's wives. Especially the latter who, in the small role she has as Mythili, brings to it a fresh optimism that serves as a check and balance to Ram’s cynicism. She may be young, but she is no pushover, and more than once, pays Ram back in his own coin. Witness the scene where Ram, caught reading her copy of Gandhiji’s My Experiments with Truth, dismisses it as ‘semi-fiction’. Days later, when he offers her a book to read – history – she responds: ‘I hate semi-fiction.’ Similarly, she’s not very prim and proper in her behaviour towards her new husband, as would have been expected of her. It might be her extreme youth, but she is very clear that theirs is not a child-marriage. She’s an adult (a claim that may be argued against by the happy little skip she gives when she realises that her husband actually wants her to go with him). She’s strangely mature for her age, accepting the differences between them, and knowing that there are things about her husband’s past that she will never come to know. For Ram, it is balm to be accepted so unconditionally, and he is torn when what he deems his duty tears him away from her side, a slight for which his son never forgives him.
So also Shah Rukh Khan who, in a well-defined and restrained cameo, excelled as Saket's Pathan friend who reminds him that their blood is the same.
It is to Kamal Hassan's credit that he cast the talented Atul Kulkarni as Abhyankar. The National School of Drama alumnus first shot into prominence in theatre, playing Gandhi in the acclaimed play Gandhi Virudh Gandhi. He had also previously worked with Amol Palekar in Kairee and Karve, before Hey Ram propelled him onto the national stage. (It is said daane daane pe likha hai khaane waale ka naam; the role of Abhyankar was originally essayed by Mohan Gokhale who, unfortunately, passed away after a major part of the shooting was over.) Kulkarni, for whom Hey Ram (his first released Hindi/Tamil film) was a major breakthrough, bringing this talented actor to the attention of other directors, has openly thanked Kamal for making the sets of Hey Ram  a film school – he confesses that from Kamal, he imbibed a passion for detail and a passion for films. The role of Shriram Abhyankar fetched him the National Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Hey Ram is noted for its scrupulous recreation of the period based on meticulous research. From recreating Mohenjodaro on the outskirts of Chennai to Birla House in Ooty, from the antique automobiles on the streets to the calendars on the walls, to the various costumes in the films, no detail was overlooked not even the fact that Henri Cartier-Bresson was present to take what would be the last photographs of Mahatma Gandhi.

Similarly, though the film was simultaneously made in Tamil and Hindi (thus removing the dreaded lip-sync issues that appear with dubbing), there's a smattering of dialogues in other languages each person is in character, speaking their own native tongues. Aparna, Saket Ram's Bengali wife, automatically speaks in Bengali until she recollects herself. The Maharaja slips into Marathi, as does Abhayankar. Amjad Khan speaks both Hindi and Tamil, and while his accented Tamil came in for a lot of ridicule, Shah Rukh's Amjad is supposed to be a Pathan who picked up the language while he was in college (in Madras) with Ram. It is also pertinent to point out that everyone dubbed for themselves in all the various languages they speak. 

Hey Ram is a courageous film, and considering the subject, a pathbreaking endeavour to examine the madness that afflicted our fledgling nation in the aftermath of its corrosive division. With many allegories that tackle disparate narrative strands, the film focuses on knitting them together, using fictional characters to examine the deadly wounds inflicted on their communities – wounds that fester deep under the skin, leading to grave consequences.

Straddling 'art' and 'commerce', Hey Ram humanises Gandhi, and underlines his philosophy of ahimsa and tolerance through the protagonist's transformation from man to beast, and thence to man, again.

Released on the cusp of a new millennium, Hey Ram is one of the more important films to come out of our film industry. Like it or loathe it, I guarantee you will react to the film, and that it will provoke you to think deeply about your own religious identity and how it informs your politics. 

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