Martin Scorsese would have loved this film. Because this movie is full of “aesthetic, emotional and spiritual revelation”, which qualifies it to enter Scorsese’s this-is-cinema book.
I am talking about Hey Ram, a gem of a film that Kamal Haasan gave us at the beginning of the 21st century. And, we collectively failed to appreciate it. “Too much English dialogues” or “Too much kissing scenes” were the typical reasons cited by the common audience back then to write off this highly important film in the history of Indian cinema. Maybe it was way ahead of its time. It is not an exaggeration but this film is more relevant today than it ever was. Not for nothing, Kamal, the actor and also the politician, hand-picked this film for a special screening as part of his 65th birthday celebration.
Hey Ram deals with the bloodiest and controversial parts of modern India. Clocking in at nearly three-and-a-half hours, the film reflects on the country’s violent past. The riots that happened in the run-up to partition, and its aftermath, which eventually took the life of Mahatma Gandhi. It is not a biopic like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. It is a semi-fiction that runs parallel to major events that changed the history of our country.
Hey Ram is narrated entirely through Saketharaman Iyengar’s (played by a marvellous Kamal) point of view. The protagonist is an apolitical and easy-going archaeologist. He was born in Thanjavur, married to a Bengali girl in Calcutta and for a living, he excavates historical landscapes in Karachi. This is exactly what this film tries to do: excavate the specific aspects of a period where sanity took a backseat. Ram also has a Muslim friend, Amjad Ali Khan (played by equally brilliant Shah Rukh Khan). The story is set in the 1940s, a volatile period when the country was on the verge of getting rid of its common enemy: British.
As communal riots painted the streets of India red and turned “ordinary men into murderers”, Ram loses his wife Aparna (Rani Mukerji) to the senseless acts of a few fanatics. Ram sets out to avenge the death of his lady-love. He is intoxicated with rage and it will take a while before he can come back to his senses. So that he can appreciate what Gandhi stands for and he can again start caring for his Muslim brother and his family.
Kamal Haasan, who has also written and directed Hey Ram, was highly ambitious when it came to making this film visually distinctive. He prefered visuals to dialogues to convey the rapidly evolving emotions of the protagonist, who is torn between vengeance and sanity.
For example, take the scene when Ram agrees to assassinate Gandhi. The scene is set in the palace of a dethroned Maharaja. People are revelling in the festivities of Vijayadashami. Ram’s friend Shriram Abhyankar, a right-wing extremist, gets him drunk (keeping him intoxicated is vital). Shriram is manipulating Ram and Ram doesn’t know that. And, Kamal conveys that Ram is trapped in a vicious circle through a series of trippy visuals.
Metaphorically speaking, Shriram drags Ram through the mud. Ram is forced to see either black or white. He is blinded to the nuances. And then, we see him falling into a dark box and he never fully emerges out of that darkness. He even meets his end in a nearly dark pit.
The best thing about Hey Ram is it never gets judgmental. This film may have clicked when it initially released if Kamal had spoonfed the audience as to which were the good ones and the bad ones. Instead, Kamal asks the audience to make that decision throughout the film. It is not an easy decision to make when the audience gets a protagonist who wants to kill Mahatma Gandhi. Kamal examines the sufferings of the Hindu protagonist. He tries to make sense of him with sympathy when his emotions gets the best of him. Kamal, the creator, stays with Ram, who is reeling under an avalanche of emotions. And he allows the protagonist to evolve and overcome his darkness with some light. That’s the reason why we see an old and ailing Saketharaman always in a semi-darkness setup. He may have had a change of heart and did not pull the trigger on Mahatma. But his soul was permanently damaged the night he went on a killing spree for the first time.
Kamal Haasan makes us feel ashamed when Saketharaman, gasping for breath, responds “innuma” (still), when he is told about ongoing Hindu-Muslim communal rights. It was not the 40s. The date was December 6 of 1999.