Its been a while since I have seen a Hindi film that demands you see it more than once, and Kamal Haasan’s Hey Ram is one such film. Written and directed by Kamal himself, the film has an ensemble cast, music and background score by Ilayaraja, and dialogs by the man who wrote some of Indian television’s most popular dramas and satires – Manohar Shyam Joshi. It has a running time of just about 200 minutes.
The year is 1999 and an 89 year old man – Saket Ram (Kamal Haasan) is bed-ridden. His grandson Saket Ram Jr. (Gautam Kanthadai), a writer, is by his side as a doctor – Munavar (Abbas) – makes his visit. And while the doctor works on Ram, the grandson talks about how his grandfather was a puratatva shastri – an archaeologist – as well as an exceptional story teller whose tales had a “bio-fictional” quality to them. He then begins telling one such story.
In 1946, Saket Ram, along with his friend Amjad Ali Khan (Shahrukh Khan), was working under the British archaeologist Mortimer Wheeler at the dig site of Mohenjo Daro, British India. The Partition of India was just months away, and fearing Hindu-Muslim riots, the archaeologists close the site and return to Karachi. Ram then goes to Calcutta to meet his wife Aparna (Rani Mukherjee). Its Direct Action Day with people rioting and Calcutta bleeding and burning as a consequence (not from the film – Jinnah warned the Indian National Congress on the day prior to D.A.D. – “We do not want war, if you want war we accept your offer unhesitatingly. We shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed.”) The Premier of Bengal – Suhrawardy (Arun Bali) – had declared a public holiday on that day, and the cops were no where to be seen. Ram reaches his home while Muslim mobs chant “Pakistan Zindabad” and “Muhammed Ali Jinnah Zindabad.”
After spending some quality time with his wife, Ram goes out to get some food – the shops had been closed all day. Muslim mobs are still running riot, and after saving a Sikh girl from a mob, he calls up the city police commissioner. What can we do, the PC asks. The Hindus don’t want us (the British) here, and the Muslims want the whole of India. You can complain to Mahatma Gandhi if you like, he says sarcastically. Ram reaches home only to find some men trying to break into his wife’s bedroom. They tie him up and rape her. Ram frees himself, kills one of the assailants, and shoots at the others – they manage to escape. He then rushes into the bedroom to find his wife’s throat slit open, and she dies before he can summon a doctor. In rage, he takes his gun and heads towards a Muslim locality – one of the assailants, his tailor Altaf, has his shop there. Hindu and Sikh mobs are wrecking havoc there – burning and butchering – tit for tat. Ram finds the tailor and shoots him dead. Ram gets out of the locality and bumps into another Hindu group, this one headed by another Ram – Sri Ram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni). Abhyankar sees that Saket Ram is wearing a sacred thread, and therefore introduces himself with the abhivadaye. Meet me later, Abhyankar tells Ram, handing him a pamphlet and applying vermilion on his forehead so that people “know” who he is.
The next day, Ram finds Abhayankar – he’s hiding from the cops. I killed because they raped my wife, Ram says. Who’s responsible for all this, Abhyankar asks – Suhrawardy? No. Jinnah? No. Its Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi; he’s the one who has nurtured a tiny green sampling and allowed it to grow into a gigantic tree. I am going to turn myself in – demand punishment for my crimes – Ram says, disregarding Abhyankar’s logic. What punishment, and who’s to punish whom; kanoon chutti par gaya hai mitr, lekin hum kaam par hain – the law has taken a leave of absence, but we are still at work – Abhayankar says. They are on a tram, talking, when the cops appear and try to take Abhyankar into custody. He escapes. Saket Ram goes back to Madras, and six month later, gets married for the second time; his bride is Mythili (Vasundhara Das). On the wedding night, they make conversation. She brings in milk; he says he doesn’t drink milk – it’s against nature. He’s reading Gandhi’s autobiography. How is it, she asks. I don’t like “semi-fiction,” he says. Mythili goes in to change her clothes, and suddenly screams because a lizard jumps on her. Ram has still not forgotten Aparna, and he regresses.
Its 14th August 1947, the eve of independence, and Ram goes back to Calcutta and visits the places he frequented with Aparna. Mahatma Gandhi (Naseeruddin Shah) has come to the city and he’s safeguarding Suhrawardy from an angry mob. Ram joins the crowd and asks Suhrawardy if he accepts responsibility for the previous year’s massacre. Yes, he replies. And the angry crowd breaks into applause and disperses. Its here that Ram bumps into Abhyankar who begins with this question – Moodhta par taaliyan bajti dekh tumhare mann mein bhi wahi pratikriya ho rahi hai bandhuwar jo mere mann mein – do you feel the same way I do when you see stupidity being applauded; Gandhi is leading these people to be slaughtered, and they are following him; they are being slaughtered, and yet they applaud (Atul Kulkarni has some of the best lines in the film; the part was written for Mohan Gokhale who died before he could start shooting.) They walk together, and soon its midnight and people wish each other a happy independence day. Nehru’s famous “tryst with destiny” speech plays on a radio and a drunken man comes and hugs them. Hindus and Muslims are brothers, he says. Then so are Germany and England, China and Japan, and the goat and the butcher, Abhyankar replies.
Ram goes back to Madras, and apologizes to Mythili for running away without saying anything. He then takes her to Pune – Abhyankar’s invitation. On the plane, Ram and Mythili talk about Gandhi. He’s reared three kinds of monkeys, Ram says — the first kind only listen to him; the second keep their mouth shut lest they say something critical about him; the third keep their eyes shut as far as the real world is concerned and live in Gandhi’s fantasy world. They land and Abhyankar takes them to a former Raja’s (Vikram Gokhale) palace. The Raja funds the ultra-right Hindu group which Abhyankar belongs to. They, and this now includes Ram, hatch a plot to assassinate the Mahatma – to protect Hinduism. Abhyankar and Saket Ram are chosen to “do the deed,” but Abhyankar suffers a serious injury in a horse-riding accident and becomes a quadriplegic. Abhyankar and Ram meet one last time – Ram gets his weapon of choice, the Mauser, and is told that the Raja will inform him about when the assassination should take place. And Ram returns to Madras with Mythili.
Back to 1999, Saket Ram’s condition deteriorates, and the doctor and grandson load him into a van to take him to the hospital. But they are stopped mid-way. Its December 6th – the anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid – and riots break out across Madras. They are stopped by the police and hidden in an under-construction storm drain just in the nick of time.
Life goes on in Madras till Ram gets a telegram from Maharashtra – Gandhi is in Delhi, and Abhyankar is dead. Ram writes a letter disowning his family (and to-be-born child) and sets off for Delhi. He checks into a hotel, and then reconnaissances Birla House. He returns to the hotel and finds that the police are raiding the place searching for Gandhi’s would-be assassin – Nathuram Godse is on their radar. Ram reaches out of his room’s balcony and quickly dumps his Mauser into some crates on a truck. After the police leave, he finds that the truck has disappeared. He traces it to the vicinity of the Jama Masjid, and bumps into his old friend Amjad. Their relationship has changed, but Amjad does not know it. Ram tells him that his purse got misplaced. He takes Ram to the factory whose truck it is. A lot of Muslims are hiding there – old men, women and children. They are expecting an attack and so some young men have armed themselves with guns. Amjad’s uncle seems to own the place, and he shows Amjad the purse – gun. Your “friend” is here to kill us, he says. A scuffle takes place that leave some people dead and Amjad and Ram escape. Once they are out of danger, Amjad and Ram have a talk. All this. Why? Amjad asks. My wife was murdered, like thousands of other Hindus, Ram says. My father was murdered by a Hindu mob, Amjad replies; you forgive me for your wife’s murder, and I will forgive you for my father’s, or else kill me. I am not here to kill you, or any Muslims, but the root cause of it all – Gandhi, Ram says. Gandhi is the only sanity in this country, Amjad says. Don’t do it.
A Hindu gang armed with sharp weapons appears. Ram tries to protect Amjad, but someone hits him on the head with a sledge hammer, and Ram shoots the assailants dead. He then carries the injured Amjad back to the factory and fights with the Muslims against a bunch of rifle-totting Hindus. The police appears after everything is over and Amjad is taken to the hospital in a serious condition. They question him as to who started the riots in the locality. Who is Bhairav (the name Ram had adopted while in Delhi)? Amjad dies without giving up Ram. Amjad’s death kills the quest for vengeance within Ram. He goes to Birla House again. to meet Gandhi. The Mahatma is telling people that love is the only way to end the hatred. A man who has lost everything is very angry with Gandhi. You have destroyed us; please let us be and leave, he says. You are very angry, and I will listen to you; otherwise you will go and take it out on some Muslims, Gandhi says. He then meets Ram. If all this communal hatred could assume the form of a bullet, I am willing to take it in the chest if I am assured that both communities will live peacefully after killing me, Gandhi tells him. That’s what Amjad said too, before he died, Ram replies.
1999 again, the riots are still going on, and Saket Ram regains consciousness. The saline has run out. Take me somewhere else, Ram says. The Hindus and Muslims are fighting, his grandson replies. Even now, Ram asks. And he dies.
Ram plans to confess to Gandhi about his sins. He puts his Mauser in a box and goes to Birla House. Its January 30th, 1948. Gandhi is on his way to his daily prayer meeting and Ram meets him. If you have sinned, so have I. We will talk about it later, Gandhi tells him and walks on. And he’s shot by Godse – thrice. Gandhi dies without saying “Hey Ram.” Ram is crushed. He picks up Gandhi’s slippers and glasses and goes to Birla House where Governor General Mountbatten and Prime Minister Nehru arrive. Mountbatten tells the angry crowd that Gandhi was not assassinated by a Muslim, but by a Hindu. How did you know it was a Hindu, Nehru asks him later. I didn’t; was it, Mountbatten asks. Nehru replies in the affirmative. Thank God for that; otherwise the country would have been torn apart, Mountbatten says.
The film ends in 1999 with Saket Ram Jr. taking Gandhi’s great grandson, Tushar Gandhi, on a tour of Saket Ram’s room.
Not surprisingly, the film flopped at the box office; the Indian audience and Indian politicians don’t appreciate “controversial” subjects. “This is not an attempt to fix responsibilities for blunders committed, but a reminder that those blunders might happen yet again,” Kamal Haasan said about the film. And he is right. The film does not put the blame on any single person, Gandhi included. To use the cliché, things are not always black and white. Who’s ultimately responsible for the Partition – Gandhi, or Jinnah, or Nehru, or all of them – Gandhi, because he treated Muslims with kid gloves and because he wanted to avoid bloodshed; Jinnah, because he didn’t believe Hindus and Muslims could live together; Nehru, because of his prime-ministerial ambitions. Hey Ram does not tackle these subjects (except Gandhi to some extent; Ketan Mehta’s Sardar tries to, and it doesn’t present a charitable picture of the trio; will leave it for another day though). What it does tackle, however, is the subject of the demonization of Gandhi.
Early in the film, Saket Ram is offered a drink – what’s your poison, he’s asked. Partition’s my poison, he says; I want a single country. He’s very friendly with Amjad, a Muslim, and like many Indians he didn’t believe that India would be dissected. But it happens – the biggest forced migration in the history of the world that resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands and the destruction of the lives of millions. Ram sees his wife raped before his own eyes, and civilized people people turn into murderous savages. He takes his revenge, but then meets Abhyankar, and is slowly pulled into the right-winged conspiracy. If Muslims had been shown their place in India, if Gandhi hadn’t let them grow too big for their boots – “nurtured” them, India would not have been partitioned, such bloodshed would not have happened. The Raja who funds the conspiracy is an interesting character. Gandhi tells us warriors to drop our weapons and practice non-violence, he says. In another scene, he’s not too happy with Sardar Patel, the then Home Minister of India. Under Patel’s rule, even Maharajas have been reduced to paupers, he comments. He longs for the “glorious” past. When Suhrawardy accepts moral responsibility for Direct Action Day, Gandhi is standing by his side. Abhyankar later tells Ram – Gandhi stands on the shoulders of a snake like Suhrawardy, what kind of Mahatma is he? Ram had a friend in Karachi – Lalwani, a Sindhi industrialist; the Sindhis – most of them businessmen – are some of Partition’s worst victims. He encounters Lalwani in Pune, selling paapad – a pauper who lost his entire family.
A case is made against Gandhi. And Ram truly believes that Gandhi deserves to die. But his meeting with Amjad breaks his resolve. He questions the Hindu right-wing’s theory about Gandhi. If Hindus were butchered by Muslims, so were they. If there are militant Muslims, there are militant Hindus as well. If millions of Hindus lost everything in Pakistan, so did millions of Muslims who fled India. Amjad dies repeatedly saying “my brother, Ram.” He saved Ram from his Muslim brethren, and he didn’t give Ram up to the police even though Ram triggered off a riot. Ram hears Amjad say that Gandhi is the only sanity left in the country. And that was evident. If a riot took place, Gandhi would begin a fast unto death, and the riots would stop. Both Hindus and Muslims would plead with him to stop the fast. This aspect is brought out during Ram’s second wedding. His mother-in-law tells a doctor who talks jokingly about Gandhi’s fast that when normal people fast, they fall ill; when Gandhi does the same, we get independence.
Before Ram meets the Mahatma, he sees Gandhi’s interactions with the people. Non-violence is the only answer, he tells many people; forgive (Gandhi did say this – “an eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.”) I can fast, I can plead, what else can I do, Gandhi says. And you feel for the old man (brilliant acting by Naseer). A partition that he didn’t want, happened; the bloodshed continued even after, and all he could do was plead. And for whatever it is worth, that does have its effect. And Ram becomes a convert.
Ilayaraja uses his background score to great effect. In moments of high tension, you don’t hear heart-pumping music like most films, but Stanley Kubrick-eqsue orchestral strains. It puts the scenes in perspective – highlights them. Another technique that deserves mention is the use of color and black-and-white shots. The present (1999) is in black-and-white; the past is in color. And this changes the moment Gandhi dies. Then onwards, the past is in black and white, and the present in color. I should thank a commentator at IMDb who first brought my attention to the metaphor involved; I didn’t notice the film changing color after Gandhi’s death the first time I saw it. This is what he says-
The period action is splendid. People who really understood the film will agree that Gandhi is the real hero of the film. The fact that he comes roughly around 30 minutes is the greatness of Kamal’s direction and way of story-telling!! He would have shot the present in black-n-white and the past with Gandhi in color and as soon as Gandhi is assassinated, the picture turns black-n-white again. Just to show that Gandhi gave us Light and it turns black-n-white after his death. Towards the end, Saket’s grandson gets the key of one of Saket’s private rooms and he visits it with Gandhi’s real great grandson. The movie finishes with both of them opening the windows carved on an image of Gandhi again sharing the same thought that Gandhi showed light. Again he would show the fire both in 1940s and present in color depicting how when every thing’s changed Violence has remained forever and how we haven’t learned our lessons fully.
Nehru said something interesting after Gandhi’s death-
Friends and comrades, the light has gone out of our lives, and there is darkness everywhere, and I do not quite know what to tell you or how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we called him, the father of the nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that; nevertheless, we will not see him again, as we have seen him for these many years, we will not run to him for advice or seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not only for me, but for millions and millions in this country.
That’s what Kamal intended to bring out I suppose.
Well, you could analyze the film to death. But there is one thing I can say – its a film that deserves to be seen, and more than once because there are many layers present, and thankfully, its not a surrealist film. Indologist Philip Lutgendorf’s review that delves even deeper can be read here. I don’t say this very often, but hat’s off to Kamal Haasan.