The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, March 5, 2000

Hey Ram promises more than it fulfils
By Aradhika Sekhon

NO Indian it seems, even if it’s Kamal Haasan, can do justice to Gandhi, at least on celluloid. While watching any movie on Gandhi, one cannot but compare it with Ben Kingsley’s dramatic and spiritual work. Similarly, any work on Partition does get compared to Nihalani’s Tamas, and, now, Mehta’s 1947-Earth. On both accounts, Kamal Haasan’s much publicised work comes in second.

The Rs 16-crore venture, Hey Ram is made on a huge canvas and the scenario keeps shifting from Karachi to Calcutta to Madras and, finally, to Delhi. The atmosphere of each place is effectively captured largely due to the painstaking attention paid to the language, costumes and even mannerisms. So, Kamal Haasan, a South Indian (Saket Ram) married to Rani Mukherjee (a Bengali) attempts a few words of Bangla while talking to her as she prattles away comfortably in her language or in Hindi with a Bangla accent. Similarly, for the family in Madras, the setting is totally convincing with Hema Malini and Girish Karnad playing a middle-aged South Indian couple.

  In fact, the film has a cast which is truly formidable. Apart from Kamal Haasan himself — and he’s there in every frame — there are Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukherjee, Girish Karnad, Hema Malini, Om Puri, Saurabh Shukla, Vasundhara Das, a host of Tamil and Marathi theatre actors and actresses and the absolute coup’de casting — Tushar Gandhi playing himself. Nasiruddin Shah plays Mahatma Gandhi.

Unfortunately, Kamal Haasan has hardly used it to his advantage, as these characters appear in what may be at best described as cameo roles. The only person we have a surfeit of is Saket Ram himself, who supposedly personifies the pressures and times he lives in.

The events of the film span the time between the 1940s and 1999, the main action being the few years before and after Partition. The movie starts with a journey into the disillusionment of the dream of Independence and seeks to convey the message that communal disharmony is as much an issue today as it was at the time of Partition. Things have not really changed over the last 50 years. Says Shah Rukh Khan," The film conveys a message which is very relevant today". Haasan’s penchant for nationalistic cinema spills over from Hindustani to Hey Ram, but whereas the former was pure fiction, the latter is semi-historical.

The plot of the film deals with Saket Ram, a fun-loving, upper class, apolitical and educated person — an archaeologist — who comfortably socialises with the British and whose best friend is Amjad Khan (Shah Rukh). He is above cultural and communal divisions as he ardently romances his wife in Calcutta. His ideal lifestyle comes to an abrupt end when he is caught in the midst of communal violence in the city. His wife is brutally gang-raped and murdered by a band of Muslim rioters. This frees the demon of hatred and ends his reason and he goes on a mission of murder, becoming just like the hungry mobs which ravage humanity. Ultimately, his vengeance settles on just one man, MK Gandhi, who he thinks is responsible for this orgy of killing. He vows to kill him.

There is a trained focus throughout the film on the role that the fundamentalists played, and still do, in the whole drama of communal violence. Gandhi is perceived as the enemy of the people by the Savarkar Sewaks, a Hindutva brigade, who with their warped vision and contorted reasoning, manage to convince and win over many people. These include even those for whom the "morning after" brings remorse, but who because of the sufferings and loss inflicted by the rioters have, as Saket Ram puts it, "lost half their souls". They have undergone an experience which won’t leave them and which drives them. In fact, Haasan squarely blames the fundamentalists who can rouse mass hysteria and revel in it for reasons that are frightening because of their very obscurity. Even the terminology used is repulsive — the rioting is described as shikar par chalo.

The night of rioting and rape has all the elements of horror and violence — guns, knives, swords flashing, a city burnt and torn, busloads of dead, mutilated bodies, blood sprouting out of slashed throats, fires breaking out — the whole city crying out in terror as the hunters hunt for their prey. But somewhere, the narrative seems to lose its focus as Kamal Haasan gets embroiled in domesticity again. The point at which his fury gets rekindled and he decides to go after the Mahatma is hazy. It could be that he must vindicate the fact of his momentary lapse into savagery and hold someone to blame for making a murderer out of him.

Nasiruddin Shah as Gandhi is impressive and brings out his simplicity, humour, compassion, wisdom and helplessness beautifully. He emerges, as Shah Rukh Khan says, "the only sanity in the country and the most right thing that happened to India". However, the attempt to "de-mystify the Mahatma", as Kamal Haasan claims his movie seeks to do, doesn’t really take off, primarily because we don’t see too much of him. The only claim to de-mystification, maybe, are the words Gandhi himself says. Kya, main Mahatma?... sabhi mahatma hain... nahin to jaanwar."

However, Gandhi has no role in bringing Saket Ram back to the Gandhian fold. It is in fact the encounter at Chandni Chowk, precipitated unwittingly by Saket Ram, which turns into a full-fledged riot that returns him to sanity. That and his friend Amjad Khan’s lessons in brotherhood. Haasan claims that history overtakes him. But this claim seems to be grandiose.

Hey Ram, the most awaited movie in recent times, offers less than what it promises. It is brilliant in flashes but obscurity is its major drawback. Inadvertently, however, it brings out an aspect of Indianhood which makes one feel ashamed. While watching the movie, a section of the people actually applaud and loudly agree with those fundamentalists who denigrate and curse Gandhi. This damning revelation of the Indian character comes to light because of Haasan's Experiments with Truth.