Hey Ram!

Despite flaws, a bold and brave film by Kamalahassan

Stars: Kamalahassan, Rani Mukherjee, Shahrukh Khan, Vasundhra Das
Music: Ilaiyaraja
Director: Kamalahassan
Released: February 18, 2000
Reviewer: Balaji Thirumalai
Rating: 3 stars

Hey Ram! was supposedly Gandhi's last words. Now, some researchers say that Gandhi never uttered those words, even though he may have intended to. Ironically, the man who shot Gandhi was a Ram, as in Nathu'Ram' Godse. In the movie, we have two other 'Rams' trying to do the same – Sri'Ram' Abhyankar and Saket 'Ram'. Gandhi is not shown uttering Hey Ram! before his death in this movie. So, the title's significance is open to interpretation and discussion, as is the rest of the movie.

Hey Ram is a commentary on the sad, uncertain and violent times we live in. Kamal pulls out all the stops in this strange, twisted and fantastic ode to non-violence and almost succeeds in pulling it off. Unfortunately, much of the synergy is missing in the final product, but more of that later. The story is told on two levels. On a simple plane, it's a simple tale of vendetta, misguided trust and redemption. When one digs deeper, almost every character, event or scene is a metaphor and even the dialogues are a literary ploy to draw a simile to modern day events. Kamal obviously intended to make the events that occur 50 years ago, relevant in this day and age. It's perhaps his way of reminding young audiences unfamiliar or far detached from our Independence struggle to uphold the sacrifices made by Gandhi and others and to learn from past mistakes. As he has said in interviews, this movie does not attempt to repair the damages caused, but only remind us that it can happen again. And the movie takes its own sweet time in delivering its message, and even though the end justifies the means, one is not so sure if it will reach the audience the way the filmmakers intended.

The story begins in present day Chennai, with Saket Ram (Kamal) at his deathbed being attended to by his grandson, also named Saket (Kamal's nephew Gautham) and his doctor-friend, Munnu (Abbas). The story is told in a series of long flash-backs beginning with a dig in Mohenjadaro with his Muslim friend Amjad, (admirably played by Shah Rukh Khan) for an Englishman, Mortimer Wheeler. These are happier times for Saket, who sings about Hindu Muslim unity and Babar and Ram (interestingly enough – a half a century before Babar rose into prominence, due to the Babri Masjid controversy – which too came about due to an archaeological dig!) with Amjad and Lalwani (played by Saurabh Shukla) unaware of the trouble brewing ahead of them. Saket soon returns to his wife, Aparna in Calcutta (played by the delectable Rani Mukherjee). Their reunion is disrupted abruptly and violenty by the riots in Calcutta. Aparna is violently gang-raped and slaughtered by Altaf, his once-trustworthy Muslim tailor and his friends with Saket himself almost sodomized. In as much as the Tamil cinema audience is desensitized to a witnessing a rape on the screen, here, in a scene that plays out for maximum shock value, you feel the audience shudder as Saket is pinned to the piano by one of Altaf's aides. It takes great guts to pull off a scene like that, kudos to Kamal. Saket goes on a rampage following this incident which only stops as he witnesses a blind Muslim orphan girl and realizes that she is as helpless as he is, and perhaps only luckier in that she's blind to the atrocities around her. As he tethers on the edge of insanity, enters Ram Abhyankar, a Tanjavur Marat, brilliantly played by Atul Kulkarni, who plants the first seed of mistrust in Saket, sensing his helplessness and vulnerability.

Kamalahassan and Shahrukh Khan in "Hey Ram"The scene shifts to Sri Valli Puttur and Saket's re-marriage to Mythili (played to perfection by Vasundhara Das), in compliance with his elder's wishes. This provides some much-needed lighter moments in the movie, and for a moment, threatens to become one of those screwball Crazy Mohan-Kamal comedies. When Mythili realizes where Saket's true love lies, she aims to work her way into his heart – and proposes that they be friends, much like Andal, also of Sri Valli Puttur. Kamal and Vasundhara revel in these scenes, and the supporting cast that includes Hema Malini, Girish Karnad, Sowcar Janaki, Raghavan, Vaalee, Y.G. Mahendaran and Vyapuri all liven up the proceedings. Unfortunately, the events of that fateful night in Calcutta, come back to haunt Saket. Unable to handle the trauma, Saket 'escapes' to Calcutta, to relive his past with Aparna. A chance encounter with Ram Abhyanker, who capitalizes on Saket's weak mind, leads him to join Abhyankar and a Maharajah who plan to 'save the soul of India, by killing the Mahatma'. Saket renounces his family as he prepares for an assassination bid on Gandhi-ji The scene shifts to Delhi where Gandhi is resting at the Birla Residence. Saket loses his weapon (a Mauseur Pistol) and his search leads him to a Muslim colony in Old Delhi, where he meets Amjad, his Muslim friend and his family who are in hiding in an old Soda factory. Amjad, now a Gandhian, tries to relate the Muslim point of view, but to no avail. This is perhaps the weakest section of the movie, something that needed more attention. Meanwhile, tipped off, the local Hindus mount an assault on the colony, and in the ensuing tussle, Amjad is badly injured and subsequently dies. This is the only part where we get to see the Muslim point of view, and its suffers from the distraction of a prolonged stand-off in the soda factory. Finally, it takes another death - Amjad's sacrifice converts Saket into realizing his folly and Saket rushes to confess to Gandhi, on the same day that Nathuram Godse assassinates the Mahatma.

Kamal is brilliant in the scenes where the events of Calcutta come back to haunt him. The supporting cast is stellar and plentiful, but not everyone gets enough screen time. Even Om Puri and Nasser are mere window dressings in this display, where there is only one mannequin – Kamal. It's not so much a director's movie, as it is an actor's movie. Somewhere in this tussle, one feels that the screenplay was neglected. The movie is about thirty minutes too long (once could say that about this review :-) and could've done with some serious editing. The special effects are another sore point of the movie, and serve only as a distraction, an unwanted one at that. Much has been said and written about the violence in Hey Ram!. This reviewer feels that the depiction of the rape, the riots and the gruesome killings were all warranted and necessary to make a statement. It is the anti-thesis of what Kamal was trying to say, and it was a case of proving a theorem by making a case for the contrary. Many people don't realize the impact of the partition on India, especially us, South Indians. Perhaps the movie's greatest mistake is that it tries too much. The movie is gripping, but not 'taut' for precisely the same reason.

Also, sub-titles would've helped in many places – from the plotting of the assassination to the raunchy lyrics in the Lavani number, the essence was lost on a vast majority of the audience. If you're making a 'global' Indian movie trying to reach out to everyone in India, especially in a country with the literacy rate where it is, it is a difficult task to accomplish. One approach would've been for everyone to speak in Tamil. After all, Maniratnam had done this in Uyire. This way, Kamal would've had the audience's 100% attention, and wouldn't have lost them.

The technical stuff is excellent. The set designs and costumes are worthy of a period piece and the attention to detail is brilliant. Sarika, Kamal's 'research-assistant' has surely done her homework. Hey Ram! demands multiple viewing to appreciate the amount of hard work and preparation gone into the production. Raja's sound track is just right – you don't even notice it, but it draws you in – especially Aparna's theme and the way the Lavani number turns into a semi-western classical piece. Raja captures the mood of the film without resorting to heroics. Excellent, restrained effort from Raja.

Over the years, Tamil cinema has continually numbed its critics and audience to blindly accept the usual and the predictable, all in the name of art. So much so that people have yet to learn the difference between 'good' & 'bad' cinema. Hey Ram! enters the scene as an art form forcing the masses and the critics to feel, to think deeply, and to question almost everything that we have accepted as the 'truth' for so long. It is rather simplistic to label such a film, 'mediocre' and 'undeserving of praise' and we have been programmed to do just that. The real questions are: Can we honestly think about events in history, learn and reflect on our mistakes and courageously deal with them if they were to arise again? Moreover, are we ready and willing to have a filmmaker like Kamalahassan force us to address these questions through a film like Hey Ram!. Unfortunately, the answers to these questions will continue to elude us for a long time to come while Hey Ram! takes a few steps in the right direction.

Balaji Thirumalai

Original Photograph (Hey Ram! Advertisement): Thanks to Idhayam Cinema
Photograph scanned & reworked by: Sandya