Hey Ram – an Experiment with Truth

It is a difficult task to write about a film as multi-layered and deep as Hey Ram, aptly subtitled ‘an Experiment with Truth’. But when you have wept through the last 20 minutes of a film, its massive impact on you cries out to be written about.

Ram is an educated, middle-class archaeologist. In the India of 1946, he works happily with his friend Amjad in Harappa, excavating ruins. On leave from work, he goes home to Calcutta to visit Aparna, his newly wed, sprightly bride. They are passionately in love with each other and have married against the wishes of their parents. One night, riots break out in the city. A group of Muslims comes to his house, ties him up in a room and gang-rapes his wife in the next. By the time Ram manages to break in with a pistol in hand, the rioters have escaped, but not before having slit the throat of his traumatised wife, who succumbs to her wounds in a few moments. As Aparna lies dead in a pool of blood, Ram, shocked and traumatised, limps through the streets of Calcutta the whole night, pistol in his hand, looking for his wife’s killers. The roads burn, there are corpses all over but he cannot find the killers. He does find similar looking men from the same community, and he shoots two of them. He then shoots an ageing Muslim man, and discovers a little blind girl who used to live with him, but does not have the heart to kill her.

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Ram leaves the city, traumatised both by the loss of his wife and the shock of being a murderer. He returns to his family in Madras, but nightmares and hallucinations of his assaulted wife, and those he killed, do not leave him, keeping him on the brink of a silent madness for several months. Life in Madras is an ongoing torture. He then travels to Gwalior to meet Shriram Abhyankar, an RSS functionary – a character with a strong physical and psychological resemblance to M. S. Golwalkar – who he first met on that bloody night in Calcutta, who was similarly looking for Muslims to kill. Abhyankar explains to him that none of this would have happened if the Muslims would have been shown their real place long ago. Only one man, says Abhyankar, has stopped us from doing so – Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi. And he must die.

On the night of Vijay Dashami, when an actor shoots an arrow into a large effigy of Ravana and destroys it, Abhyankar and his companions convince Ram to slay the demon in real life. In the background, posters of Adolf Hitler and Vinayak Damodar Savarkar grace the room where Ram is transformed from a traumatised riot victim into an deeply committed warrior willing to give up his own life for a higher purpose. Only in this ultimate, mythical act of slaying the demon will Ram’s traumas be healed and his suffering gain a cosmic significance.

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Ram renounces all he has, undergoes a religious initiation in Banaras, and proceeds to Delhi to murder Gandhi. A stroke of fate lands him in Old Delhi just about the time when a Hindu mob is about to attack that area. He runs into his old friend Amjad who now lives there. Initially, all Ram wants to do is to leave the place as soon as possible, without a care for Amjad. The good-natured, Gandhian Amjad tries to remind Ram of the deep friendship they shared only until last year. Ram, consumed with hatred for Muslims and for their protector, Gandhi, has no time for such nonsense. But when the rioters come face to face with them and try to smash Amjad’s body with a hammer, a transformation takes place. As he stares at the half conscious body of Amjad lying in a pool of blood, his quivering lips utter these words, “It happened to Aparna, I will not let it happen to Amjad. Not again”. It is the same blood that once flew from Aparna’s body.

Using the gun he is carrying to assassinate Gandhi, Ram shoots at the rioters, carries Amjad on his back and tries to find a safe place for them both. Amjad, barely able to speak, directs him to a factory where all the Muslims have gathered with a few guns. Soon Amjad and Ram are in the factory, where a dozen men with rifles are trying to protect themselves and the women and children huddled up in the attic from the rioters outside. A tough gunfight takes place, and eventually all men in the factory are killed except Ram and the half-conscious Amjad. Just then, the police then reaches and the mob flees. The women arise from the attic, and Amjad’s elderly mother blesses her son’s old friend for having saved their lives. Ram realises that he has just protected scores of those who he has hated for the last many months, and whose benefactor he planned to murder. An hour later, Amjad dies in hospital, holding Ram’s hand in his hand, his last words being “Ram.. my brother”. Ram is stunned at the turn of events.

He goes to Birla House the next day and meets Gandhi, here portrayed as a idiosyncratic, slightly senile but wise old man, not without a sense of humour. Upon hearing of Ram’s bravery, Gandhi calls him “Dakshin ka Ram..”. In that meeting, as the events of the last day settle into his mind, Ram’s conversion is complete. He ceases to be an assassin, his own conscience having transformed him into a protector of those very people he hated. In one riot six months ago, Ram had been murdering Muslims. In this one, at the risk of his own life, he protects them from Hindus who wish to annihilate them.

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Ram resolves to confess his murderous plans to Gandhi the next day. He visits Birla House again, but Gandhi is getting late for his prayer meeting, and in his childish, humourous manner, tells Ram to come again. Gandhi walks another few seconds and three gunshots are heard. Nathuram Godse has murdered Gandhi. The crowd gathers around the dead body. There is huge commotion and people take Gandhi’s body into the house. The loudspeaker announces, “With great pain we inform you that Bapu has died”. The leading figures of the independence movement meet in a room to decide their course of action, while Ram stands outside the window, in tears and in shock at what has just happened.

A great journey is now over. Ram, traumatised by the loss of his wife, has travelled the length of the country to kill a demon. He does kill a demon, but that is the demon of hatred within himself. Unlike the Ramayana, this story of Ram ends tragically in the death of the man who inspires Ram’s final transformation.

The film moves ahead 50 years to a dying Ram on his deathbed in Madras. His grandson has been narrating this story, while Hindus and Muslims kill each other in riots outside. It is the 6th of December, 1998 – six years after the demolition of the Babri Mosque, in order to build a temple to Lord Ram. Nothing has changed. People still go mad and slaughter each other. Forces still benefit from such slaughters. Gandhi is still dead. And now, Ram dies too, putting a final end to this remarkable life. The credits roll with images of Ram’s personal room. It contains pictures of Ram as a youth, of Aparna, of Amjad, and of Abhyankar. It also contains a wall-sized painting of Gandhi, and the slippers and glasses Gandhi wore when he was murdered, which Ram picked up and preserved secretly for all his life. In the background, Kamal Hassan, writer-director-producer-lead actor of the film, sings an altered and spirited version of the Gandhi bhajan – Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram, emphasising over and over again, “humaara dharm hai insaaniyat, insaaniyat, insaaniyat yaaron…”. “Our religion is humanity, humanity, humanity.. my friends..”

Hey Ram is a tremendously moving and indeed, shocking film. It is one man’s journey from innocence, to hatred, to a final expiation that comes unsought, unexpected – an act of grace. But this expiation is forever marred by the death of him whose ideals lay beneath it all. Gandhi is present in the film for only 15 minutes, but his spirit breathes through the film at every turn of plot, at every shocking moment, asking us questions about the kind of nation we want to become, and the kind of relationship we want to establish with one another. How does one respond to an act of hatred? What is the nature of revenge, and of violence? How much is an ‘other’, really an ‘other’, when seeing his blood flow you are reminded of the blood of your own beloved, a memory that makes you risk your life to protect this ‘other’ you hated till one minute ago? The strange mysteries of human bonding and human alienation – perhaps that is the underlying theme of this unbelievably complex, profound and provocative film. It is the same mysteries that also mark the founding of our nation, and doubtlessly, its entire history both before and after 15th August, 1947 – a history where traumas lie at the very foundations of nationhood and reveal both the beauty and the ugliness of human nature time and again.

It is five days since I watched Hey Ram, but I remain affected by its astounding power. A part of me is still shocked by the momentous turns of plot in the film which illuminate stark but easily forgotten truths about human nature. Perhaps it is not an error to say that Kamal Hassan’s film is one of the most powerful pieces of cinema one will ever see.

For those who have watched the film, a very perceptive article by Philip Lutgendorf unravels the many layers and meanings of this film.


~ by tdcatss on November 10, 2014.

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