Hey Ram, (2000)
Kamal Hassan takes a controversial topic and handles it in a controversial way - hence we have Hey Ram, the most powerful Bollywood movie I have seen yet. Never has a film been both so hard to watch, and so hard not to. Partition, Hindu-Muslim relations, Mohandas Gandhi and an explicit reenactment of his assassination - the film runs the gamut. Its focus is on humanity – even the Mahatma is portrayed as a real person who jokes and complains and everything.
The film contains a lot of graphic content, but nothing worse than what Hollywood spoon-feeds American viewers. There are two sex scenes, a dramatic rape, and violence – a lot of violence.
Primarily, though, Hey Ram follows the psychological journey of Saket Ram (as told in a series of flashbacks by his grandson). It opens with the archaeologist on a dig with his friend and coworker Amjad Khan (Shahrukh Khan); they are told that the site will now be in Pakistan, so they must go home.
Ram returns to Calcutta and his Bengali wife, Aparna (Rani Mukherjee), who he had married against his family’s wishes. In their brief scenes, it is apparent that Ram and Aparna are “very much in love” (read: very frisky). However, when Ram goes out to buy food later he saves a girl from a mob and returns home just in time to witness his wife’s brutal rape and murder (which is shown in a frighteningly realistic manner). This sets off Ram’s killer instinct and he goes on a killing spree, showing absolutely no mercy. The next day he is unable to come to grips with his actions, and joins a group of Hindu extremists, more out of a sense of despondency than anything else. He is influenced the most by leader Shriram Abhyanker (Atul Kulkarni – extra creepy), who redirects Ram’s hatred towards Mahatma Gandhi.
Six months later Ram remarries – Mythili (Vasundhra Das), a girl that his relatives chose for him. Mythili is young and lively, a sharp contrast to the hollow, emotionless shell that Ram has become. Somehow she kindles a little affection, but Ram only sleeps with her under the influence of drugs (in his hallucinations, her body becomes a large gun). Ram is still involved with the extremists, and when Abhyanker is paralyzed in a freak accident, it becomes solely Ram’s responsibility to assassinate Gandhi.
Ram leaves his wife and family and goes to Delhi to wait for his chance. A couple of close calls and a lost weapon lead Ram to his old friend, Amjad (and by this point most viewers will probably have forgotten that Shahrukh was even in the film, it’s that engrossing). Amjad is a fervent admirer of Gandhi, and while trying to escape a riot the two spar about their disparate religious and political views. Amjad is the voice of reason, and only when Ram recognizes that Amjad is still his friend and brother does he begin to change his mind.
This film belongs to Kamal Hassan in every way – it was written, produced, directed by, and starring him (he’s even listed as a choreographer and playback singer). It’s plain to see how this actor is the consummate artist in this film. Although he takes creative liberties with history, he leaves enough ambiguity to let viewers come to their own conclusions. Shahrukh Khan nearly overpowers his own charisma to give his most understated, realistic performance to date. Rani Mukherjee excels in her small role. Hema Malini, Atul Kulkarni, Vasundhra Das and Om Puri also do well with the parts that they have. Naseeruddin Shah is absolutely unrecognizable as Gandhi – thanks to makeup and great acting, he actually becomes his character.
The most complaints about this movie focus on its violence. However, I feel that this film probably pales in comparison to the actual violence that occurred during this period. The special effects, although many were well-done, were a little self-indulgent; I felt that they dumb-downed the movie for most viewers. A third of the film is devoted to Ram’s love stories (both with his first wife and for his second), and while I feel that it is important to show how his love for Aparna and her rape and death forged Ram’s character, the second love story could have been greatly reduced. The film runs a little long even for a Bollywood movie, but gives one the sense that you can’t even blink for fear of missing something. There is probably very little to appeal to the masala-craving masses; a light-hearted, breezy entertainer it certainly is not. It was a task to watch; an emotionally overwhelming film that is the first movie in a very long time to move me to tears.