Readers Write In #44: Hey Ram : A Look Back

Posted on August 5, 2018

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On the eve of the release of Kamal Haasan’s latest (and probably his last) directorial venture Vishwaroopam 2 and his move to politics, here is a look back on his first directorial venture Hey Ram. Perhaps his greatest masterpiece, that has completed 18 years. This is no way a comprehensive piece, as it would take a book to cover the full brilliance of this film. Just a few scattered thoughts and observations on the aspects of the film that appealed to me most

Maa Nishada Pratistham Tvamagamahsāsvati Samaa
Yat Kraunchamithunaadekam Avadhi Kaamamohitam

So begins Valmiki’s Ramayana.  Valmiki’s outrage at the hunter, for killing the male bird engaged in the act of making love forms the triggering point of the epic. A similar tragedy triggers the plot of Kamal Haasan’s epic film Hey Ram. Aparna, the wife of the lead protagonist Saket Ram played by Kamal , is brutally raped and murdered by a group of religious fanatics. This happens right in front of Ram as he is rendered impotent by the attack of the same people. We have seen Ram and Aparna in the act of passionate love making just a few moments ago, setting of a parallel with Valmiki’s epic.

There has been a lot of big screen and small screen adaptations of Ramayana over the years, both as direct adaptation of the epic or the more metaphorical ones set during the contemporary times. But what is common about all those adaptations is the fact that there isn’t much change in Lord Rama’s character , to reflect the times in which the adaptations are made. A flawed Rama  who has the imperfections and inconsistencies is unthinkable even for daring revisionists. Kamal’s directorial debut Hey ram – and it must be stressed his official directorial debut-  is an attempt  towards portraying Rama in the times  of Kaliyuga with all its imperfections, violence and moral dilemmas. As that wasn’t challenging enough, Kamal wants to stage his contemporary Ramayana in the most tumultuous period of modern History. The period between 1946 and 48, when India was divided into two and a new independent India and Pakistan was born. Most importantly he wants to tackle  the circumstances that lead to the assassination of  the father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi

Hey Ram is a bilingual made in both Tamil and Hindi. There have been a lot of films made in India and outside which chronicles events from the history particularly about assassinations of major political figures either from the perspective of the Assassin or the assassinated. Most of them follow the  template of a thriller. There has not been many made in our country in Hindi or Tamil –  mainly because  of censorship issues or the fact that the genre of political thrillers are not so popular except in Malayalam cinema. Coming to Hey Ram, what I find  really great  about  the film is that it’s a perfect fusion of western and indian movie sensibilities. Kamal takes the political thriller format followed by the likes of The Day of the Jackal or The Manchurian candidate and embellish them with our masala film tropes. There is the brutal murder of the wife that triggers the quest for revenge in the hero, the hero’s best  (muslim) friend who sacrifices his life for him. The evil friend who leads him to a wrong path, the faithful loyal (second) wife who pines away for him, the main villain (from his perspective) that he should overcome to emerge victorious at the end, etc etc…. Kamal takes these elements and characters and fill them up with the kind of depth and that is rarely seen in a mainstream masala film. He gives context to everyone, including the muslim tailor who rapes and murders Saket’s wife and who is in turn murdered by Saket. In another film he would just have been an all black villain, this goes for almost every other character big or small. What emerges at the end  is  an epic melodrama, the likes of which you rarely get to see in either in indian cinema or western cinema. The film brims with freshness in every department. Fresh ideas, fresh visuals, fresh actors. The three pivotal actors of the film , Atul Kulkarni, Vasundhara Das and even Rani Mukherjee were new faces to the screen and definitely helps the audience in identifying with their characters as opposed to the case with more well known stars playing them.

This is a very ambitious structure for a film where you want to retell the most beloved epic of the country even as you are  analyzing the character of the most influential and popular person in its history and his brutal assassination. Here is where the film earns its 200 min running time. Kamal uses every minute of it. Each and every moment every shot, dialogue and scene is used in the service of the film to put these themes across and keep the story moving forward. The film  is a pure cinematic experience where scenes without dialogues convey a hundred ideas. Every shot is so dense in detail and layers that even a European art film will pale in comparison. Even when dialogues are used, its to deepen character and situations. In short, Kamal as writer and director does a tremendous job with the difficult subject material

Like the scene above, where the elephant in the frame stand for a lot of things. It symbolizes both Saket Ram who has lost this wife and is now on a violent spree. it also stands for India, this huge beast without a master, since the English are leaving and there isn’t another master in place yet. All the violence that is shown here is on account of that.

As the film follows Ramayana, each act of the film is structured on the lines of each Kandam of the epic. Sometimes 2 Kandams are squeezed together into a single act and not as linearly as the episodes in Ramayana. As I see it

Bala Kandam : Ram’s stint at Mohenjodaro ruins
Ayodhya Kandam : the entire portion set  in Calcutta with Aparna’s death and the riots
Aranya Kandam : Ram’s exiled state as he cuts himself off from worldly pleasure and settle back in his hometown and marriage to Maithili
Kishkinda Kandam and Sundara Kandam :The entire Maharashtra  portion
Yudha Kandam & Uttara Kandam: the entire last act of the film starting with Ram’s abandonment of his wife and family , becoming Brahmachari , events in Delhi where he confronts Gandhi (his Raavana) and his subsequent renouncing of violence

The characters in the film are also based on the epic. Apart from the ones already mentioned:

Sita  is split into Aparna and Maithili. Maithili being  another name of Sita
Bharatha  is Amjad Khan,  Ram even calls him Bharath in one of the scenes
Hanuman is Abhayankar. He is a Hanuman Bakth and a brahmachari. The person who takes Saket  across the seas to meet Raavana
Sugreeva, the monkey king from Kishkinda Kandam is the Maharaja who plans the assassination of Gandhi. Sugreeva helps Rama by providing him with his Army to kill Ravana, just like the Maharaja does here.

Another inspiration for the film’s narrative structure and the treatment of Gandhi character is William Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser. Here Saket is Brutus, Gandhi is Ceasar, Abhayankar is Cassius and Amjad is Mark Anthony. By Kamal’s own admission, he structured the portrayal of Gandhi based on Mark Antony’s speech, where he begins by calling Brutus a honorable man then goes on to demolish his honor to prove that he is the most dishonorable of men. Here, kamal does the reverse with Gandhi. First he positions Gandhi in the wrong light and slowly unravels his real character. The first time Saket sees Gandhi is him standing with the premier of Bengal who supported Jinnah’s call for Direct action which in turn lead to Aparna’s death.

The film is steeped in hindu religious rituals and traditions. Every frame is drenched in the colors of saffron and red. The themes that are explored throughout are mainly relating to  hindu male sexuality detailed as  the several ‘ashram’s in a man’s life. On the surface, Saket is on a journey to avenge his wife , but he is actually on a quest to repossess or re assert his masculinity. His first wife Aparna,  with whom he has a very sexually  intense and passionate relationship, is sexually violated and murdered right in front of him. As a husband, her being violated and killed in front of him poses a direct insult to his masculinity. he has failed in his duty as a husband in protecting his women as commanded by the shastras.

Its noticeable how he seems to have only a platonic relationship with his second wife in the initial days of his marriage. He repeatedly refers to her as a child and refuses to treat her as an equal. there is a scene where Maithili walks in to the bed room and Ram is seen to be zipping up his pants in  away shutting out his sexual desire for her. Killing Gandhi becomes his solution for regaining his manhood. it could be noted that after he is recruited for the assassination of  Gandhi, he becomes more virile and with the mixture of somarasam his sexual desire for his second wife is inflamed. He consummates the relationship with her more as as an act of violent aggression than an act of love

Another aspect is the Brahmin kshathriya ethos that permeates the whole film. Saketh who is a vaishnavite bramin by birth takes on the role of a warrior as the film progresses. He even becomes a Kali worshipper. Abhayankar, in his initial meeting with Saket symbolically quotes from Bhaghvat Geetha that killing in war is a soldier’s dharma and there is nothing to be ashamed  of it

The  plot  to kill Gandhi is given a racial and caste angle. The participants are all either Brahmin or Kshathriya. The secret den where the conspirators meet have pictures of Hitler and Veer Savarkar on the walls. The ideology is made clear by the Maharaja, who is head of the conspirators, in his address, that if he have to keep the hindu soul alive, then this great soul (Mahatma) will have to die, because non violence is a feminine concept according to the ideals of the hindu culture and masculine valor based on  violence has always been its hallmark .

As the first shloka of Ramayana indicated, the  theme that figure prominently in the film is that of The hunter and the hunted. In the  earlier scenes of rioting in Calcutta  where Aparna is murdered, we see that muslims are the hunters. Once the riots progresses, you will see the roles reversed. Now Ram himself is a hunter hunting down his wife’s killers and in between a lot of innocents also get killed by him. soon enough Saket will see a group of Sikhs slaying a muslim. The most  pivotal scenes regarding this theme would come in the Maharashtrian portions of the film. Ram arrives with his second wife Maithili where they are greeted by Abhayankar. As they get talking, subject shifts to hunting. Abhayankar relishes hunting animals and claims hunting to be a man’s right.  Maithili disapproves saying that she doesn’t like the idea of killing innocent animals. What if it was reversed. what if a wolf comes and steals you child, Will that be proper? Abhayankar’s answer is yes it is, if you look at it from the Wolf’s point of view then it is proper. In a later scene, the maharaja calls Saket a shakahari shikari or the vegetarian Hunter, a Hunter who does not eat meat, but hunts only to proves his masculinity. Ram is also repeatedly called a ‘Tiger’ by Maithili.

Coming back to the narrative structure of the film, Kamal sets up the film with a series of brilliant echoes. To showcase the mindset of the Saket in two different stages of his life where he is alternatively the hunted and hunter. He has two wives and there are two love making scenes with each of them that bring out his mental state and the nature of relationship he shares with his spouse. In the case of Aparna it is she who takes the upper hand in the love making.  He likes being subservient to her in everything.  While in his  relationship with Maithili, he is the dominant partner. He ignores her, becomes aggressively sexual towards her and then abandons her.

Two friends: Amjad Khan, the sane reasonable who symbolizes Ram’s conscience and humanity. the other friend, Abhayankar , the ultra violent firebrand religious leader, who brainwashes him in to being a killer.

Two scenes of riots, first one in which Ram  loses his wife and thereby losing his humanity followed by his befriending by Abhayankar. then the  second one near the end of the film where he meets up with Amjad again.  Amjad  coming back in to his life is a signifier of his conscious and reason returning to him.

Two deaths: First that of his wife Aparna.  Watching her die turns him in to a blood thirsty religious fanatic. the second of his friend Amjad in a very similar manner to that of his wife, Only the religion of killers is different. Standing there by his bedside at the hospital, he can just helplessly watch as Amjad dies. But it helps to purge him of the poison of religious hatred and vengeance that afflicted him at his wife’s death. He renounces violence and withdraws from the mission to kill Gandhi. But the killing of the Mahatma cannot be stopped as Nathuram Godse, another Ram completes the task of killing Gandhi.

Hey Ram did not have an auspicious beginning. Kamal had started his magnum opus Marudunayagan. It was launched with great fanfare with queen Elizabeth being the VVIP guest. But soon enough the film ran in to financial troubles, after the foreign financiers backed out of the project. A devastated Kamal shelved the film after he had invested. some 10 crores of his own money in to the project. So to recover from the situation he immediately started his new project which turned out to be Hey Ram. Kamal should be commended that Instead of making a quickie commercial film to recover the money, he decided to embark on a project which was perhaps even more risky and artistically ambitious than marudunayagam. The film was very controversial for its time and he had to fight the censor board tooth and nail for protecting the integrity of the film. He also ran in to political opposition and finally when the film was released, it opened to mixed reviews and disastrous box office. Kamal who was already reeling from the shelving of marudunayagam suffered severe financial setbacks after Hey Ram, which was a very expensive film for its time. He had to fall back on doing safe commercial films for a while after that with mixed box office results until he would break the mold with the brilliant Virumandi, which happened to be his sophomore directorial venture.

But Hey Ram has endured over the years and today it is considered a classic. Its another example that time is on the side of the artist. Its neither the critics or the audience that determines the true value of a work of art , but its time, whether its Mozart’s music or Van Gogh’s paintings, time determines whether an artistic work is worthy or not something that should be very strongly reiterated in today’s times when the lifetime of a movie is perhaps just a weekend and we measure the worth of a movie by what it grosses on a weekend or its opening day.

Kamal is not as  titanic a talent as Mozart or Van Gogh, nor does he live his life in abject penury or disillusionment. He has amassed wealth and fame living his life on his own terms. I always felt that he is more of a businessman than an artist or perfect mix of both . But there is nothing calculated or business like as far as Hey Ram is concerned. It is very much a work of great artistic integrity and one of the best films made in the county as far as mainstream commercial cinema is concerned. And like a great piece of music, or a great painting or a great novel that one can re read any number of times. I am sure that this film will continue to enrich and enthrall audiences for generations to come.

This post was written by Maneesh Krishnan A.K.A MANK