Thursday, September 22, 2005

Appreciating "Hey Ram"

For quite some time now, “Hey Ram” has been my all-time favorite film. Of course, as I have not got the chance to watch (despite trying earnestly) many of the Tamil classics, this would mean that this is my favorite film from the 90s. However many seem very surprised when I say this. I know few people who like “Hey Ram”, but for most the film means either a confusing and intimidating film or a steamy film with intimate scenes between the lead actors or both. I guess the film is fairly well known (though may not be popular) in Tamil nadu (or should I say Chennai?), as interaction with my peers from there has revealed. However, surprisingly it seems to be little known to people outside Tamil nadu and I got only vague responses like “I guess the film is known for the smooches between Kamal and Rani”, when I tried to ask some people about it. For all I know, it may well have these, but that is not the point of the movie. It pains me when such a good (or great?) film is so unappreciated. Hence this attempt to take stock of what film tries to say, weigh it with all the criticism I know of and compare it with a well known and much more popular series of films – Mani Ratnam’s “Terrorism Trilogy”.

Review of the movie
A summary of the movie can be found in many places in the web, like here. I would tell whatever is necessary for this review. In short the film tells how a well educated, forward minded person becomes a terrorist and almost assassinates Gandhi before realizing the reality. There have been other films on terrorism and religious fundamentalism, but what I like in this movie is that it almost goes inside the psyche of a terrorist and examines why he becomes one, apart from showing how he realizes the truth.

Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan) is an archeologist working in Indus valley sites with his friends Amjad Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and Lalwani (Saurabh Shukla), when Hindu – Muslim riots break out (during the time of partition). He returns immediately to Calcutta to join his wife Aparna (Rani Mukherji) and spends some happy time with her. However as riots break out in Calcutta, they are attacked by a Muslim mob and while he is tied into inaction, his wife is raped and killed. The intimate scenes between Kamal and Rani and the brutal rape scene are often criticized, but I feel both are important to show how much Saket is affected by this incident. In his fury Saket takes up arms and attacks and kills some Muslims until he regains his self. Later he comes into contact with a Hindu extremist – Sriram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni), a Tanjavur Marat. Totally broken he comes back to his home town (Sri Valli Puttur?) in Tamil nadu. Hardly before he returns to normality he is compelled into a second marriage with Maithili (Vasundhra Das), a typical Tamil Brahmin girl. This part of the film shows how he still suffers from the trauma of the events in Calcutta. Unable to forget the events he makes an emotional trip to Calcutta. Here he meets the Abhyankar again, who fuels his hatred towards Muslims and says that the root cause for this (Muslims enjoying privileges) is M.K.Gandhi.

Later he returns to his hometown and stays for sometime there. Now feeling quite stifled by his traditional family and needing a change he goes to Maharashtra(?) with his new wife. There he attends a party given by the Maharajah, who acts as the organizer for Hindu extremist activity. There, brainwashed and under the influence of alcohol he swears on his mission to kill Gandhi as he happens to be one of the two chosen persons to do this. The imagery in this part is a very beautiful one. It shows how confused he is under the influence of drugs. A drunk Saket rushes to have sex with his wife, just when seeing a sexy dance performance. Later he is shown to visualize her like the gun he just picked up before the Maharajah. This hints at how sex and violence are often outlets of suppressed emotions triggered by an event. Some symbolic scenes earlier in the party also show his guilt of having orphaned a young blind Muslim girl (by killing her father in Calcutta riots). The imagery later where he braves a strong wind when aiming with his gun seems to show the struggle between conscience and instinct of revenge. Immediately afterwards, the other chosen person to kill Gandhi – Abhyankar - is critically wounded in a Polo match and he extracts a promise from Saket that he would do the mission whenever told so.

Saket now returns to his hometown, but remains a disturbed man since he knows that he may have to complete his mission at any time. After some time, he receives a telegram, which says him to deal with Gandhi when he stays in Delhi. Saket leaves home without informing anyone and after renouncing worldly ties in Benares comes to Delhi to plot the assassination. It is here that an interesting diversion comes in. Saket goes to a Muslim dominated locality in Delhi to retrieve his gun, which he has misplaced. There he meets his old friend Amjad. After going to the soda factory to retrieve his gun, he confides to his friend of his mission. In the soda factory, because of his gun the Muslims there (who are also armed) consider him as their enemy. After a small fight he escapes from there. However, due to circumstances this leads to a Hindu – Muslim riot in that place. It is interesting to see that first Saket argues with Amjad against Muslims, but later in soda factory he begins to defend Muslims when he sees that it is the Hindus who keep fighting even after a peace offer was made. This event I think shows that there is no one side which is correct in religious riots and they arise because even small things (like Saket taking a gun there) can trigger a riot in a tense situation. The most touching scene of the film was when the police asks Amjad in his death bed to identify the man with the gun (who was Saket himself) who started all this and Amjad replies, holding Saket’s hand – “I only know Ram, my dear brother Ram” – meaning he still sees the real human behind Saket. Amjad dies because of the injuries in the fighting and this causes further guilt to Saket.

Later Saket’s in-law’s find him at Gandhi’s place and assuming he has come to serve Gandhi, introduce him to Gandhi. Further he becomes very familiar with Gandhi as he is hailed as a savior of Muslim community in the recent riots in Delhi. These scenes which show Gandhi are very interesting scenes in the movie. Kamal doesn’t take the easy way out by showing him as a holy person beyond question. In fact in one scene, Gandhi himself is shown to say that he is not a Mahatma. Later in another, he says he is helpless against these Hindu – Muslim riots and only thing he can do is to fast. This is more or less my stand on Gandhi – that he might have done normal mistakes of a human and it is wrong to glorify him as a perfect Mahatma or disparage him as a Hindu-hater or a cunning politician. As Kamal (or is it somebody else?) told in an interview “The greatness of Gandhi lies in the fact that, even if you remove all the halo and popular image from him and dissect him (his actions) to the core, he still comes out a better person than what we would have thought”.

Already disturbed by the riots he started in Delhi and after seeing that Gandhi did not deliberately try to harm anyone, Saket goes to confess to Gandhi – but its too late as Nathuram Godse has just killed Gandhi. Nasserudin Shah in his limited role gives an excellent performance as Gandhi. Shah Rukh does his cameo role quite well. The two heroines have little screen presence, but perform well.

Hence, the movie is a brave attempt which almost succeeds in dissecting the psyche of a terrorist and hence the heart of a terrorist movement. Even good, educated people become terrorists due to certain triggers in a volatile political situation. Hence to prevent terrorism (and religious fundamentalism) would be to maintain a stable and just political situation, with respect for other religions/groups. We should always try to address real inequalities in the society, since when there are not redressed they lead to terrorism. Also people should be made more aware of divisive forces which encourage terrorism. It also tells not to target the family/community of a terrorist – since he becomes one due to circumstances and may not have anything to do with his community.

Also there is one more layer to the movie, in that all this is shown in flashback as old Saket is being taken to the hospital but is stopped on the way because of riots in the anniversary of Babri masjid demolitions (Dec. 6th). As we relate with the story it is clear that we have not learnt from our mistakes - that religious fundamentalism and terrorism are self-defeating and endless exercises in terror. If we want to more interpretation we would always find more layers in this movie – like why the title is “Hey Ram” when Gandhi is not shown to be saying this during his death – whether it is directed towards the two ‘Ram’s in the movie and the real life Ram all of whom plotted to kill Gandhi; the naming of the Saket’s second wife as Mythili (other name for Sita) and quite few other things, but of course we never know whether the director intended this or not.

There are many other subtle things which reveal the meticulousness with which the movie was taken. Like the photo of Hitler in the Maharaja’s palace which shows the Nazi tilt of the then Hindu fundamentalists, postman hesitating to give the telegram directly to Kamal due to untouchability at that time in Tamilnadu, showing the then Maharaja’s hobbies like hunting and Polo etc. The same meticulousness also seems to present in the period sets. The background score by Illayaraja suits the mood of the movie. There are few full-fledged songs, but those that are present justify their presence and are quite good. Nee partha… song is a haunting one.

I would try to analyze the most common criticisms of the movie that I am aware of.
  • Kamal seems to be obsessed of himself and almost every scene has him. He hogs the screen presence.
I regard this to be the most stupid of all criticisms. It is the story of a man who becomes a terrorist – it is told in a biographical way. In fact I don’t remember a scene in which Kamal was not present – because it is the story as experienced by him. I was really surprised when I learn that a supposedly leading critic has dubbed the film as narcissistic – how can he have the same scale for all styles of film making?
  • Too much of violence and sex.
I can’t really comment on this as I have seen the film only in television (a good 4-5 times, thanks to Sun TV). But even if it has these, it does seem to be justified for the theme. For me, anything in the film is OK as long as it gels with the story.
  • Not easily understandable. Too many English & Hindi dialogs and sound quality is not too good.
I would agree to some extent with this. Though English and Hindi dialogs are required to keep things realistic, Kamal could’ve at least provided sub-titles. I really don’t get why he didn’t do so. Also the sound recording was done as live (on the shooting spot) recording – I don’t see the advantage with this and dialogs are less clear sometimes.
  • Kamal has wasted good actors like Girish Karnad, Hema malini with small roles
I don’t get the point of this. Casting is director’s prerogative and as long as they act well we shouldn’t complain.
  • Quite complex, symbolic and often multi-layered.
I would agree with this. In fact when I saw it first I understood only half of what I do now and I thought Saket was indeed going to kill Gandhi! It may not be the same for others, but for me it gives joy in understanding and putting together the pieces in such a work – as long as it is honest to itself. Also it quite questionable whether a movie with such a deep message can be made any simpler. If making it simple reduces the depth then it would become like many other mediocre movies.
  • It is anti-Hindu/ anti-Muslim/ anit-Congress/ anti-RSS
The very fact is considered to be against so many interests should show that it doesn’t really support any of them. Of course parts of the movie are anti-Muslim or anti-Hindu but we shouldn’t judge a movie without watching it till the end. And of course the end justifies and imparts a strong message.
  • Kamal doesn’t act well and appears stony faced thoughout.
I really can’t comment on this, as I think evaluation of acting is a very subjective thing. Yes he does remain quite stone faced – but anybody who is undergoing a serious struggle with his conscience may remain so (of course, some may not remain so and may show all the confusion or clarity in their face).

Comparison with Mani Ratnam’s “Terrorism Trilogy”

None of the films in the trilogy (Roja, Bombay and Uyire (Dil se)) really stand up to “Hey Ram” in the depth of the message or the way it is told. Only Roja comes closest though it is still very far away. Here are individual comments,

  • Roja – This movie is quite good through out and in the end it gives the message of how even a terrorist can be reformed and made to see the truth. Of course this only shows the human side of a terrorist (something which “Hey Ram” also does) and this is hardly the method to solve it. Offers some insights into Kashmir Terrorism, but none very deep.

  • Bombay – Certainly the worst of the trilogy. When somebody remarks to me that this is a good film on terrorism, I get irritated to no end. The film it self doesn’t offer any new insights into the Bombay riots, except that two rival religious leaders were fuelling it, which is quite well known. At least Mani Ratnam could’ve avoided the preachy climax – where Hindu and Muslim children join hands, just after a riot. How realistic is this? Anyway, what is the point – how is this going to solve terrorism? Endings like these encourage the thought that religious harmony will magically develop.

  • Uyire (Dil Se) – A confusing movie in some ways and ‘poetic’ in some ways. At least Mani Ratnam doesn’t turn preachy here. It can be taken to show the ever present struggle between love (of all kinds) and terror and how sometimes even love can’t stop a terrorist. Quite a good one for this theme.
(If some of my readers are aware of really good contemporary films on such topics, do tell me.)

Hence my point that despite better in many ways then some of the most popular films in terrorism, this movie is sadly very un-appreciated and under rated.


Zero said...

One Big Rant!
Man, you got company and a very passionate one at that; and that's me!

I wrote this sometime ago somewhere about Hey! Ram-
[..] critics panned the movie like hell, coz they thought kamal haasan was at his narcissist best [..]
they just couldn't see the beauty in the movie made by a core-commercial superstar kamal haasan [..]

thennavan said...

Good review and thanks for the comment on my post. I hope more people (like LazyGeek of and Ram of could come to know about your blog and the commonality of your shared interest for film reviews :-)

Anonymous said...

good and clean posts. gr8 povs too. wud like to read ur reviews and take on movies like 1. terrorist 2. kadalkondein 3. autograph 4. aks 5. njan gandharvan (malayalam)
keep posting.:)

Anonymous said...

nice analysis, a similar film in terms of subject matter is 1947 earth which i recommend very much

its from the narrative of an 8yr old farsi girl during the carving up of india and its consequences

haunting music by rahman brillaitn acting all round

Jagadish said...

nice post. i liked the movie too, perhaps especially because it showed a different perspective, from a terrorist's. did kamal carry that rashomon like movie making mechanism into virumaandi as well?

Ravages said...

@jagdish: yes. Virumaandi has the rashomon style. Quite brilliant a film, is Virumaandi.

@Nivas: Nice post. I saw the film on Screen and the effect is much better.

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nivas said...

Thanks all for your comments! good to know there are so many people who like this movie ;-)
the film list given by one anon was quite interesting - dont know how Autograph and Kadalkondein fit in a terrorism genre! probably was giving a list of his favorite movies....

Braveheart said...

I like your in-depth re-look into the film and appreciate your viewpoint. Yet, the film, in my opinion, was not convincing. It was multilayered alright, but to make it convincing and carry the weight of its point, you need good direction. The direction for the film was poor. Kamal Hasan was surely a big problem as he failed to deliver. The problem was with his characterization itself. When developing a character like that, one must bring in some moments when the person shows strong emotions. Because the man who even thought of killing Gandhi, must have had strong emotions inside. So, the effort should have been put it to bring out some private moment of his life where it could be depicted. Big Big Big mistake! Almost suicidal. And Kamal's deadpan face cannot be defended at all. Blame the script, or the director of him, but the blame remains. I blame them all.

Also, the editing was improper. The pace of the film was unneccesarily slow at many times. The unilayered moments were hanging around for more than their deserved share which was awful. It was a good film alright, but way below the 'Great' mark.

As for the best film of 90's, boss, dont do this. Please, dont rate it above Satya. It's criminal!

Also, for its directorial excellence, I'd rate even Roja above this one. And well, Dil Se is in a different plane. Its multilayered and sweet narrative is a classic. Yet, in terms of a powerful purpose, Hey Ram is ahead of that.

-- Akshaya

sen said...

Hey ram is one of a kind of movie.we gave to appreciate kamal for producing the movie.The movie is very complex and requires too much of knowledge to be appreciated and that is the downside of the movie too.Its a movie that is unbelievably overloaded. Actually making it simpler would have added more depth to the movie.The depth that director's like bergman achieve are due to their simplicity in narration and nothing else.

The inexperienced kamal wasn't clear in the narration, he was dealing with too many threads and too many issues in the same movie, the result, movie is great in parts and not as a whole.But definitely a good movie with great work on the technical and production side.

mbvisu said...

It is an interesting review.

The movie indeed is really awesome and too poetic. I would say it was a very good war poetry depicted in screen. Too gud.

However I think your review didn't give illayaraja the credit that was due to him. Not just the back ground score but even every song (whether a romantic 'Nee partha' or an awe some 'Ram Ram') was too good and exactly geled with the situtation.

I would also like to state that your comments on Mani Rathnam's trilogy was too harsh. Perhaps because none of the movies were 'terrorism movies'. It just tried to portrait how a relationship suffers under certain circumstances and this is what Manirathnam has been doing offlate even in his latest three offering like 'Alaipayuthey' or 'Kannathil Muthamittal'. In none of the movies he gave a solution but just portraid things the way it is.

I would say that you had perhaps taken a wrong comparison.

Indian Critic said...

Few things to say:
1. 'Nee Partha' Surely is awesome.
2. There were few good things with 'Hey Ram'. It can't be compared with 'Bombay'. Bombay was a hit coz of music and cinematography too.
3. Roja definitely was a trend setter.
4. Dil Se's best thing was music+lyrics.
5. Have you seen 'Garam Hawa'? That's a good movie on terrorism
6. Maniratnam's directorial skill surely have come down I beleive. Anyways his movies win coz of good music and other technicalities.

Indian Critic said...

To conclude.
I vote for Akshaya. Kamal should have been a little mroe serious a director.

Mathi said...

good post. actually one could write an encyclopedia about screenplay and its complexity after watching the movie. every time i watch it i learn something new.
like.. Saket is another name for Ayodhya, meaning the hero is "Ram from Ayodhya"! or that the hero is an archelogist, digging past to reveal the present!! the storm scene when the hero is practicing to aim his gun, is the depiction of "Angry Ram" poster carried by mobs during the mosque destruction!!! each fictional character name in the movie alludes to Ramayana and the others are actual real life persons from that era.
wonderfully subtle symbols and sublime complexity... i tell u, nothing was left to chance by the director.
beautiful movie. too bad common people were not smart enough to appreciate it.

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