Hey Ram is a powerful story conveying and implying all the wrong messages
The film Hey Ram was released in 2000. It was written and directed by Kamal Hassan, who also played the protagonist – Saket Ram. The film speaks of Saket Ram’s own odyssey that involves descend into hatred propelled by the rape and death of his wife at the hands of Muslims during the Calcutta killings prior to Partition and his Gandhian redemption that happens through his catharsis as he witnesses the death of his Pathan friend and then the assassination of Gandhi himself – both at the hands of Hindus. The film is essentially an overkill in symbolism which in turn offers a veritable roadmap into the psyche as well as philosophy of the writer-director of the movie, Kamal Hassan.
The ‘Hey Ram’ Code
Starting with the name Saket Ram, symbolism spills over everywhere. Saket is considered the Buddhist name of Ayodhya. As a field assistant he works under Sir Mortimer Wheeler – a colonial army officer turned archeologist belonging to the quintessential imperialist school. The significance of this association to the discourse of the movie is revealed later at an important place. Amjad Ali Khan, a Pathan Muslim, friend and associate of Saket Ram, speaks of the pacifist nature of Harappan civilization. While Saket Ram subtly blames Amjad for asking for Pakistan, Amjad denies the charge and reveals that he loves life too well to live in a land governed by Shariat – a feeling which the liberal, pork-loving, secular Jinnah would have definitely shared.
A party song at a Karachi club almost foresees Ayodhya conflict and calls an indifferent parallel between Babur and Rama – a comparison unimaginable for that period: that is blatant symbolism overcooked and yet raw. As the movie moves to Calcutta, the Direct Action day is shown with all its cruelty and fury. Then the Hindu-Sikh retaliation is also shown. That was when Saket Ram loses his Bengali wife Aparna to rapine Islamists, and also his humanity. His descent into hate politics is shown with a remarkable similarity to a scene from Interview with the Vampire.
The blood licking lizard symbolizes the inhuman nature of communal politics – the inhuman nature of which is felt by Saket deep down even as he allows himself to be drawn into a militant Hindu nationalist school by one Sriram Abhyankar. Saket Ram remarries this time a Vaishnavite Tamil girl Mythili and something subtle takes place. From Vande Mataram the culture moves to Vaishnava Janato. Mythili brings a ‘painting’ of Aandal, a Vaishnavite Bhakthi saint even as Saket shows her the Durga painted by his murdered wife Aparna. This was the time when the nation itself is moving from Shakthic to Vaishnavite signals and Gandhi is both the pioneer and catalyst of this movement.
Sriram Abhyankar is meanwhile effecting another transformation. He is changing Saket Ram into a militant Ram. Actively assisted by a king who clings to his pre-modern culture and yet embraces modern technology, a plot is hatched by Abhyankar and his group to kill Gandhi. The room has the portrait of both Savarkar and Hitler, reminding the viewers that the Hindutva is a homegrown Nazi ideology with admiration for Hitler.
The same is again stated in a more emphatic manner in a surrealist scene that unfolds on the screen. Saket Ram stands all muscular reminding the viewer of Ram of Sri Ram Janmabhumi.
Another acclaimed movie, made on the subject of Partition was by M. S. Sathyu, titled ‘Garm Hawa’ (1973), (Hot Winds or Scorching Winds). As a hot desert storm moves across, Saket Ram clings to his sacred thread and pistol. Then a Swastika whirls and becomes an iron lotus. Perhaps this is the essential point of the film— that the present Hindutva movement, purported to be represented by BJP etc, is a Nazi movement with the burden of Gandhi’s murder placed on them too.
As Saket Ram, the chosen assassin, goes to New Delhi to kill Gandhi, he accidentally meets Amjad. Amjad has not changed. But Saket Ram has. A heated argument breaks out between two friends. Meanwhile a pimp, who follows Saket Ram, locating a group of Muslims including Amjad, brings a bunch of Hindu militants there. The Hindu militants say that they had a tip-off about Muslims with modern weapons plotting an attack. Saket Ram suddenly realizes the gravity of situation. His friend’s life is in danger. So he tells the group that Amjad is his own brother Bharat– a brother of Rama. The leader of Hindu militants refuses to believe this and insists on stripping Amjad to see if he is circumcised. Amjad says he is indeed the brother of Saket Ram but his name is Amjad. Suddenly Amjad is ferociously attacked and wounded by the leader of Hindu militants, whom Saket Ram at once kills.
The attack on Amjad by Hindu militants, who Saket identifies as the killers of Aparna in as far as they were Muslims, provides Saket Ram the initial catharsis from his hatred. So he starts shooting like an ace cowboy and after killing all those evil Hindu militants saves the Muslims who were hiding there. Amjad succumbs to his blows in the hospital. Saket Ram is now a born-again secular. He is totally liberated from the sin of communalism.
The next day he goes to confess his plan to kill Gandhi, to Gandhi himself. He is introduced by a Nehruvian leader to Mahatma as a person who saved a lot of Muslim lives. A visibly delighted Gandhi however cuts short the confession of Saket Ram and says that as he is planning to go to Pakistan to bring peace, and that Saket Ram could accompany him and they could make mutual confessions there.
However Gandhi’s life itself is cut short by the bullets of Nathuram Godse. As Gandhi falls dead, Saket Ram instinctively reaches out for his pistol to shoot Godse but controls himself, reminded of Gandhian non-violence.
He simply collects the spectacles of Gandhi.
The whole story is essentially the memory of an old man in his death bed. And one of the last things he sees is a policeman with a Muslim name stopping the rioters on December 6th. Saket Ram perhaps realizes that there is still hope for the secular dream of Gandhi to triumph in India. He passes away in an underground shelter – paralleling the archaeological pit where we met the young Saket Ram in Mohenjo-Daro. The symbolism completes its circle.
‘Hey Ram’ provides an impression of an excellent period movie relying on heavy historical research paying attention even to minute details. The impression is not entirely wrong. For example it is a recorded fact in history that Nathuram Godse suffered a heavy head ache prior to his assassination of Gandhi, a fact shown in passing in the movie. Yet there are similar factual blunders also. The archaeologists pack from Mohenjo-Daro and reach Karachi the same evening, covering the distance of more than 500 km, by whatever automobile contraptions they had in 1940s. But they are not central to the discourse the film provides.
Now let us decode the narrative in the film.
The Nazi Connection
Kamal Hassan ties Hindutva with Nazism suggestively and visually in three places in the movie.
First: This is subtle and ideological. Abhyankar tells Saket Ram that the people are like blind herd and that only he and Saket Ram have the extraordinary superior intelligence to discern what is happening. The superiority from the rest of the crowd coupled with another previous incident of Abhyankar recognizing Saket Ram as a fellow Brahmin –shows a Brahminical supremacist attitude having affinity with the Nazi race doctrine.
Second: The portraits of Hitler and Savarkar adorn the walls of the place where conspirators Abhyankar, the ex-king and Saket Ram meet and discuss the assassination plan.
Third: The surreal scene where the traditional Swastika becomes the iron Swastika of Nazis and then an iron lotus is perhaps the very explicit ideological accusation made connecting Nazism with Hindutva and connecting Gandhi’s murder with present Hindutva politics of BJP.
An analysis of each of these accusations would result in reinventing the wheel. In his detailed and scholarly study, Dr. Koenraad Elst has proved how hollow the claims of Nazi connection with Hindutva are. Hindu nationalism from the beginning had rejected racism as well as elitism. Veer Savarkar had proclaimed the oneness of human blood from pole to pole as the only truth – something radical even for the Western humanists of that time. There had been no time when Hindu Maha Sabha or any other radical Hindu organizations had eulogized Hitler, that too, to the point of having his portrait hanging the walls. On the other hand, we do have a pro-Gandhi poster where Gandhi is shown in his cosmic form like Sri Krishna with Hitler on his shoulder.
In fact Keer, the definitive biographer of Dr. Ambedkar informs us that Dr. Ambedkar and Veer Savarkar were co-signatories in a petition which accused Congress under Gandhi of Nazi / Fascist tendencies. Veer Savarkar was also a staunch supporter of British war efforts against Nazi Germany. So, at every point the theory of adoration or ideological affinity between Nazis and Hindutvaites falls flat.
Another important figure venerated by Hindutvaites is Sri Aurobindo. He was also highly critical of Gandhian approach to Partition. Yet, he too denounced Hitler strongly and considered him a dark force.
These being the facts, one can only say that Kamal Hassan ultimately indulged in a powerful yet cheap stereotyping based on a villainous appropriation of Indic symbols by a totalitarian regime, which in turn was animated more by European racism and Christian anti-Semitism, than by anything Hindu or Indic. It should be noted that the case of Nazi stealing of Swastika also strengthens the case of present day Hindus who are very cautious about Abrahamic or European appropriation of their symbols and cultural forms.
Psuedo secular history for the Dummies
Kamal Hassan provides a chillingly accurate visualization of Calcutta riots. Then, he distorts certain facts of history to provide a Hindu parallel of same brutality. So Amjad informs Saket Ram that like Aparna was killed by Muslims, his father was killed by Hindus. Amjad, we are shown earlier, was a Pathan living with his parents in western Punjab. Now that needs a equivalent Hindu rampage in western Punjab of undivided India like the well-documented Direct Action day enacted by Muslims.
Then Kamal Hassan brings in the Delhi incident – Hindu militants attacking armed Muslims. These Muslims, Amjad informs the viewers, ‘were only protecting women and children’. The incident is actually a distorted presentation of a real incident well documented from credible sources, yet little known. Armed Muslims were there in New Delhi – but they were not protecting ‘innocent women and children’ but planning a capture of Red Fort itself. None other than Acharya Kripalani, a Gandhian with impeccable secular credentials, records:
“To make matters worse there were rumours of a coup d’état on the part of the Muslims to seize the administration of the capital. The fact that Muslims had collected arms gave credence to the rumours. Searches of Muslim houses by the police had revealed dumps of bombs, arms and ammunitions. Sten-guns, Bren guns, mortars and wireless transmitters were seized and secret miniature factories for the manufacture of the same were uncovered. At a number of places these weapons were actually used by the Muslims in pitched battles. The Sikh and the Hindu refugees and many of the non-Muslim residents had no faith in the ability of the Government to afford them protection from any attack from the Muslims….The task of the Government in quelling the riots was made difficult as the bulk of the police force was Muslim. A number of them in their uniform and with arms had deserted.” (J.B.Kriplani, Gandhi His life and thought, Publications Division, Govt. of India, 1971, pp. 292-3)
What happened in the days in Delhi, immediately after Partition, were not a few Muslims organizing themselves to protect women and children as the movie implies. The plan was for something entirely different as another Gandhian, Bharat Ratna Bhagwandas revealed in an article written on October 1948. There was indeed a plan to massacre many national leaders by Muslim organizations and hoist the Pakistani flag in the red fort on 10-Sep-1947 within a month of India’s freedom. It is this fact in history which the pseudo-secular discourse in ‘Hey Ram’ twists in order to present the symmetry of barbarism between Muslims and Hindus.
Pseudo secular discourse and Aryan invasion
Amjad who declares himself to be the ‘son of Gandhi’ is the Pathan Muslim who risks his life to come to India after his father is killed in the riots by Hindus in what is now Pakistan: a real impossibility in terms of historical events. He indirectly asks Saket Ram to renounce his continuity with past that Ram culturally identifies with. Saket Ram asks Amjad the usual caricatured Hindutva rhetorical question regarding Muslims being alien invaders.
Actually, Hindutva discourse does not state that. Yet Saket Ram makes exactly this statement. And pat comes the reply from Amjad that Ram himself came here through the Khyber and Bolan passes implying that Hindus are just as outsiders as Mughal invaders. It is here that the initial portrayal of Mortimer Wheeler becomes important.
A knighted officer originally from British military, Wheeler belonged to the school of colonial archeologists who advocated the Aryan invasion model. Anyone who reads Nehru’s ‘Discovery of India’ will find Nehru parroting the invasion scenario which Wheeler popularized. ‘Indra stands accused’ declared Wheeler referring to what he assumed as massacre at Mohenjo-Daro. It is not accidental that Amjad initially praises the pacifist nature of ‘Indus valley’ civilization and it is not accidental that it was with Wheeler’s archeology that the odyssey of Saket Ram starts and definitely it is not an accident that at the crucial juncture Amjad brings out the Aryan invasion theory and links Ram to Aryan invaders like Dravidianists were claiming in the then contemporary South India.
Incidentally, Jinnah was comfortable with the Dravidian separatism and Dravidian separatism calling Rama an Aryan invader. Saket Ram being a Brahmin from the South surely should have been aware of him being perceived as an alien in the Aryan-Dravidian racial framework which was reinforced in his own psyche by Wheeler. [Curiously the Tamil version of the film also showed Wheeler as knowing Tamil. A Tamil loving Westerner exposing Aryan designs is an important component of Dravidian racial politics. Gandhi also attempts Tamil with a grammar mistake: Saket Ram applauds Wheeler and corrects Gandhi.]
The film was made in 1999. In his paper published in 1964, US archeologist George Dales had proved conclusively of the mythical nature of massacre. Yet Kamal Hassan 35 years after, found it fit to put forward Aryan invasion and identifying Rama with the invaders as a valid means of discourse in defending his version of secularism.
A brief comparison can be made with ‘Garm Hawa’ (1973), as both have Partition themes, though ‘Hey Ram’ is more commercial while ‘Garm Hawa’ is considered the pioneer of the ‘art film’.
Written by Kaifi Azmi, ‘Garm Hawa’ offered Marxist political movement as the solution for alienated Muslims in India after partition. In that movie, Salim Mirza suffers the stigma of espionage for Pakistan even after being acquitted of the charges. He decides to leave India for Pakistan. He sees however that in one place Muslims are welcomed without any hesitation– in a Marxist demonstration against unemployment. Mirza reverses his decision.
Both ‘Hey Ram’ and ‘Garm Hawa’ speak of Islamic victimization and alienation in India, and of the Hindu milieu as essentially anti-Muslim. Both ‘Garm Hawa’ and ‘Hey Ram’ make villains out of Hindu majority. They do not essentialize the expansionist nature of Islamist politics as a factor at all.
Thus the discourse of the film itself turns out to be meta-symbolic of India’s pseudo-secular view of history which is compelled to provide symmetry between the violence of Islamic and Hindu polity. Historically, the Islamist violence is well attested not only in the past but also in the present democratic politics as a very calculated and well organized means of achieving theo-political ends. However pseudo-secularism in India has not been able to come to terms with this historical fact and the theo-expansionist ideology which fuels this violence.
On the other hand the discourse tries to avoid this by inventing a Hindu equivalent though often Hindu violence is neither as well organized nor politically sustained as Islamist violence. Hindu violence is often retaliatory – definitely inhuman and as barbaric as any mob violence is- and thankfully lacks any capacity for sustained cultivation.
So, pseudo-secularism in order to maintain its needed symmetry has to constantly churn out atrocity literature and imagery of the real, perceived and fabricated instances of gruesome Hindu violence. It is at this point that Indian pseudo-secularism transforms itself from being a weak ideology that refuses to face reality into an active Hindu-hating collaborator and of an ‘Islamist Khilafat’.
‘Hey Ram’ is the movie representation of that phenomenon.