Kamal Haasan and Vasundhara Das in Hey Ram

When a recent screening of Kamal Haasan‘s Hey Ram concluded, I was left feeling intoxicated — by the scale of the film, and by craft so superior it is hard to believe this marvel of a movie was shot in 1999! I doubt if we will ever get a purer, more honest cinematic experience than this.

Once you know how films are made, even when watching a good or great film, a distance sets in. Only a few films make us question: “How can one make such a film?” Hey Ram is that, and there are only a few films globally that can truly be called epics.

Kamal Haasan in Hey Ram
Kamal Haasan in Hey Ram

The first surprise was how real, current, well shot and well-crafted the Mohenjo-daro sequence is. When was the last time the leading men spoke about a historical marvel with so much conviction, it did not look like they were trying to seem cool? They behaved like real archaeologists.

Over the years, love has become all about slow motion, a segue into a song or, of late, a series of head nods with a smile. Why do we repeat this image time and again? What struck me about Aparna (Rani Mukerji) and Saket Ram was that they truly were in love with each other as characters, as craftsmen and actors. Can love between a husband and wife, and eroticism be portrayed more beautifully? At least cinematically, the term making love made sense after seeing the film.

Saket Ram is like a lot of us. When Abyankar asks him who is responsible for the riots, Ram reluctantly nods for everything Abyankar says, like us he doesn’t fully understand what really happened. His reality was and remains the loss of Aparna, his lover, his wife, his everything. Every action of Saket Ram, but for his first killing, is reluctant. He has no remorse for that, but every breath after that is that of a lost man.

The film scored high on cultural nuances too — watch the contrasting depictions of the South, West and East of India to see the research that went in.

Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan in Hey Ram
Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan in Hey Ram

We get a glimpse into the making of a traumatic personality when Saket comes to Thanjavur — his expressions flit between guilt and restlessness when he is asked to get married a second time around, to Mythily. Ram’s battle within and outside is evident, and we slowly lean towards Mythily, and understand why Saket would happily accept her as his sakhi. Vasundhara Das’ performance was subtle as she showcased how Mythily is independent in thought despite being a product of her social conditioning, and how she’s both a teacher and willing student.

Ram agrees to kill the Mahatma, and gets intoxicated. It is Ram who makes love to Mythily, not the sensitive Saket. He’s almost beast-like, and when his love turns into a massive gun, you understand how years of being conditioned in a macho world finally reflects in Ram.

Contrasting Ram’s tortured mind and method to the calm ambience of Thanjavur is one of the coolest segues I’ve seen. His attached detachment to his family and his detached attachment to his mission is best described in the shot when Ram gets his gun ready in the loft of his ancestral home, comes to terms with death and leaves his family.

Kamal Haasan and Rani Mukerji in Hey Ram
Kamal Haasan and Rani Mukerji in Hey Ram

When Ram is caught between his Muslim friend and people who are trying to kill him, he is clueless. He looks at his dying friend, helpless. His madness is broken, he looks at an innocent newborn and figures there is no meaning to what just happened. Saket weeps. May be, he is trying to find logic or fight the animal within.

To think one man handled the various departments of writing, production and direction, and also headlined the film is proof of Kamal Haasan’s love for cinema, his understanding of the craft, and ability to direct a film that has stayed relevant. Keeping Saket Ram alive amidst the chaos is a thing of beauty. Salute, Mr. Haasan.

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