Some works of art are deemed ahead of their time because they depict the human condition in a state unimaginable in the times they were created in, but gain relevance in the years that follow. Often an element of tragedy plays a role, for it is humanity, not the work itself, which devolves into a pitiable state where ingrained hatreds are evoked by forces fanning the flame of prejudice. If viewed from that lens, Hey Ram (2000) is a work of art that will remain timeless.
Written, produced, directed by and starring Kamal Haasan, Hey Ram follows the tumultuous journey of archaeologist Saket Ram (Haasan), whose torment is reflected in the chaotic madness spreading through a newly independent and partitioned India. Communal hatred between Hindus and Muslims erupts to boiling point, leading to riots in Calcutta. Witnessing the brutal gangrape and murder of his wife Aparna (Rani Mukherji), Saket unleashes his fury and murders her killer. Disoriented by grief and remorse, Saket is radicalised by Sriram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni), a Hindu extremist, who tells him, “Punishment is meted out for crimes, not for performing your duty.” Holding Mahatma Gandhi (Naseeruddin Shah) responsible for giving too much away to the Muslims at the cost of the Hindus, Abhyankar and his cohort of Hindu extremists reorient Saket’s life by arming him with a mission to kill Gandhi.
The gullible Saket embraces the mission and the ideology driving it with the sexual passion of a lover, ridding his mind of all logic and sanity. Haasan conveys this in a powerful scene, where Saket passionately makes love to his new wife Mythili (Vasundhara Das). Her reposing figure in bed morphs into the Mauser he has been given to kill Gandhi. Set to dramatic music by Illayaraja, this simple morph illustrates that the mission has become as primal a need for Saket as sex. The film is an ominous, terrifying example of how vulnerable minds can be radicalised and weaponised for the sake of achieving communal ends using violent means.
Hey Ram established Haasan as the most fearless artist working in contemporary Indian cinema. Considering Haasan’s penchant for expressing controversial points of view, it is a miracle this film came out relatively unmutilated from the Censor’s office, for it contains sequences which could easily offend the sensibilities of people from different shades of opinion— from Saket becoming an epitome of the Hindu Brahmin warrior in the shooting-range dream sequence to his hallucination at the Maharaja’s palace, replete with visual effects razzle-dazzle, where the Hindu swastika morphs into the Nazi one. However, Hey Ram can also be seen as a great unifier of sorts in cinema, for it is a beautiful confluence of talents from different film industries and sensibilities. From arthouse legends like Girish Karnad and Naseeruddin Shah to mainstream stars like Hema Malini and Shah Rukh Khan, all unite to tell the tale of an India going through a particularly traumatic phase in her history. This can be seen as a precursor to the kind of “pan-Indian cinema” trend that is in vogue today. The appearance of Shah Rukh Khan as Saket’s Pathaan friend Amjad feels like a soothing balm to Saket’s wounded soul and to the audience, for he is the compassionate voice of conscience in a world descending into insanity. He is the film’s broken angel— selfless in his devotion to humanity and pure for his belief in its innate goodness—whose cruel death at the end feels especially poignant. It is Amjad’s willingness to sacrifice his own life to knock sense into Saket is what makes Saket ultimately see the error of his ways and reform.
In a heavily polarised world, Hey Ram serves as a powerful cinematic omen. The tragic irony is that so long as there is prejudice and hatred, the film will never lose its relevance. For in the world of the film, and the world at large, where violence takes the guise of a righteous war, there are no victors. There are only victims.