In February of 2006, I went to Delhi for the first time, and within two days of arrival found myself at the Rajghat. Amidst the carefully manicured gardens and general tranquility (broken only by the large number of visitors who come to Rajghat with the same idea as I had), and the mediocre monuments dedicated to the memory of some of independent India's notable political figures, titanic (like Jawaharlal Nehru), ambiguous (like Indira Gandhi), disturbing (like Sanjay Gandhi), and forgotten and ignored (like Charan Singh), the austere black marble of Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi orients the view (I won't say "stands out" because it does nothing so vulgar) and draws one inexorably toward it. Once there I felt a bit awkward, unsure of what to do: Did I (as per Muslim tradition)need to pray for the soul of the departed? Did I even believe in one? What could possibly qualify me to pray for the soul of the nearest thing the Indian Republic has had to a conscience? Ultimately I felt somewhat guilty: it is perhaps fitting that India's conscience was slain within a few months of independent India's birth, rendering concrete the guilt that all of us perhaps should bear, and that lent some genuine pathos to Main Ne Gandhi Ko Nahin Maara -- Anupam Kher's character is of course right that he hasn't killed Gandhi, but in the sense that he alone hasn't killed the Mahatma; all of us do it every day. Mahatma Gandhi knew that guilt could be a powerful weapon: satyagraha is nothing if not the insistent presentation of a mirror to one's adversary. If one's adversary does not like the image of himself or herself reflected as cruel, unjust, or tyrannical, all he need do is change (either his reality or his image of himself). It was thus entirely appropriate that after feeling guilty, I did what I thought the Mahatma would have wanted me to: I read the Fatiha. And gazed at the lettering on the front of the simple marble monument (so much more impressive in its way than a palace): "Hay Ram" it read in Hindi, supposedly the Mahatma's last words after he was shot by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu militant and onetime RSS member who (like many of his cohorts) blamed Gandhi for the horrors of partition. There is surely much to ponder in the face of these words, but my mind was taken to where I generally need little prompting to go: cinema. And in particular, a film called Hey Ram by Kamal Haasan.
You really have to be a masochist to make a film that touches upon Hindu-Muslim relations in any serious way in India. For leaving aside all the commercial issues and risks, various political outfits can be relied upon to inject themselves in the debate in the shrillest possible manner, with one of three aims: (i) to get the film banned; or to have you denounced as (ii) anti-Hindu; or (iii) as anti-Muslim. Kamal Haasan's Hey Ram, one of the most outstanding Indian films I have seen this decade, has the dubious distinction of being tagged on all three grounds. Which is to the film's credit, and testimony to its multilayered complexity that yet retains its accessibility. One might love or loathe this film, be disturbed by it or be utterly seduced by Kamal's vision, but such is the access it affords the viewer to what is above all a mindset, and that in turn accesses us, rendering the viewer vulnerable to Kamal's directorial gaze, that it is impossible to remain unmoved in the face of this film. For me, in fact, over time this film became an itch in my cinematic consciousness, one I didn't want to go back to view, but one I couldn't stop dwelling over (so much so that the film threatened to spill over into some of my writing on other films, such as on Govind Nihalani's Dev).
A year later, it was time for me to re-visit this film; and the first thing that struck me about it was that it was as wrenching, as effective, as I had remembered. At its core is a powerful story: Saket Ram (Kamal Haasan) is dying as a communal riot rages in the city, and the old man's memories return to the 1940s, when Saket, his friend Amjad Ali Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) and others were part of an archaeological dig at an Indus Valley civilization site. Hundreds of miles to the east, in Calcutta, is Saket's lovely wife Aparna (Rani Mukherjee), whom the Tamilian Brahmin Saket has married against the wishes of his family. Tragedy is in store for this couple in what was at the time one of India's most violent and communally volatile cities, and Aparna is brutally raped and murdered by Muslims in the violence that engulfs Calcutta on 16th August, 1946 -- the Muslim League's "Direct Action Day". Aparna's murder is one of the most unsettling I have ever seen on celluloid, and makes Saket's subsequent descent into violence all the more plausible: he wanders through the streets of Calcutta killing Muslims indiscriminately, ultimately falling in with Abhayankar (Atul Kulkarni), a Hindu militant determined to cleanse India of Islam's polluting presence, not to mention of Gandhian ideology. Family pressures force Saket to marry Mythili (played with almost inflammatory passivity by Vasundhara Das), but something is twisted and broken in Saket, and he is moved by the plight of Hindu refugees (including an old Sindhi friend of his) from what is by now Pakistan to focus on Mahatma Gandhi (Naseeruddin Shah, in his most memorable turn in years) as the cause of Hindu troubles. The solution is clear: Saket Ram must slay the Ravana of Muslim appeasement in the figure of Gandhi, and goes to Delhi to this end. But the impossibility of a violent "solution" is brought home to him by a chance encounter with Amjad, as is the impossibility of simple redemption: before Mahatma Gandhi can pay attention to or engage with Saket's apology, he is killed by Nathuram Godse. The books have not been balanced, and Saket must continue with a permanent deficit.
Watching Hey Ram is a singular experience indeed, from Kamal's painstaking recreation of the 1940s (never better than in his evocation of an orthodox Tamil Brahmin milieu) to Ilaiyaraja's outstanding musical score to the film's sheer dynamism: from Aparna's rape and murder to the ensuing scenes of nocturnal communal carnage; to Saket Ram's violent and hypnotically compelling visions of strength and eros-laced violence; to the haveli of the one-time Maharajah now dedicated to the cause of Hindu rashtra as represented by Abhayankar and Saket; and the claustrophobia of Old Delhi towards the film's end, this film crackles with nervous, psychotic energy. Above all this is the unsettling energy of a film with something important to say, that is not simply reducible to a platitude. Kamal's film is not about "Hindu-Muslim bhai bhai"; instead it offers a vision of the madness that seems like sanity when the whole world is mad. In doing so Kamal stages the seduction of the viewer to parallel the seduction of Saket Ram by Hindu militancy: the viewer can empathize with Saket's blind bloodlust in the aftermath of Aparna's grisly death, until he realizes with a start that he might himself be complicit in an ethic of justificatory violence. That is, conceding that Saket has more reason than most to use violence to get even, conceding that he is, inasmuch as anyone can be, "justified", what then? The film doesn't purport to answer this question in the abstract, but does present Saket's answer: by film's end the solution remains madness, but not Abhayankar's dispensation, only Gandhi's. "Madness" because in its solicitude for the other Gandhi's way so exceeds the demands and the expectations of the everyday, so irreducible is it to a merely utilitarian calculus, that it is perhaps no less psychotic than Abhayankar's vision (and far more "impossible" to boot). Yet this impossible madness of loving "the other" is the only way forward if the fever dreams of Saket Ram are to not come to pass.
I am more impressed by Kamal's performance here than in almost any other film in recent years. In the film's initial reels one sees nothing out-of-the-ordinary relative to other films featuring the Ulaganayagan -- but all that changes come Direct Action Day and the butchering of Saket Ram's wife. Subsequently we see Saket wandering through the Calcutta streets, bewildered, numb, enraged, and Kamal registers all these emotions with barely a dialogue. I have often criticized the actor for a certain lack of subtlety of late, but this sort of situation fits the expressivity of the later Kamal Haasan to a "T". And yet even Kamal's Calcutta riot sequences cannot prepare us for the Saket of the movie's second half, transformed into a Hindu militant and determined to kill Mahatma Gandhi: in his evocation of masculinity sexually humiliated and the link between the latter and the politics of revenge, this "second" Saket as it were is the finest Kamal performance I have seen (if it is lesser than Nayakan because the role is more limited in range, then it is greater in visceral impact and more psychologically demanding than that of Velu Naicker). Of course it helps that Kamal-the-actor is well served by Kamal-the-director: a more obvious director would tell us what Saket's problem is (as Nihalani has Om Puri do in Dev); Kamal, on the other hand, shows the viewer the nightmares and fantasies that haunt Saket, enabling us to both experience (and empathise with) those dreams, as well as exposing us to their disturbing violence and power. Nowhere is this more memorably done than in Saket's and Mythili's marital bed: her animated transformation into a machine gun that Saket clutches is stunning, and so forceful as to render all purely psychoanalytic explanations somewhat reductive. This is visionary filmmaking, and serves as a reminder that it is very difficult to craft memorable performances divorced from the context of memorable films and memorable directors.
Hey Ram has no shortage of superb supporting performances, beginning with Naseeruddin Shah as Mahatma Gandhi. Shah's Gandhi is very far from Ben Kingsley's Mahatma, and is in fact a rather slippery fellow. But this is no exercise in mere revisionism, and this Gandhi is all but inaccessible to us, his ways inscrutable, his personality at once frustrating and charismatic. This Mahatma is no saint, but at a minimum he evades our understanding, and hence our judgment. His refusal to engage with Saket's remorse at film's end -- he has no time for the apology -- might well be the only "flaw" to be represented in the film: one might say Bapu has never had time for the Sakets (or better yet, the Abhayankars) of the world, and one isn't sure he has ever understood them. But Saket's remorse is not simply a conversion on the road to Damascus. Rather, Kamal uses it to illustrate a dark ambiguity: Gandhi's India is broken, and yet Gandhi is the only way to make broken India livable, at least if the cleansing fantasies of so many twentieth century ideologies are to be avoided.
Abhiyankar (Atul Kulkarni) is Gandhi's twin, an ideologue of the night Saket finds himself at the mercy of. Abhiyankar remains Kulkarni's most effective performance in my view, and although the character is relatively one-dimensional, Abhiyankar plays him with restraint, dignity, and charisma, preventing him from becoming mere caricature. Rani Mukherjee leaves an impression in a brief role as Saket's first wife Aparna, but her role is not comparable to the fraught nature of Vasundhara Das' Mythili, whose sexual pliancy is precisely the antidote the emasculated Saket needs, but simultaneously her womanhood signifies the fount of Hindu honor that was violated with Aparna. Mythili is thus both jealously guarded treasure and gun, and it is no mere chance that Saket decides to kill Gandhi only after he marries her.
Shah Rukh Khan's Amjad Ali Khan is a true puzzle: it's unclear what sort of country club in British India would have allowed in a man dressed in full Pathan regalia (as we see early on in Saket's flashback), or what sort of Raj-era archaeologist would be dressed in this manner. Even more incongruous is the appearance of this refugee from the Frontier in the heart of Old Delhi towards the end. Surely Kamal knows full well the difference between a Delhi Muslim and a Pashtun, which leads me to believe that Amjad must be a stand-in of sorts for Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the Frontier "Redshirt" and one of the most famous Muslim anti-partition political figures. That Ghaffar Khan was known as the "Frontier Gandhi" is no coincidence, for Amjad too is a "double" of Gandhi's: he is no ideologue, but like the satyagrahi Mahatma refuses to recognize an enemy in a onetime friend, and by refusing to do so, presents Saket with an ethical claim that cannot be evaded. (The background score makes this Hindu-Muslim "doubling" of Gandhi quite explicit by means of the chant "Hey hey Ram; As-Salaam Ram Ram"). If Gandhi is India's conscience, his incarnation in and as Amjad demonstrates that there can be no tenable partition of the spirit.
I do not read the above as an optimistic ending, but as a deeply ambiguous one: for the partition has in fact happened, and Saket knows that it is irremediably thus (in the present, he dies as a communal riot wracks the city around him), that is, that the India bequeathed by the partition is, in a sense, untenable (at least from a Gandhian perspective). Heroism, then, lies in persisting in the face of impossibility, in asserting the impossibility of spiritual partition even when it has already happened (and is in the process of happening) as a political matter. One might even say that true love is precisely that which is offered to "the Other" in conditions of impossibility. To let impossibility deter one is to accept the horror, which Saket cannot do once he has met the two Gandhis. Not for nothing is he called Ram.