Hey Ram: In Kamal Haasan’s modern Ramayana, Lord Ram turns Travis Bickle in a quixotic quest for vengeance against Gandhi

Kamal Haasan’s magnum opus Hey Ram(1999) is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. Kamal wrote, produced and directed this film, apart from playing the lead role.The film is set during a tumultuous period in Indian history, starting with the communal riots of 1946 and ending with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi

Maa Nishada Pratistham Tvamagamahsāsvati Samaa
Yat Kraunchamithunaadekam Avadhi Kaamamohitam

So begins Valmiki’s Ramayana.  Valmiki’s outrage at the hunter, for killing the male bird engaged in the act of making love, forms the triggering point of the epic. A similar tragedy triggers the plot of Kamal Haasan’s epic film Hey Ram. Aparna, the wife of the lead protagonist Saket Ram, played by Kamal, is brutally raped and murdered by a group of religious fanatics. This happens right in front of Ram; Ram has been rendered impotent by the attack of the same people, and he can only watch helplessly as the group of young Muslim men brutalize his wife. Just a few moments ago,We have seen Ram and Aparna passionately making love. This sets up a parallel with Valmiki’s epic, though that’s just a minor one, in a film that basically aims to retell the story of Lord Ram in a modern context. There has been a lot of big screen and small screen adaptations of Ramayana over the years, both as direct adaptation of the epic or the more metaphorical ones, set during contemporary times. But what is common about all those adaptations is the fact that the makers does not wish to tinker with the basic character of Lord Rama. As Ram is as much a political figure, as he is a mythological one, a flawed Rama , who has the imperfections and inconsistencies of ordinary humans,  is unthinkable even for daring revisionists. Kamal’s directorial debut Hey ram – and it must be stressed his official directorial debut-  is an attempt  towards portraying Rama in Kaliyuga, with all its imperfections, violence and moral dilemmas. As that wasn’t challenging enough, Kamal wants to stage his contemporary Ramayana in the most tumultuous period of modern Indian History. The period between 1946 and 48, when India was divided into two nations, and a new independent India and Pakistan was born. Most importantly he wants to tackle  the circumstances that lead to the assassination of  Mahatma Gandhi, the father of the nation.

Hey Ram is a bilingual made in both Tamil and Hindi. There have been a lot of films made in India and outside which chronicles events from the history particularly about assassinations of major political figures, either from the perspective of the Assassin or the assassinated. Most of them follow the  template of a thriller; Fred Zinnemann’s adaptation  The Day of the Jackal immediately comes to mind. There has not been many made in our country, especially  in Hindi or Tamil –  mainly because  of censorship issues and due to the genre of political thrillers being not so popular, while they are quite popular in Malayalam cinema. Coming to Hey Ram, what I find  really great  about  the film is, that it’s a perfect fusion of western and Indian film sensibilities. Kamal takes the political thriller format followed by the likes of The Day of the Jackal or The Manchurian candidate and embellish them with our masala film tropes: There is the brutal murder of the wife that triggers the quest for revenge in the hero; the hero’s best  (Muslim) friend who sacrifices his life for him; The evil friend who leads him to a wrong path; the faithful loyal (second) wife who pines away for him; the main villain (from his perspective) that he should overcome to emerge victorious at the end; and the hero himself traversing an arc, which would take him from the side of the moral to the immoral and back. Kamal takes these elements and characters and fill them up with the kind of depth and detailing that is rarely seen in a mainstream Indian film. He gives context and motivations to everyone; whether it’s the Muslim tailor who rapes and murders Saket’s wife (and who is in turn is murdered by Saket) or his true friend Amjad Ali Khan, who choose to stay in India even after partition , and sacrifices his life to protect Saket. . In another film, these characters would just have been reduced to broad caricatures; this goes for almost every other character big or small. What emerges in the end is an epic melodrama, the likes of which you rarely get to see, either in Indian cinema or even world cinema. The film brims with freshness in every department: Fresh themes, fresh visuals, fresh actors. The three pivotal actors of the film , Atul Kulkarni, Vasundhara Das and even Rani Mukherjee were new faces to the screen, and definitely helps the audience in identifying with their characters as opposed to the case with more well known stars playing them.

raghupati rāghav rājārām,

patit pāvan sītārām

Hey ram begins with the recitation of Gandhi’s favorite poem,(in the voice of Kamal Haasan himself, and it’s less on a devotional note, and more on an angry\anguished note)  praising Lord Rama and an ode to religious tolerance.The film is titled after the last words(supposedly) spoken by Gandhi (though Gandhi doesn’t say those words in this film) when he is gunned down by Godse. The title also stands for the three Rams in the film: Saket Ram, Shriram Abhayankar and Nathuram Godse; the first two are fictional characters in the film, the third one is obviously notorious for being the murderer of Gandhi. The film begins in present day: on 6 December 1999 to be exact, the 7th anniversary of the destruction of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, with black and white images of an ailing Saket Ram, who is now nearing death. His relatives are indifferent to his predicament. But his grandson, Ram Jr., makes sure that he is taken to the hospital. On the way to the Hospital, Ram Jr. starts talking to his friend Munawar about his grandfather, and the movie goes into a flashback: showing a young Saket Ram working as an archaeologist in the Mohenjodaro ruins; the skeletal face of a near-death Saket Ram morphing into a real skeleton that a young Saket picks up in the ruins; the Black and white images gives way to gorgeous color. The moment is rich in subtext, as the character seems to be going back and excavating his past. He’s also excavating a painful moment in Indian history. It’s also interesting to note that Kamal sets up the parallel between Saket Ram’s final journey – which would be set in the middle of communal violence – and his life’s journey – which is shaped by communal violence: that he perpetrated and was perpetrated on him – which would be constantly inter cut with one another. Saket is with his Muslim friend Amjad Ali Khan, and as they banter about the dead, Mr. Wheeler, the department head, informs them that  there is a chance of communal riots, and they should all pack their bags and leave.

As the film follows Ramayana, each act of the film is structured on the lines of each Kandam(division) of the epic. Sometimes 2 Kandams are squeezed together into a single act and not as linearly as the episodes in Ramayana. So this Mohenjodaro episode could be considered the Bala Kandam. Saket Ram is Lord Ram and Amjad is his brother Bharath. As in the epic, they are born to the same father (India), but to different mothers (Hindu and Muslim). In the epic, Kaikeyi, Bharath’s real mother exiles Ram so that Bharath can have the kingdom, but Bharath chooses to be loyal to his brother , and refuses to take over as the king, even during Ram’s exile. He keeps the kingdom safe and secure till Ram’s return. The same way, even after partition, Amjad, a Muslim, refuses to leave his brother Ram’s land and choose to stay back in India rather than go to Pakistan (the country specifically carved out for a Muslim like him), and later in the film you would see the scene of Bharath Milap, when Ram and Amjad would be reunited, Amjad would protect Ram with his life. The scene where Ram and Amjad are digging around in mud signifies their state as children , and later in the song Rananalum\Chahe Pandit ho, we would see them getting dressed up and playing games like kids.

From here, we cut to the Ayodhya Kandam section of the film, when Ram arrives in Calcutta to be with his Bengali wife Aparna. We see Ram as a ‘grown up’ enjoying a happily married life with his wife. But soon, the atmosphere changes; communal riots breaks out, on account of Mohammed Ali Jinnah’s call for ‘Direct action’ for the creation of Pakistan. In the riots, Aparna is brutally raped and murdered by their Muslim tailor, Altaf and his friends. The horrific death of Aparna and the betrayal of the tailor, whom he thought was their friend, drives Saket Ram over the edge. Ram, now insane with anger and vengeance, sets out to kill every Muslim in sight. He finally corners the tailor: who begs him to let him go , as in this environment of mass murder, he had lost his mind and had no idea what he was doing, but, Ram is not in a mood to forgive and he brutally kills him along with a few innocent people. Ram’s state of mind is best described by the image of a an Elephant with a murdered mahout lying by his side in the middle of the riots; which is the state of the Indian nation as well. The mahout (the British) that had enslaved the Elephant(India) has left, and now without a master, it is running amok, Soon enough the Elephant, in the earlier image, is seen wandering around the town strewn with dead bodies, which is exactly what Ram is also doing; having lost his wife, and hence lost all meaning and purpose in life , an unhinged Ram wanders around.  It is at this moment that he makes the acquaintance of Shriram Abhayankar, a radical Hindu nationalist , who puts the idea in his head that the person responsible for all this violence, including his wife’s death, is Mahatma Gandhi. Gandhi has always sided with the Muslims, and thus, he has allowed a minority to grow and engulf the nation and destroy the Hindu majority. So if he really wants retribution for what happened to his wife, then he shouldn’t stop at merely killing the tailor, but should go all the way and eliminate Gandhi. After planting this idea in Ram’s mind, Abhayankar departs, and Ram leaves Calcutta for his hometown, Srirangam, in South India

So just as Lord ram went south, deep into the jungles during his vanavasam(Exile), Saket Ram makes his way down south , thus beginning the Aranya Kandam section of the story. The segue from the Calcutta portions to the Srirangam portions seamlessly achieved through the recitation of poet Gnanakoothan’s poem:

“Padham kondu nadathum vaazhkai
Maavuthan avanum indri
Kadham kondu thuzhaikum veiyya
Angusam adhuvum indri
Madham konda vezham pola
Thirigiren pandu nAngu
vidham konda maraigal potrum
aranga ma nagar ulane”

over images of the mad, marauding elephant in Calcutta making way for a chained, sober elephant in Srirangam temple. Ram (as the poem states), who was an unhinged elephant, having lost his mahout, in Calcutta has now become a tamed, obedient elephant, having surrendered himself to his god, to his family and relatives. And as if to make his submission total, he is going to be married again, to Maithili, a girl of his family’s choice. Maithili is obviously the name of Lord Ram’s wife Sita, and she is gong to be his loyal companion throughout this section and the rest of the film. His first wife Aparna is also another version of Sita. Her death is akin to Sita’s kidnapping by Raavana, which prompts Lord Ram to go to war with him. In the epic, Raavana kidnapped Sita when Lord Ram was away chasing the  golden deer, here, Altaf and his gang barges into their house when Ram is outside buying food.

In Saket Ram’s mind Gandhi is the Raavana, and  the act of regaining Sita means regaining his masculinity, that was destroyed on account of  him failing to protect his wife from being violated and murdered. Gandhi’s non-violence has indirectly resulted in his emasculation; and in a larger context, has emasculated the Hindu community. Killing Gandhi is the only solution to regain his and the Hindu masculine pride. All through this section of the film, Saket is very dispassionate and saintlike;. Even though he is married , he doesn’t consummate the relationship with Maithili. Ram had a very sexual and passionate relationship with his first wife Aparna, who used to be the initiator and equal partner in their love making games. But Ram pretty much ignores Maithili, repeatedly referring to her as a child and refuses to treat her as an equal; there is a scene where Maithili walks in to the bed room and Ram is seen to be zipping up his pants, in a way shutting out his sexual desire for her.

All this leads to the Maharashtra portions in the film; in which the conspiracy to kill Gandhi is hatched. The chief conspirator is a Maharajah along with Shriram Abhayankar, who has now taken a new identity. Ram takes Maithili along with him when he visits Maharashtra. This section is Kishkinda Kandam and Sundara Kandam squeezed together. Maharajah is vanara King Sugreeva and Abhayankar is Hanuman; both of them would help him to kill ‘Raavana’. The conspiracy is hatched in the background of the Navarathri festival; with a burning effigy of Raavana in the background, and drunk on  somarasam(alcohol), Saket Ram again slips into an unhinged state, just as he did in the middle of the riots. Ram and Abhayankar are selected to execute the plan to kill Gandhi, for which the Maharajah will provide all the help. Once he is recruited for the assassination of  Gandhi, Ram becomes more virile and his sexual desire for his second wife is inflamed. In the backdrop of a sexually charged ‘lavni’ number, He consummates the relationship with Maithili, more as as an act of violent aggression than an act of love. It’s an extended,  surrealistic scene, in which, in his eyes, his wife morphs into a gun. So it’s unclear what turns him on more, Maithili or the gun. The scene establishes the link between sex and violence. Meanwhile, in the present day section we get Ram’s grandson and his friend Munawar driving the ailing Saket Ram to the hospital. But it’s difficult, as riots have broken out all around. Munawar comments that it’s dangerous to mix religion and politics, while Ram’s grandson replies that it’s like sex and violence; it sells everywhere. It’s very much a meta moment, that comments both about the nature of movies as well as what’s happening in the film with Saket Ram. The sexual consummation of his relationship with his wife being triggered by his desire to commit a violent act, which is both religious and political in nature

This leads to the final act of the film, that squeezes events from Yudha Kandam & Uttara Kandam : Ram’s abandonment of his wife and family, becoming a Brahmachari and going to Delhi to kill  Gandhi. But unlike Lord Ram, he doesn’t kill his Raavana. Instead he accidentally runs into, and is united with his long lost brother ‘Bharath’ Amjad Ali Khan. Amjad not only saves Ram’s life from a Muslim mob, but also shows Ram the error of his ways. Amjad’s own parents were killed by a Hindu mob in the riots, but unlike Ram, he has let go off the vengeance and forgiven his enemies. He also describes Gandhi as the only voice of reason in this madness. And just as it appears that Saket Ram is seeing the light of reason, a radical Hindu mob arrives on the scene. They attack Amjad, and Ram shoots the attacker dead. The situation escalates into full blown violence between Hindus and Muslims. Ram fights along with Amjad and his people to save a group of Muslim women and children hiding in a soda factory. By the time the police arrives and they manage to get out of the place, Amjad is fatally wounded. Ram rushes him to hospital, but it’s too late.  Standing there by his brother\friend’s bedside at the hospital, Ram can only helplessly watch, as Amjad succumbs to his injuries. But it helps to purge  the poison of religious hatred and vengeance that had afflicted him, from the moment of his wife’s death. Ram renounces violence and withdraws from the mission to kill Gandhi. He meets Gandhi and falls at his feet, begging forgiveness for his sins. Gandhi, of course, doesn’t know what Ram is talking about,and he is both moved and amused by Ram. He is very moved to see a Ram from ‘south’,  who protected the innocent Muslim women and children in the soda factory. He playfully assures Ram that he too is a sinner, as he wasted a lot of time, and he  is late for his prayer meeting. Gandhi then asks Ram to accompany him when he goes on his tour of Pakistan and they will have lot of time to confess their sins to each other.  But that’s not to be , as on his way to his prayers, Gandhi is shot dead by Nathuram Godse, So  one ‘Ram’, Shriram Abhayankar, plans Gandhi’s murder; another ‘Ram’, Saketh Ram, almost carries out the plan, but backs away at he last moment; and another ‘Ram’, Nathuram Godse, completes the task of killing Gandhi. Thus Gandhi, the devout worshiper of Lord Ram, is assassinated by the Lord’s namesake.

The film end with the recitation of another of Gandhi’s favorite poems

vaiṣṇava jana to tene kahiye
je pīḍa parāyī jāṇe re,
para duḥkhe upakāra kare to ye
mana abhimāna na āṇe re

Which conveys the real meaning of being a Vaishnaivite. The song is sung by the legendary carnatic vocalist D.K. Pattammal. Ram, a Vaishnaivite Brahmin, has finally realized the true greatness of Gandhi and his teachings. Ram would return to his hometown, and to his wife, a chastened man, and live out the rest of his life as a Gandhian. The film cuts back to present day, where Saket Ram has quietly passed away in a underground sewer (under construction). He never made it to the hospital, as the vehicle carrying him was stopped by the police. Hindu-Muslim communal riots  had broken out in Madras, and army has been deployed. A Muslim soldier, Ibrahim, makes them hide in the underground shelter for their safety. By the time things had cooled down and it was safe to travel,Ram is already dead. The ending shows the case of history repeating itself. Communal riots claimed Aparna’s life, then Amjad’s life and finally Ram’s life. Obviously, nothing has changed in Gandhi’s India.

Hey Ram, like every other Kamal film, is chockablock with his trademarks, themes and ‘Kamalisms’. His obsession with Hindu mythology and the usage of devotional poems to bolster the themes is on display all the way through. If In Guna, it was Abhirami Pattar’s anthadi, here he uses Andhal as well as a more modern poet like Gnanakoothan, who was actually working with him in scripting his aborted project,Marudhanayagam.  Kamal Haasan has never shied away from taking inspiration from foreign films, though he is talented enough to adapt them well for the needs of the story that he is telling. This film is no different. The chief inspiration, apart fro the political thrillers i mentioned, seems to be Martin Scorsese’s classic film Taxi Driver(1976), in which Robert De Niro played Travis Bickle, an alienated, lonely Taxi Driver; suffering from after affects of  his participation in Vietnam war,  he descends into insanity as he plots to assassinate both the presidential candidate,Senator Palantine, for whom Betsy(Cybill Shepherd) ,the woman he is infatuated with works, and the pimp (Harvey Keitel) of an underage prostitute, Iris (Jodie Foster) , whom he befriends and wants to rescue, even though she doesn’t necessarily wants to be rescued. The loss of Betsy spurs his insane mind to kill Palantine, pretty much the way the loss of his wife spurs an unhinged Saket Ram to go on an utterly ridiculously and quixotic  quest to kill Gandhi. In the case of Travis Bickle, his own mind concocts this ridiculous idea of Palantine being responsible for his loss and  his meaningless existence, while in Saket’s case, the idea of Gandhi being the culprit is planted by Abhayankar, and his unhinged mind runs with it. One can also notice the parallel between Betsy and Aparna and Maithili and Iris. Bickle aggressively courts Betsy, who is a woman superior to him in every way (just as Aparna is to Saketh), while he treats Iris like a child, and refuses to have sex with her, even though she is a prostitute  (as Ram treats Maithili, and refuses to consummate their relationship, even though she is his wife) – there is a moment of zipping up the fly by Bickle as well. But the most striking replication Kamal manages in the film is in relation to a training montage that Scorsese used in Taxi Driver; Bickle is seen practicing his shooting skills with various guns he had bought illegally from a gun salesman. Here, the guns are presented to Ram by the Maharajah; he chooses one  from a host of guns exhibited for his selection, and then in a truly bizarre sequence, we see Ram  practicing with guns in a dream space. We see a saffron colored desert and Ram practicing his shooting; then a storm rises in the desert – symbolizing his personal life interfering with his religious\political mission, but he manages to withstand it, and the storm passes him without altering his ‘position’. And just as Travis becomes a sort of religious warrior,cutting his hair into a mohawk and indulging in ‘rituals’,  determined to cleanse or purge both his mind and his body of weakness, Ram too becomes a Brahmachari ( ritualistic scenes of cutting off his hair is also here) , and his mission is basically to overcome his emasculation. By the way, Taxi Driver formed part of the delusional fantasy of John Hinckley Jr. that triggered his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.  Taxi Driver itself was inspired from John Ford’s The Searchers(reviewed here), in which John Wayne played Ethan Edwards, a racist psychopath who goes on a mission to avenge the death of his lover( who was raped and murdered by a Native American chief). That film too must have been an inspiration for Kamal. The  plot  to kill Gandhi is given a racial and caste angle. The participants are all either Brahmin or Kshathriya. The secret den where the conspirators meet have pictures of Hitler and Veer Savarkar on the walls. Their ideology is made clear by the Maharajah,  while addressing his co-conspirators, that if we have to keep the Hindu soul alive, then this great soul (Mahatma) will have to die, because non violence is a feminine concept according to the ideals of the Hindu culture and masculine valor based on  violence has always been its hallmark.

Another inspiration must have been Bernardo Bertolucci’s psycho-sexual classic Last Tango in Paris(1973), a film that Kamal has referenced in other films too, and in which Kamal’s idol Marlon Brando played a middle aged American, Paul, in Paris, who becomes mentally unstable after the death of his wife. He choose to overcome this trauma by  getting into a sadomasochistic relationship with a women half his age. I also found similarities with Sam Peckinpah’s violent thriller Straw Dogs(1971), in which Dustin Hoffman played a timid, pacifist professor, who goes on a murdering rampage, after his wife is violated and his house is invaded by ruffians. The most iconic image from that film being Hoffman wearing those broken glasses; conveying the essence of an intellectual whose vision is now blurred or altered; an image, and theme, that Kamal borrows for Hey Ram as well. Kamal’s glasses are broken in the scuffle with Altaf and his goons when they kill Aparna. And throughout the riots and  his killing spree; his encounter with Abhayanka; and until he leaves Calcutta, we see him wearing the same broken glasses; conveying the image of a man whose point of view is altered forever. The basic theme of Straw Dogs: that a man must conquer other men to prove his courage and hold on to his woman; and Man is an animal, and his passion for destroying his own kind lies just beneath his pacifist self, is again reflected in Hey Ram, but within the context of Ramayana. As the first shloka of the epic indicated, the  theme that figure prominently in the film is that of The hunter and the hunted. In the  earlier scenes of rioting in Calcutta  where Aparna is murdered, we see that Muslims are the hunters. Once the riots progresses, you will see the roles reversed. Now Ram himself is a hunter, hunting down his wife’s killers and  a lot of innocents as well. The most  pivotal scenes regarding this theme would come in the Maharashtra portions of the film. Ram arrives with  Maithili and they are greeted at the airport by Abhayankar. As they get talking, the subject shifts to hunting. Abhayankar relishes hunting animals and claims hunting to be a man’s right.  Maithili disapproves saying that she doesn’t like the idea of killing innocent animals; What if the situation was reversed?, she asks. what if a wolf comes and steals your child?, Will that be proper?. Abhayankar’s answer is: yes it is proper, if you look at it from the Wolf’s point of view . In a later scene: after a hunting expedition, the maharajah calls Saket a shakahari shikari or the vegetarian Hunter: a Hunter who does not eat meat, but hunts only to proves his masculinity(Ram is also repeatedly called a ‘Tiger’ by Maithili). All of this referring to Ram’s state as a Brahmin, who does not eat meat, but who has now acquired the Kshatriya qualities: for hunting and killing. Another inspiration for the film’s narrative structure, and the treatment of Gandhi character, is William Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser. Here Saket is Brutus, Gandhi is Caesar, Abhayankar is Cassius and Amjad is Mark Anthony. By Kamal’s own admission, he structured the portrayal of Gandhi based on Mark Antony’s speech, where he begins by calling Brutus a honorable man , and then goes on to demolish his honor to prove that he is the most dishonorable of men. Here, Kamal does the reverse with Gandhi. First he positions Gandhi in the wrong light and then, bit by bit, he unravels Gandhi’s true character; very much in the manner how  Saket Ram discovers Gandhi’s greatness. The first time Saket sees Gandhi in the film, is when Gandhi is seen standing by the premier of Bengal, who supported Jinnah’s call for Direct action, which in turn lead to Aparna’s death. The film ends with Gandhi’s grandson Tushar Gandhi visiting Ram’s house, and Ram’s grandson handing over Gandhi’s footwear and glasses that Ram had collected at the time of Gandhi’s death.


Coming back to the ‘Masala’ aspect of the film: Kamal sets up the film with a series of brilliant echoes(as in a Masala film). To showcase the mindset of the Saket in two different stages of his life, where he is alternatively the hunted and hunter: He has two wives, and a love making scene with each of them, that bring out his mental state and the nature of relationship he shares with his spouses. In the case of Aparna, it is she who takes the upper hand in the love making; Ram likes being subservient to her in everything.  While in his  relationship with Maithili, he is the dominant partner. He ignores her, becomes aggressively sexual towards her and then abandons her.

Two friends: Amjad Khan, the sane reasonable friend who symbolizes Ram’s conscience and humanity; the other friend, Abhayankar , the firebrand religious leader, who brainwashes him in to being a killer. The character of Amjad is echoed in the character of Ibrahim as well. Amjad saves Ram in the 1948 communal riots, here Ibrahim attempts to save him in a similar situation in 1999; a trope employed by Kamal  to remind the audience that, for every Altaf tailor, there is an Amjad and an Ibrahim in our country.

Two(actually three) scenes of communal riots and Two (Three) Deaths: first one in Calcutta, in which Ram  loses his wife, and thereby loses his humanity ; then the  second one in Delhi where he is reunited with Amjad, and Amjad dies; Amjad  coming back in to his life signifies his conscious and reason returning to him. Then in the end, in Madras, when Ram dies. The violence set in three main cities, in the east, north and south of the country respectively, showing that every part of the country is now inflicted with communalism.

The film Hey Ram did not have an auspicious beginning. Kamal had started work on his magnum opus Marudunayagan around 1998. That film was launched with great fanfare, with queen Elizabeth being the VVIP guest. But soon enough, the film ran in to financial troubles, after the foreign financiers backed out of the project. A devastated Kamal shelved the film, after he had invested. some 10 crores of his own money in to the project. So to recover from the situation, he immediately started his new project which turned out to be Hey Ram. Kamal should be commended for the fact that, Instead of making a quickie commercial film to recover the money, he decided to embark on a project which was perhaps even more risky and artistically ambitious than Marudanayagam. Kamal later said that he went to work on Hey Ram with a lot of anger: He was planning to make a world class film with Marudanayagam, and he felt that the his foreign backers were stopping him from doing so. Instead, he decide to make another film, that will be on an international level, this time he will not require any foreign backing to make it.Hey Ram has the hallmark of  a super production in every department. Cinematography, production design, sound, everything is topnotch. Though it’s a multilingual film, i strongly prefer the ‘Hindi’ version, because the majority of the events and characters are set in Northern India, and hence,  the performances and the dialogues comes through hundred times better in the Hindi version than in Tamil. Speaking of performances, the film has a gallery of brilliant performances; starting with Atul Kulkarni as Abhayankar, Rani Mukherjee as Aparna and Shahrukh Khan as Amjad. Amjad’s death scene is the most moving moment in the film, with Shahrukh giving one of his career-best performances, even though he has a short role, He did not take any remuneration for the film, and did the role purely out of his admiration for Kamal. But it is Atul Kulkarni who steals the show. It was, i think, his debut movie and  if his character didn’t work, the film wouldn’t have worked. He very subtly conveys the essence of a religious bigot and his dialogue delivery is brilliant, with writer Manohar Shyam Joshi giving him some really good dialogue to work with. Kamal’s performance is uneven; it’s pretty poor in the Hindi version, being bogged down by his thick accent, he fails to convey the emotion behind a lot of words; he fares much better in the Tamil version, though on the whole he seems burdened by the triple duty he is doing here, especially being a debut director on such a huge movie. But his work as a the writer and director is exemplary. He manages to mix the commercial and artistic elements pretty well (as well as fact and fiction), and manages to make one of the greatest films in Indian mainstream cinema. And as usual, he is aided in this mission by music maestro Ilayaraja, who has created an extraordinary score for the film that mixes Indian and Western classical themes. Originally, Kamal had hired L. Subramaniam to do the music for the film. He felt that he had worked with Ilayaraja too many times , and he wanted a fresh sound for this film. But he had to part ways with Subramaniam, when the composer asked for more money. So he had to go back to Ilayaraja, who had the additional burden of scoring and composing songs for scenes that has already been shot. But it’s a testament to the maestro’s genius that one doesn’t feel any disconnect between the scenes and the music. The most brilliant use of music in the film, is in the surrealistic scenes in the Maharashtra portions, after Ram gets drunk, and he is recruited for Gandhi’s killing and there is a crazy love making scene between Ram and Maithili; Ilayaraja introduces Wagner in the midst of  traditional Indian music, thus conveying the fascist nature of the events unfolding, complementing  the visuals of Nazi swastika and all.


The film was very controversial for its time and Kamal had to fight the censor board tooth and nail for protecting the integrity of the film. But what Kamal managed to get away, with regards to sex and violence in the film, and that too in the year 2000, is incredible. I don’t think any other filmmaker would have gotten away with it. He also ran in to a lot of political opposition,  and finally when the film was released, it opened to mixed reviews and disastrous box office. Kamal, who was already reeling from the shelving of marudunayagam, suffered severe financial setbacks after the flopping of Hey Ram, which was a very expensive film for its time. He had to fall back on doing safe commercial films for a while, with mixed box office results, until he would break the mold with the brilliant Virumaandi, which happened to be his sophomore directorial venture.

But Hey Ram has endured over the years, and today it is considered a classic. With the coming of the digital age and streaming platforms, the film found a whole new audience. It is now one of the most discussed and trending films on the web. The film’s continuing significance in popular culture, demonstrates the fact  that time is always on the side of the artist; whether its Mozart’s music or Van Gogh’s paintings, it’s time that determines whether an artistic work is worthy or not; something that should be very strongly reiterated in today’s times, when the lifetime of a movie is perhaps just a weekend and we measure the worth of a movie by what it grosses on an opening weekend or its opening day. Kamal is not as  titanic a talent as Mozart or Van Gogh, nor does he live his life in abject penury or disillusionment. He has amassed wealth and fame, living his life on his own terms. I always felt that he is more of a businessman than an artist or perfect mix of both . But there is nothing calculated or business like as far as Hey Ram is concerned. It is very much a work of great artistic integrity and one of the best films made in the county as far as mainstream commercial cinema is concerned. And like a great piece of music, or a great painting or a great novel that one can re-read any number of times. I am sure that this film will continue to enrich and enthrall audiences for generations to come.



4 thoughts on “Hey Ram: In Kamal Haasan’s modern Ramayana, Lord Ram turns Travis Bickle in a quixotic quest for vengeance against Gandhi

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