Revisiting Classics: Hey Ram and the brilliance that's way ahead of its time

Updated: Jul 18, 2020

Hello readers!

Hey Ram! This iconic phrase reminds us of the iconic leader who uttered these very words before dying. Yes. Mahatma Gandhi. And as you might have guessed by now, I am going to talk about the Kamal Hassan magnum opus Hey Ram in this post.

Hey Ram is what I call a complete movie experience. After watching a lot of videos by famous critics and connoisseurs of cinema, when I watched Hey Ram, this is what it gave me - a complete movie experience. In fact, I went on to regret not being able to watch it on the big screen.

Let's get back now and look at why Hey Ram is a classic and was way ahead of its time. Hey Ram is a bilingual (Hindi - Tamil) period drama produced, written and directed by Kamal Hassan. Notably, it is his first directorial venture. The story is about Saketh Ram and his metamorphosis from a violent, religious-hatred-full young man to a Gandhian. To highlight the transformation the film is set in the backdrop of 1946-48. The time when India and Pakistan become two free nations.

Just like any Kamal directorial, Hey Ram is also multilayered, which means that every frame of the film speaks and communicates with the audience. This masterpiece is filled with rich imagery, brilliant camera work, breathtaking art and sets, soulful and soul-stirring music, tight screenplay, sharp dialogues, stellar cast and convincing performance irrespective of the screen space of the characters. Thus it makes a complete movie experience.

Hey Ram was way ahead of its time for multiple reasons. I shall lay them down one by one (some of them obvious and others I construed).

1. This film was not another commercial masala entertainer: As is typical with Kamal, this movie is not the one that one would go with the family for a light weekend at the cinemas (The general perception that one can't go to any Kamal movie with the family aside). It is so for multiple reasons. One, it doesn't have the stereotypical comedy tracks to give the audience a "breather" after some "heavy" scenes. Two, it also doesn't have some leave-your-brains-behind stunt or fight sequences glorifying the protagonist to be infallible and invincible. Three, the movie had a lot of references which could be only understood if one had a fairly good grasp of India's history during the British Raj (This would be explained in a separate point).

2. The film had a very non-linear narrative: Up until 2000s the Tamil audience or I may dare say the Indian, audience was not very familiar and/or comfortable with a non-linear narrative. This movie with such a narrative forced the audience to be mindful and remember the narration cohesively to understand and grasp the movie in its entirety

3. The film had a lot of references: Right from the beginning of the movie till the very end, Kamal has sprinkled a lot of references that are knowledge warehouses in their own right. Take for instance, in the first scene of the film where Saketh Ram and Amjad (Kamal and Shah Rukh Khan respectively) respond to their superior as Mr. Wheeler. Turns out, Mr. Wheeler is an actual person from history! Yes! The reference is to none other than Sir Robert Eric Mortimer Wheeler, who was the Director of the Archaeological Survey of India during the British Raj.

Let us now fast forward towards the end of the movie where there is unrest outside the Birla House with speculations rising regarding the religion of Gandhi's assassin. Lord Mountbatten is seen to be coming out and saying that the assassin was a Hindu. After this (though there is no visual), there is a conversation inside the Birla House, where Lord Mountbatten is asked how he was sure that the assassin was a Hindu. To which, he asks with trepidation if he was right. After hearing that he was indeed right, he heaves a sigh of relief and says, "Thank God for that! Or else the nation would be torn apart." This whole conversation has been documented historically in the book "Freedom at Midnight" written by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins.

These references meant that the audience be equipped with some knowledge of Indian history, which the audience didn't. Sadly these references were lost.

4. "Every frame of the film communicated": Whether it is the crazy kaleidoscopic light frenzy when Kamal is intoxicated or the image of an Elephant (the morning after the Direct action Day and during Kamal's trip to the prospective bride's house for the bride seeking ceremony), every frame of the movie was replete with information, imagery, and philosophical metaphor.

This was unusual and even new to the people and evidently they didn't understand the significance.

5. The bold stand of the movie: This is one of the most important reasons why it is ahead of its time and why it bombed at the box office. The first half of the movie portrays Gandhi in a bad light and then goes on to prove the protagonist wrong. This was a first in Indian cinema. Taking a stand against the Mahatma was outrageous and I would go on to say a blasphemous act in those times. Though the film shows that Gandhi is indeed a Mahatma, towards the end of the film, the audience couldn't see (sorry for the pun here) such a great leader in a bad light even for a small amount of time.

Now, this post is only about why Hey Ram is way ahead of its time. I could do a part two of this on the detailing that is there in the movie and the various levels of storytelling, philosophy etc. Such is the brilliance of Kamal Hassan.

If I have missed any points (which, in all probability, I would have as there is nothing like an exhaustive list of why a Kamal Hassan film is ahead of its time), please let me know in the comments section.

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