Bollywood films ( those wonderful movies from India) have the reputation of being mindless fluff--of being nothing more than pretty people singing and dancing while falling in and out love for roughly 3 hours, and from my admittedly brief exposure I must agree that there is a great deal of validity to this assertion. Of course, there's nothing wrong with that when it's done with so much panache and infectious good humor, after all they've got to get those butts into those theater seats and they certainly are doing that. Nope. You can't argue with success. It's just that they seem to avoid tackling serious subject matter at every possible opportunity, and perhaps that's understandable. There are certain subjects that are so tender within the very soul of this nation that even after the passage of 70 odd years they can still inflame the public's passions. HEY RAM is a film that deals with one of those subjects, the one that is perhaps the most sensitive of all because it is the most complex; religion.
When you talk about in religion in India you aren't just talking about some simple theological matter. It goes far deeper than that--at least as far back as the Mogul Empire which was established in approximately 1398 when Tamerlane came into the country and set one of his sons on the throne. That empire lasted until the British started to weasel their way in somewhere in the 18th century and the problem didn't go away simply because Mogul rule was replaced with British rule. The roots run deep. When HEY RAM played the theaters in India it was a dismal failure at the box office because no one was willing to book it and consequently it played on very few screens. Everyone was justifiably afraid that its subject matter would lead to lead to violence among Hindus and Muslims.
HEY RAM opens in 1946 and Indian independence and the ultimate partition of Pakistan is at hand. We meet 3 friends, Saket Ram (Kamal Hassan) a Hindu, another Hindu friend Lalwani, and their mutual Muslim friend Amjad played by Shah Rukh Khan. At first it seems as if we're going to see just another Bollywood flick as the 3 launch into a giddy, drunken musical number. But the tone of the film turns on a dime when Saket Ram returns home to Calcutta the very day the violent riots between Hindus and Muslims break out. Tragically his beloved young wife Aparna (Rani Mukherjee) is gang raped and murdered and Saket himself is swept up in the murderous mobs seeking retribution. He finds himself both witnessing and committing unthinkable acts. That night is a kaleidoscope of depravity, and after experiencing a blood soaked old Muslim man mistaking him for an angel sent to save him-- and the old man's blind granddaughter groping her way toward her own death, he (Saket) can take no more and staggers back to his apartment and his slaughtered wife. But even at his own doorstep there is one more horror--a sacred white elephant standing, swaying, over the body of its lifeless mahout. Before reaching that point there was one other encounter for Saket Ram, and it was a life changing one. He met a wild eyed rebel Sriram Abhyankar (Atul Kulkarni). It's Sriram who first planted the evil, insanely logical notion in Saket's grief stricken brain that the cause of all this death and chaos was one man, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi--The Mahatma. Sriram and those who felt as he did (and they were legion) believed that not only had Gandhi given away a large part of their native land to become the Muslim state of Pakistan, he had also stolen away Hindu India itself by giving power over them to a Muslim Prime Minster (Nehru) and his government. It was the ultimate act of betrayal--it was treason, and he must die for it.
This is the set up for HEY RAM a film which, as are most Bollywood films, is about love and loss, sacrifice and pain, love and redemption, but without any of the joy and the laughter and the songs ,dances, and gorgeous costumes that have endeared these films to many while causing other to roll their eyes in dismay. It's is the story of a man whose life is shattered by the violence brought about by a man of peace. I could tell you more about what it is, but I'm afraid that in doing so I might make it sound BETTER than it is. It has very high aspirations, some of which are met but most of which are not. It wants most of all to be the story of redemption but it fails to be totally satisfying for two reasons.
Reason number one is that not enough time is spent making us feel that Saket is really a guy who needs redemption anymore than anyone else out there does--and from what we've seen in this movie a LOT of people need redemption, most of them a great deal more than he does. His main flaw seems to be that he simply gives up on life and just drifts through it, the way the body of a drowned man in a river is pulled along where ever the current takes him--whether it's into an unconsummated marriage with a much younger wife who adores him or into an assassination attempt that doesn't even seem to vaguely interest him. There's no passion, or even a sign of life in him. We never see the look of the feral animal who truly believes that The Mahatma must die, instead it's almost as if he just happens to have his hand sticking out at a time when someone places a gun in it. The whole thing is more coincidence than anything else. Reason number two is that his redemption comes pretty quickly, but on second thought I'm willing to cut them some slack there even though it does strain credulity a bit to believe how quickly he changes his mind when one considers how wishy washy he has been throughout his entire life. The film has other flaws I haven't begun to touch on. The primary one is that Saket's passivity serves to make the film's slow pace even slower--painfully slow at times, and American viewers in particular will find this hard to endure.
I've gone on much too long but I'd like to say one last thing. When I realized I was watching a film that was potentially about the man who assassinated Gandhi, I wanted to turn it off. I didn't want to run the risk of even possibly understanding what might have been going on his mind or worse, feeling any sympathy for him. I suppose I should be ashamed.