September 28, 2021
At the cusp of India’s independence, communal riots during the Partition of India and Pakistan led a man to abandon his job, join a fundamentalist Hindu organization, and set out on a mission to assassinate the man he believes to be responsible for the violence: Mahatma Gandhi. In the version we have come to record in our history books, the man, Nathuram Godse, assassinates Gandhi. But in Hey Ram (2000), a movie that also stars Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Naseeruddin Shah, and Rani Mukerji, actor and director Kamal Haasan deigns to tell a parallel story of radicalization and atonement.
Historical fiction movies have always been a delectable genre in Indian filmmaking, natural for a country with such a rich millennia-long history to explore. Indian history films also fulfill the core dramatics that one expects from mainstream Bollywood fare, by depicting love, war, and larger-than-life ambition. Think Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Bajirao Mastani (2015) and Padmaavat (2018), Mani Ratnam’s Iruvar (1997) and the forthcoming Ponniyin Selvan, and Ashutosh Gowarikar’s Jodhaa Akbar (2008). But these films are all born out of myths or literature — none dare to explore parallel stories to the history we already know.
Hey Ram takes place during the communal disharmony preceding the Partition of India. But unlike other Indian films that have only veneration to offer for India’s independence leaders, Hey Ram explores how Gandhi’s teachings can inspire feelings of both admiration and revolt. It also examines the beginnings of Hindu nationalism, which gained prominence for its disapproval of Gandhi’s pleas for Hindu-Muslim unity and recorded its place in history when one of its own assassinates the Mahatma. At a time when the ruling federal party of India has helped raise Hindutva to national prominence, Hey Ram seems less like a movie and more of a foreboding for modern India.