Its a moment in the film that leaves you unnerved. The year is 1947 and a carnage is on in the streets of Calcutta. As Hindus and Muslims fight it out, a staunch member of the Hindu group boldly proclaims: "Theres one man responsible for all this blood-spilling-Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi." This then is the burden Kamalahaasans much-awaited film Hey Ram carries. Of audaciously, blatantly examining a long-suppressed view that Gandhi, stripped of the respectful suffix, was paradoxically responsible for that blood-tinged dawn.
Kamalahaasan structures the three hours of his film as an exploration into the wounded Hindu soul and leaves only the last half hour to make a belated, feeble case for Gandhi. By which time the audience has lost interest and Gandhi comes across as a mere cardboard figure, sans life and coherence, whose only preoccupation in life is to go on a padayatra to Pakistan.
The film focuses on a (Hindu) commoners conviction that the man described as the Mahatma, in a political obstinacy that many saw as partisanship, gave muscle to the Muslim community in whom lay dormant the seeds of bloody war. Kamalahaasan plays Saket Ram, whose life turns upside down the day his wife (Rani Mukherjee) is raped brutally and her throat slit by a bunch of rioters. Kamalahaasan carries through an attempt at even-handedness by showing an almost equal number of perpetrators from both communities but Muslims always seem to be initiating the violence in his film, while the Hindus merely retaliate.
A point which has angered Muslims in Mumbai. Not many of them went to see the film which was released on February 18. Though first-week collections stood at 81 per cent-reasonable, though modest considering the films big banner-theyre likely to go down in the following weeks. Also, during the first show at Metro cinema, some Muslims rose in protest when Amjad (a token Gandhian Muslim in the film, an uncharacteristically subdued performance by Shahrukh Khan) is shown protecting his friend Saket Ram in a soda factory where a lot of Muslims are in hiding. They objected to the fact that a Muslim could protect a rabid Hindu. Tensions rose when others in the audience asked the protesting Muslims to shut up and sit down. It forced the cinema hall management to inform the police, who stood outside in readiness, just in case.
The fact is, Hey Ram packages Hindutva and anti-Muslim rhetoric in a high-pitched, viewer-friendly idiom that instantly strikes a chord. Alluring leitmotifs like the dhoti, janeoo, the swastika and tilak are thrown in for good measure along with spirited cries of Vande Mataram. Theres the menacing yet immensely charismatic Hindu leader Shriram Abhayankar. The audience clings on to every word he speaks. Like when he sneeringly equates the slogan Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai to bakri-kasai bhai-bhai.
Pointing to specific instances, All India Muslim Mahaz chairman Farooq Azam says: "We object to Hey Ram because it insults the minorities. It seems to say only the Muslims were responsible for the riots. It has a scene where a tailor brings in 20 men and rapes a Hindu woman."
Azam is probably among those who have not seen the film since its three and not 20 Muslims whore shown as raping Sakets wife. But three or 20, its enough for Azam to insist Kamalahaasan "portrays a false impression of Gandhiji and seems to have come under pressure from the RSS".
Given the films focus on contentious events in Calcutta, it wouldve perhaps been too much to expect no reaction from a city not known for being phlegmatic. This time, of course, it wasnt the RSS that was laying siege to freedom of expression, but the Youth Congress which led protests against the film. Led by Chhatra Parishads Sukhendu Roy and Sushanta Ghosh and Seva Dals Hiran Majumdar, they objected to "unsavoury comments" about Gandhi and took strong exception to Rani Mukherjee reciting lines from Jibananda Das poem Rupashi Bangla in the backdrop of what was termed as a "very objectionable" love scene. Second-rank leaders and students stormed cinema halls, tore up posters and shattered windowpanes.
Cultural protests are nothing new to Calcutta. In the 70s it was the cpi(m-l) that disrupted the screening of Dev Anands Prem Pujari, on grounds that it portrayed Chinese communists as villains. Some two decades later, pro-cpi(m) groups bashed up the crew of City of Joy. They also set cinema halls ablaze and at least one person died in connection with Roland Joffes shooting in Calcutta. Recently, the BJP threatened bloodshed if Water were to be shot in the city. With Youth Congress workers now in action, the cycle of political intolerance seems complete. All parties are now tarred with the same brush: if the Naxalites holy cow is China and Hindutva is the BJPs shibboleth, Gandhi it is who is goading the Chhatra Parishad on to the streets.
Thankfully, Hey Ram didnt generate the kind of fire Water has. In Mumbai, perhaps because its the Muslims who have been offended and in Calcutta because the protests have been criticised from all quarters. AICC secretary Ajit Jogi was quick to condemn the act. Said he: "Non-violence is our way, I have to find out more about what the Chhatra Parishad has done, but we dont approve of such protests." State leaders Saugata Ray and P.R. Das Munshi emphasised that the party was not involved at all and indeed opposed such tactics.
Says observer Charubrata Ray: "The Congress reaction is worrying. It means even the staid political middle ground and hitherto sober elements are falling prey to cultural intolerance." Others see a different twist to the tale. That, caught in a no-mans land between the CPI(m) and Trinamul, the protests "are an act of identity assertion for a party still groping to recover its lost relevance in national politics," as a wag put it.
As the scenes of acrimony mirror, verbally or otherwise, what happens on screen, one figure who fades in the process is Gandhi, the "voice of sanity". Hema Malini, an Iyengar housewife in the film, at one point says how when a common man fasts, he falls sick but when "the Mahatma fasts, the country gets freedom". Its a line you almost miss.