Another History Rises to the Surface: Melodrama in the Age of Digital Simulation: Hey Ram! (Kamalahasan, 1999)

Plot Synopsis

In Chennai, on 6 December 1999, an old man, Saket Ram (Kamalahasan), is in a critical condition, and it’s from his point of view that the film flashes back to the Partition period. Archaeologists at Mortimer Wheeler’s dig at Mohenjo Daro, Ram and his colleague Amjad Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), are abruptly asked to pack up when Hindu—Muslim riots erupt. Ram returns to Calcutta to be with his beloved, Aparna (Rani Mukherjee), and finds the streets torn by marauding Muslim crowds answering Jinnah’s Direct Action call. A nightmarish account ofDirect Action Day follows, with Aparna raped and killed by Muslims. Amongst these is a tailor, Altaf, well known to Ram, and Ram himself is almost sodomized by the tailor’s mate. Ram subsequently finds and kills Altaf, and witnesses the systematic execution of Muslims by Hindus and Sikhs. Assailed by guilt at his actions, Ram meets a Hindu firebrand, Abhyankar, who urges Ram to join him on his ‘shikar’ to hunt down Muslims. It is, however, Gandhi whom Abhyankar deems most culpable for the tragic fate of Hindus because of his alleged appeasement of Muslim leaders.

A numbed Ram returns to Madras, where he submits to the desires of his Iyengar family and marries Maithili (Vasundhra Das). The two travel to Maharashtra to meet Abhyankar, now the protege of a fundamentalist Hindu raja. A friend from the past, Lalvani, a Sindhi merchant, fortuitously surfaces at this point, a figure ravaged by the rape

and murder of his wife, the loss of his daughters, and the destruction of his business in Karachi. The raja responds compassionately to this devastated figure and provides him with a job. Ram’s indoctrination continues, and, when Abhyankar is crippled in a riding accident, Ram is chosen to take his place as Gandhi’s assassin. Ram prepares for this through elaborate rituals performed at Benares and arrives in Delhi where he stakes out the Birla Mandir for his assassination bid. A plot twist takes him to the Muslim quarters ofold Delhi, where he happens upon his old friend Amjad who, despite personal losses incurred during the riots, remains fervent in his Gandhian values. At first implacable in his Hindutva beliefs, Ram’s attitude changes when Amjad is threatened by what are clearly RSS incendiaries. He defends Amjad and his family, but Amjad dies. Overwhelmed, Saket Ram, now celebrated as the defender of Muslims, goes to seek atonement for his sins from the Mahatma, only to see him felled by Godse’s bullet. A traumatized Ram removes Gandhi’s sandals and glasses, and we subsequently find these housed in the room where Ram lives out his later life in darkness and silence. This museum of personal history is hung about with numerous photos, and a huge image of the Mahatma is pasted over the windows. In a peculiarly haunting and ambiguous last shot, as the credits roll Saket Ram’s grandson opens these windows, and light begins flooding through and fragmenting the Mahatma’s image.

Here I examine Kamalahasan’s controversial film Hey Ram! along the following axes of reflection. What new perspective does the film offer on the traumatic Partition of the subcontinent? And from what location in contemporary politics and culture does it launch this reflection? In other words, how does the film’s historiographical agenda relate to present imperatives for issues ofidentity formation? The question of perspective here is also one of narrative point of view. It leads to a second series of reflections on the structure of filmic story telling, and whether the film offers the spectator a coherent perspective on its narrative world. I will seek to focus on the contradictory effects of the film, the distinct uncertainty which viewers experience when confronted with the inflammatory images and voices that conjure up a narrative of Muslim bloodlust and Hindu trauma and retaliation. The uncertainty is compounded because these deeply troubling passages

seem to be only ineptly redressed by less forceful narrative moves to distance the spectator from an extreme Hindutva perspective.

I want to place this analysis in terms of larger issues ofpopular cinematic form: specifically around the question of how a melodramatic mode of narration has been subjected to revision in the contemporary era. In particular, I want to consider how the sweep of melodrama’s Manichaean, bipolar universe is refigured against the grid of contemporary political systems. This is an arena far removed from the original contexts of the melodramatic mode which negotiated shifts in social experience away from the certitudes of traditional hierarchies and concepts of the sacred.1 Of central concern here is the changed location of the sacred itself, now transposed onto the domain of nationhood and its key icons such as the Mahatma. I am also concerned with the way narratives of national origins turn on the public modes of address of melodramatic performance. In this rendering, the individual agent is subsumed as a hyperbolic incarnation of the national drama even when a specifically psychological set of motifs— ineradicable feelings of loss and guilt, for example—are deployed. Arguably, such characterization complicates any project ofempathetic identification. For in this film the narrative seeks to construct the character through a personalized discourse of history, but also by staging identity as spectacle, and therefore in a key which does not quite allow us, as spectators, to internalize the character.[1] [2]

This melodramatic staging of history, in which the character is a figure who performs for us rather than is us, directs attention to the particular regime of play associated with the star personality of Kamalahasan. The actor is known for his extensive experiments with cinematic representations of bodily mutation through physical contortions, makeup, and digital manipulation. These performative dimensions may speak to the what-if, fiction-foregrounding premise of the narrative—its invitation to reimagine the history ofthe nation-state as a biography of murder and revenge that speaks to the suppressed desires ofHindus at large. They braid in with the regime ofplay generated by the film’s deployment of video-game structures and digital modes in key sequences. The cinematic art of the index, in which the photographed object leaves its physical trace on the film stock, is here challenged by a regime of effects that manipulate the image internally, without any relationship to an external referent. I suggest that these devices invite us (at least temporarily) to disengage from a relationship to history as something grounded in materially defined socio-political experience. Instead of ‘this happened’ or ‘Godse killed Gandhi’, the issue becomes ‘any Hindu could have killed Gandhi’ and ‘I invite you to re-play that possibility through a regime of images’. Hey Ram renders cinema and history as manipulable, as open to the play of desire which is in the active process of constitution. Yet, in essaying this, the film nevertheless seems to come up against a blockage, as if it cannot produce a new symbolic structure and national biography that will entirely replace earlier ones. The crisis in national identification signalled by the film and the shifting, unanchored structure of the postcinematic signifier push protagonist and spectator to the brink of an imaginative abyss. As I will suggest, melodramatic history in the age ofdigital simulation produces uncanny compensations to recover meaning and the lost object of sacralized nationhood.

  • [1] For a more extended discussion of melodrama, see ch. 1 above.
  • [2] See Madhava Prasad’s suggestive distinction between empathetic identificationand symbolic identification, the latter encouraging a relationship of representation forthe viewer rather than similarity. Prasad, ‘The Aesthetic of Mobilization’, Ideology ofthe Hindi Film.
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