Publicizing an Unofficial History

Central to Hey Ram!, and more generally to the popular Indian cinema, is the concept of an iconic history. The past is rendered through a set of emblematic figures, locations, and events which are deployed to represent that which is already known. It is important here to distinguish between contexts of knowledge. As I noted earlier, the secularist project has been criticized for not accurately representing historical realities—for the Hindu Right this includes an account of ‘Muslim atrocities against Hindus’. This has long been one of the strands which contend within the popular Hindu understanding of the national past, but it did not force its way into the official discourse of political parties and in arenas such as the cinema until the substantial emergence of the Sangh Parivar. Manohar Shyam Joshi, who wrote the dialogue for Hey Ram!, noted that it had brought widely held popular attitudes into the cinema for the first time.

This iconized history is the sort familiar from pilgrimage maps and hagiographies, where the life of the bhakt, heroic figure, or exemplary character is charted through his association with particular events and iconic spaces. The figure who carries the destiny of society in his life story may authenticate certain historical constructions by his status as witness. Even more seductive and insidious is the character on whose body and mind these public histories are imprinted through the direct experience of loss and suffering. This strategy works most transparently through the function of rape narratives. Nothing breaches the boundaries between the public and the private in as devastating a fashion.

At issue here is not only a partisan, Hindu communalized reading of history, but the fact that this has been mobilized into the cinema. The flashback devoted to Direct Action Day, events which Kamalahasan described in an interview as ‘an execution by the Muslim community ofJinnah Sahib’s orders’,[1] has in some fundamental sense broken the rules by which communal conflict was represented in popular Indian cinema: the Muslim crowd banging at the windows of Ram’s car, suggestive of a primordial simian mass; the Muslim tailor, welcoming his salivating mates to gang-rape the winsome Aparna (the use of the popular teen star Rani Mukherjee hyperbolizes the horror); Ram tied down and vulnerable to somewhat different pleasures, the threat of sodomization suggestive of Hindu masculine anxieties; and, finally, the blood welling up from the slit throat of the dying wife. In its extended, graphic description of Muslim bloodlust and sexual assault— reiterated in other stories told by Hindus in the film—Hey Ram goes against the secular discretion exercised by popular film. That Saket Ram subsequently feels guilt-stricken at having let vengeful and murderous instincts towards the Muslims take him over hardly neutralizes the bestiality we have witnessed. The undermining of such popular conventions is not necessarily ‘wrong’ in itself, and its functions are something we will come back to later.

In the sections of the film devoted to Saket Ram’s relationship with Abhyankar, the Hindu extremist gives voice to the familiar set of criticisms against the Mahatma. The belief that Hindus and Muslims can or should be allied is lampooned as naive in the wake of the traumatic suffering Hindus have suffered at Muslim hands. In such exchanges, the film mobilizes a black humour on the side of the Hindutva ideologue, and allows it to gain resonance. Subsequently, Ram is drawn into the logic of Hindutva perception by Abhyankar and the princely ruler. The iconographic rendering of the Hindutva conspiracy retains the disturbing features I have described earlier. The native ruler is a figure of regal equipoise, benevolent and deliberate in his demeanour. The ruined Sindhi merchant’s tale of Hindu loss is received with a paternalist concern by the Hindu raja. However, from within this scenario a more sinister image for the raja also emerges. The secret meetings between Ram and the others take place in a room ornamented with portraits of Hitler and Savarkar. In the director’s account, this appears to function as a critique, putting the movement into the perspective of a rightist alignment with racist ramifications.[2] However, there has always been considerable ambiguity in India towards the Nazi movement and Japanese fascism, ambivalence suggestive of a fascination in Indian nationalism with military assertion and a strong nation-state.

Abhyankar is crippled in a fall from a horse, and the film then employs a heroic Hindu iconography to figure Ram as he takes over the role of Gandhi’s assassin. He is framed in battle with the elements, after which he undergoes a ritual renunciation in Benares. This is an iconography now familiar from the Ayodhya movement to destroy the Babri Masjid, one expressive of the desire to refigure a deity defined by the attributes of a harmonious disposition into one governed by aggressive drives.[3]

  • [1] Television interview with Kamalahasan on BBC, February 2000.
  • [2] At the seminar, ‘Gandhi, Film and History, NMML, 4 April 2000.
  • [3] Anuradha Kapur, ‘Deity to Crusader: The Hindutva Movement in Ayodhya’, inPandey, ed., Hindus and Others.
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