As Saket Ram Junior (Gautam Kanthadai) takes his grandfather Saket Ram Senior (Kamal Haasan), an 89-year-old archaeologist, to the hospital, accompanied by their family doctor Munavar (Abbas), they find all the roads of the town blocked by the police. It is December 6, 1999 — the seventh anniversary of the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Desperate to get his grandfather to the hospital as his condition deteriorates, Saket Junior drives their van into a lane and is confronted by a mob crying “Allahu Akbar!” A police contingent rescues them and hides them. Saket Ram Senior, barely conscious, asks what is going, and on being informed about the riot, wonders in desperation: “They are still fighting?”
The source of his desperation is personal history. When Hey Ram (2000), written and directed by Haasan, begins, Ram is a Westernised archaeologist working at the excavation site in Mohenjo-daro. His best friend is his colleague, Amjad Ali Khan (Shah Rukh Khan), whose wife Nafisa (Iravati Harshe) calls him her brother. When the site is closed off due to communal tensions in Karachi, Ram returns to Calcutta (now Kolkata), to his wife Aparna (Rani Mukherjee). His return coincides with Muhammad Ali Jinnah’s Direct Action Day (August 16, 1946), and in the ensuing riots, Aparna is raped and killed by Muslim goons.
The horrific crime traumatises Ram so such an extent that he is overcome with bloodthirst and vengeance, and tracks down and kills Aparna’s murderers. Drenched in blood and disoriented by the bestial killings on the streets, Ram encounters Shriram Abhayankar (Atul Kulkarni), a Thanjavur Maratha and Hindutva ideologue. Having recovered from his delirium at dawn, Ram wants to surrender to the police, but Abhayankar prevents him and recruits him to a plot to the murder of “Barrister Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi”. As Ram learns of more and more about atrocities on Hindus in newly-formed Pakistan — including the murder of his friend Lalwani’s (Saurabh Shukla) family — anti-Muslim feelings are entrenched in him and he arrives in Delhi in early 1948 to kill Gandhi.
On November 28, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) member of Parliament from Bhopal Pragya Thakur — who is also an accused in the 2008 Malegaon terror case — described Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi assassin, as a patriot in Parliament. This is not the first time she has done this; Thakur has been previously reprimanded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for similar comments. On this instance, her party removed her from a parliamentary committee on defence — her appointment to it was contentious, given the terror case against her — and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh issued a statement condemning Thakur’s. She also apologised for it.
Despite the quick rap on Thakur’s knuckles, the BJP cannot abdicate responsibility for making such ideas mainstream. The party gave her a ticket to contest the Lok Sabha elections and also appointed her to the defence panel, despite her track record. The party, including Home Minister Amit Shah, has also been the chief promulgator of the divisive National Registry of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. The Bill, which got the green light from the Union Cabinet earlier this week, is purportedly aimed at identifying “illegal immigrants”, but political observers fear it will be used to target Muslims.
Drawing similarities between the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the demolition of Babri Masjid is not unique to Hey Ram. Journalist Salil Tripathi describes having a conversation with his mother, Harsha Tripathi, a lifelong Gandhian, on December 6, 1992, in a poem (included in his book Offence: The Hindu Case): “Your voice broke, / On December 6, 1992, / As you called me at my office in Singapore / When they destroyed the Babri Masjid. / ‘We have just killed Gandhi again,’ you said. / We had.”
In the film, when Aparna is killed, Ram is overcome with trauma. His subsequent actions are depicted as a delirium. He hallucinates frequently: when his second wife Mythili (Vasundhara Das) cries out on being scared by a lizard, he thinks he can hear the cries of Aparna while she is being brutalised; he is haunted by the ghosts of people he has killed, especially a blind Muslim girl. At a secret meeting of Gandhi’s would be assassins during a Vijaya Dasami celebration of a Maharaja (Vikram Gokhale), Abhayankar gives Ram an opiate drink and induces visions. Towards the end of the film, when Ram meets his old friend Amjad Ali Khan in the bylanes of Chandni Chowk in Delhi, Khan tells him: “You have gone mad. Gandhi is the only sanity in country now.”
The movie uses broad strokes to set up the dichotomy of good and bad, sanity and insanity. Earlier this year, on being asked why Haasan had used the trope of the intoxicants to turn Ram into an assassin, he said: “I wanted something heady to show his mind-state. Instead of intellectualising it, I opted for a simple soma rasa. Intoxication can be anything — even something as simple as ‘In the name of God’.” The movie tries to work in opposites — sanity (Gandhi) and madness (Ram), human (archaeologist) and bestial (assassin), civilised (Mohenjo-daro) and barbaric (the subcontinent at the time of Partition). These dichotomies are, however, a tad disappointing in an otherwise extraordinary narrative. The undeniable rise of anti-secular forces in India is not the rise of madness, but a cold manoeuvre of power politics.
I am sure Mr Haasan will pardon me if I take the liberty of intellectualising the problem at hand. In The Rebel, Albert Camus writes: “as soon as man, through lack of character, takes refuge in doctrine, as soon as crime reasons about itself, it multiplies like reason itself… Once crime was as solitary as a cry of protest; now it is as universal as science. Yesterday it was put on trial; today it determines the law.” Neither the murder of Gandhi, nor the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a result of madness. Astute men and women planned both, funded them, provided logistical and ideological support for both. To excuse either as “madness” or a temporary state of delirium would be inexcusable. A greater crime, to quote my friend and poet Akhil Katyal, would be to forget:
the 6th of December,
the axes, the hammers
that would dismember
a mosque and a nation
that has since then—
only walked on ember.