I saw American History X recently and couldn’t stop wondering a possible connect with Hey Ram and this film. The basic premise in both films is about a man who comes from one end of an ideological spectrum founded in hatred to the other end of the spectrum founded in tolerance. The flashbacks in American History X are in black and white while the present is in color. In Hey Ram, the present is in black and white while the past is in color. Before thinking that it is just another manipulation from a filmmaker trying to be different (if you are taken in by the argument that Hey Ram is subtly inspired from American Histroy X), it is worth considering the explanation Kamal gave us. Apart from the fact that it gives me my Vadivelu moment (Naanum Kamal a paathutten, naanum Kamal a paathutten. As an aside, I am a bigger fanboi of Rajnikanth), this event, hosted in Landmark, had Kamal launching the Penguin edition of a book, Stars From Another Sky, with critic Baradwaj Rangan. My friend questioned him about the reason for shooting the past in color and present in black white. Kamal said, “The past is more colorful and we learn a lot from history, whereas in our lives (talking about the present) we tend to see things from a black and white perspective.” Interesting. If it was just another manipulation by a filmmaker trying to be different from an original source, this was a brilliant answer.
Coming to the two films, Norton kills two blacks when they break into his house while he makes love to his partner. Kamal kills people who break into his house after he makes love to Rani Mukherjee (that they happen to rape and kill her is another issue, a wise manipulation by Kamal to give a sound basis for his Gandhi-Muslim hatred while Norton’s dad’s death is his trigger to hate blacks). Saketh Ram is taken in by Abhyankar while Norton is taken in by the first-in-command into the white supremacist ideology. Also, Edward Norton’s family members are moderates and peace loving and do not approve of his extremist attitude. Switch to Kamal’s family who are devotees of Gandhi while he is a Gandhi hater. Hey Ram is narrated by Saketh Ram’s grandson. American History X is narrated by Norton and his brother. Norton has his following that comes with him, ready to do his bidding while Saketh Ram has his gang who are in the extremist bandwagon. Similarities to Hey ram and the two above references are but very minor parallels. But what clinches it is this; Norton breaking away from his group by taking the rifle from the fat guy and running away after fighting his own white people and Kamal fighting his own people, the Hindus, and saving Muslims. It takes a black guy in the prison to cause a change of Norton’s heart. It takes a Muslim in Shah Rukh Khan to cause a change in Kamal’s heart. Finally, Norton’s brother is shot dead in his chest. It is wicked that Gandhi was shot in his chest too. But that’s history. Or that’s in history to be more precise.
Hey Ram is emotionally more powerful because for us Indians, the partition is a scar and this is where Kamal succeeds in supplementing the English original with a true national flavor and both films are different at the end of the day making Hey Ram a crafty adaptation. The theme of racism is replaced by partition. This is where Mottled Dawn, Saddat Hassan Manto’s book on the partition drawing from his real life experiences during the time, comes into picture which Kamal himself acknowledged was his emotional gym while writing Hey Ram. You probably needed something as powerful as that (I’m no judge as I have not read Mottled Dawn yet. Kamal said he could only bring a fraction of the impact Mottled Dawn brings, into the film. Judging by his comment, it should be a powerful book) to feed life into a wise cover of a screenplay over American History X to make it distinctly Indian and powerful and this is where Kamal scores with parallels from Ramayana.
There are of course parallels with Barrabas, the biblical film, where Barrabas and Jesus form the duo that is replaced by Kamal and Gandhi in Hey Ram. There is a scene in Barrabas where a blind beggar comes at Barrabas with searching hands, the same scene being enacted by a blind girl and Kamal in Hey Ram. What we eventually get is a 190 minute drama that is coruscating. Kamal is different because he uses as many sources as these to write a film and make it gripping and what I see is the effort at improvising from the original and making it powerful for the Indian audiences so that they don’t just get to chew foreign gum.
Tailpiece: In a recent interview, Kamal said that he was a wannabe Genghis Khan who went the other end of the spectrum to Gandhi. Genghis Khan was not Gandhi’s contemporary. Kamal isn’t. Saketh Ram could have been. I guess I’d better stop with this.