Ram Ke Naam  Documentary Review – A Cop-out take on 1992 Riot
Ram Ke Naam/ In The Name of Ram
There are three ways to approach a documentary according to me:- as a provocation, as a strict document and as an exploration.
The easiest way from the above three, and especially in the case of religion, is the first – provocation. It is the easiest since to the rational thinking mind religion is a ‘parasite’ (as Dawkins put it) which causes people to foster it even though it causes its destruction (to cite a Dennett example) and in the process, destroys everything in between leading to plain, despicable chaos. It also happens to be an oversimplification. While treating religion with this mind-set, it throws out of the equation the other evolutionary side of the debate (as encapsulated by David Wilson in Darwin’s Cathedral) as well as the sociological side (done by Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind). Hence I say, I believe to the contrary of many, Ram Ke Naam is not a courageous work, it is a mere cop-out.
Now about this, I only speak from a cinematic perspective since that should be my intention. Considering the political sphere and the dominance of right-wing fanatics, Anand (the irony) Patwardhan is a courageous man who has made something I am sure has had him flooded with death threats, labelled anti-nationalist and what not by this point. He needs to be appreciated for that, no doubts about it.
But as a documentarian, what he has resorted to is a mere embellishment of the ‘bigger picture’ (I will get to this later) to give us an easy pay-off, all tied up within 70 minutes to give the feeling of contentment of being ‘enlightened’ and ‘awakened out of our ignorance’.
V.H.P. and B.J.P have ties which commingled to lead to the events depicted in the film, that is stoking fire to misguided Hindu sentiments and using them to divide the county by hatred into religious boundaries which helped B.J.P gain an important political voice, which helped it to come into power for the first time and set the stage for a change in the political arena which can be seen even now with Narendra Modi in power. It was a complete injustice to not just the Hindu, or to be specific, Ram’s ideals of a just and happy state while also being a complete disregard of Muslim sentiments.
What I have stated above are facts. They need not be contested or be part of a discussion to hold scrutiny since they are facts. And they are by themselves downright repugnant. The ability to recognize this is what someone like Claude Lanzmann had with Shoah and Anant Patwardhan erroneously lacks here. His job was not to act as a provocateur, for the provocateur’s services are required on subjects which are confused by themselves because of an array of conflicting views. Corporate medical insurance in the United States, for example, has had stances of such excellence on both sides, that when left to the scrutiny they left people scratching their heads on which group to side with. So, it requires a provocateur like Michael Moore, who will selectively choose his argument and use dissenting arguments in a way that it will only serve his purpose, suffuse the proceedings with wit, and then hit right at the place which makes intellect its slave – ‘our passions’ as Hume put it, i.e. our emotions. It shows how common people are suffering, and that while there might be an argument on the other side that may stand the test of the intelligentsia, the only one which can benefit the sufferings of the masses lies on this side. And tada, a convincing case is made.
But a lawyer who has all the evidence and witnesses supporting him doesn’t need to pull off a Daniel Kaffee in court to win, he just needs to speak in that dry voice lawyers are associated with and jury would unanimously vote to ensure his next paycheck. Claude Lanzmann did not need to put in a personal side note now and then to say that the Holocaust was bad because it was a ‘fact’. And that is exactly where Patwardhan errs. He has all the facts supporting him, and yet he wants to provoke and make a statement when his only job was to just document the events, simply state the facts and let Hemingway’s iceberg theory do its magic on film.
Take two interviews for instance. One is with a raging politician who says he is resigning from Janta Dal, ranting about his connections, and stating that all Muslims should be deported since Babar was an intruder and hitherto by this logic having Muslims in the country only means being reminded of one’s ancient thraldom. These statements are ignominious by themselves and the intelligent filmmaker would have left it to hang there and let the audience process the hate every word of it is imbued with. Yet, Patwardhan wants not only to expose his villains, but he also wants to crush them downright and hence follows it up with a cheap question of whether the politician is drunk or not (the answer is yes) and then asks whether that isn’t a violation of Ram’s principles. It has downright shifted the focus from all the hate the man has spouted which had to be taken seriously and has now converted him to a laughing figure whose words mean nothing, hence nullifying the effect of what had preceded.
The next interview has Patwardhan asking some villagers on the issue of the mosque. They all unanimously support the notion that the mosque shouldn’t be demolished, that if a temple is built it should be built somewhere else and that this is just fanaticism sponsored by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. This is a statement in the solipsism of enormous power – it is a testament that even the rural, illiterate India realizes this is just a faux pass played for mere political gains. But instead of letting it hang for the viewer to process, Patwardhan has to satisfy his cheap thrills again and help his oversimplifications by asking the villagers their caste. And when the answer is that none of them belongs to the upper castes, the conclusion taken away is not that the rural populace of India rejects this wrong notion of religious hatred (more powerful) but that it is the lower castes who are opposing the notion (less powerful).
Now to return to the bigger picture I had earlier referred to, one needs to consider the other type of documentary – the exploration. Take something like ‘All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace’ by Adam Curtis or ‘Sunless’ by Chris Marker. Both films weave the tapestry of their subject matter by a multitude of threads – political, social, psychological, historical, etc. Finishing with them leaves one with a basic understanding of all the facets which figure into the equation of the subject matter. Such an approach, which was the apt one for Ram Ke Naam, has not been thrown away wholly (which would have been a consolation) but rather quasi-pursued, with a falsity of intentions which makes me nothing less than infuriated. The documentary poses that it has some understanding of the issue at hand, of the various factors which lead up to it while what I saw on screen mirrored nothing but what Noam Chomsky had to once say about Slavoj Zizek’s body of work :- ‘Using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever which can extend beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old’.
Also, Read – Anand Patwardhan’s Vivek [Reason] A brilliant discourse on the pernicious rise of religious extremism in India
Its ‘ruminations’ on how caste and political parties figure in are so taken in face value that it wouldn’t suffice for a newspaper sub on a heyday. Yet, when coupled with a voice-over narration which contributes to give it a ‘factual’ tone, it works to serve its purpose which is to cloak its petty ignorance. Why do such religious sentiments based on shaky foundations take root? Why does it make people turn away from those with whom they have lived peacefully for so long? What is it about commonly shared myths coupled with an intense show of power that empowers people to forsake logic and join in? Did the reservations brought by the Mandal Commission affected the upper-caste stance in the issue, and if it did what were the upper castes’ misgivings with the change? If you want an answer to these questions, I would suggest looking for it in Ehrenreich and Dawson, not here. All that you will get here is a timely reminder of what George Orwell once said: ‘All propaganda is false, even when it is true’.