Respectable acts by Arun Govil, Ashok Samarth not enough to mask over the film’s divisive and one-sided narrative.  

Rating: ⭐️💫 (1.5 / 5)

The near 500 year wait for Ram Mandir in Ayodhya ends on 22 January, 2024 with the historic Pran Pratishtha ceremony. It will be a day to celebrate for Hindus worldwide. The long wait underlines the struggle. It would be unfair to celebrate the momentous occasion without acknowledging the long struggle and the contribution of those who gave their heart and soul to the movement.

Producer Shyam Chawla chose to honour them through his film 695 [2024]. His dream has been turned into a reality by little known writer-filmmaker Yogesh Bharadhwaj, co-director Rajneesh Berry, and Aadesh K. Arjun [dialogue].

The names thanked in the credits reveal how 695 has the blessings of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra – the trust that was tasked with the building of Ram Temple. So, here’s a story told through the eyes of two holy men in Raghav Das [Arun Govil] and Raghunandan [Ashok Samarth]. The name Raghav Das reminds us of the noble saint who was close to Mahatma Gandhi. He was the Congress candidate in the 1948 Uttar Pradesh Assembly by-election defeating socialist Acharya Narendra Dev.  One of his promises was to free Ramjanmabhoomi from heretics. That naturally rules him out as Yogesh Bharadhwaj, Rajneesh Berry’s sage Raghav Das.

695! An intriguing title that we initially thought was to do with the near 700 years of foreign invasion in Bharat. However, the six here stands for 6 December, 1992 when the Babri Masjid, or a structure, as many claimed, was brought down.  The 9 here stands for 9 November, 2019 when the Supreme Court gave a verdict in the 500-year long dispute, ordering the Muslim body to vacate the disputed land for the construction of Ram Mandir. The court also ruled that a mosque is to be built on an additional site with the state government providing for the 5-acre land. There was also a third party to the dispute Nirmohi Akhara, whose claim was rejected by the Supreme Court.  Then the 5 is for 5th August, 2020 when the Bhoomi pujan was done at the Ram Mandir site.

695 opens with the visual of the destruction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya by Mughal ruler Babur’s men. We’re then taken to 29 November 1858 where brave Nihang Sikhs, chanting Jai Shri Ram, march into the Babri Masjid and mark the Hindu Lord’s name on the walls of the masjid. Forward to 1943, where noble men Raghav Das [Govil] and his disciple Raghunandan [Samarth] make a plea to the Muslim clerics to vacate the Babri Masjid, which Hindis long claimed to be the birthplace of Lord Ram. The men leave disappointed. Six years later, they hope that this long-cherished dream will be a reality in independent India. Little Ram, Sita, Lakshman idols miraculously surface in the masjid leading to communal tension. The government, court lock the disputed site thereby only adding to the frustration of Hindus and Muslims alike. The issue remained stagnant for decades before it gained political support from the Bharatiya Janata Party in the late 80s. The events pertaining to the Ram Mandir movement in the last 33 years is out in public domain.

The early peace effort by Raghav Das and Raghunandan suggest that we’re in for an objective debate around the ancient dispute. However, the film predictably presents a lopsided view, in particularly the representation of the events of 6 December, 1992. Whilst Ram Mandir holds a spiritual significance, any act of violence can never be justified. 695 passes off the demolition of the Babri Masjid dhacha as a spontaneous reaction. It projects the Kar Sevaks as the sole victims, whilst demonizing the police, and the central government. Berry and Bharadhwaj later show that the police was merely following their orders. The central government drew flak, but who was in power in Uttar Pradesh then? The Kalyan Singh-led Bharatiya Janata Party. Singh had promised Prime Minister P.V. Narsimha Rao [of Congress party] that there will be no demolition of the Babri mosque.

It’s surprising that the Congress Party has decided to skip the Ram Mandir Pran Pratishtha ceremony. After all, for all the clamor by Right Wing parties, it was Rajiv Gandhi’s secular Congress that had first given Ram bhakts hope when his government opened the locks of the disputed site and had declared that there should be Ram Rajya in the state. 695, though, is in no mood to give any credit to Congress. Instead, it reminds viewers of Rajiv Gandhi and Congress for minority appeasement in the infamous Shah Bano case.  It views the opening of locks by Congress as pacifying the aggrieved majority.  Oh, isn’t the present-day establishment milking Ram Mandir for electoral interests too? That though is an altogether different debate.

Back to the film, the lopsided representation of events on 6 December, 1992 reduces 695 to 666. Some objectivity is observed in the court room battle where we are privy to different arguments. Actor Manoj Joshi leads the charge for the Hindu side. He does a fine job. Nirmohi Akhara, the third party in the dispute gets zero mention. The representation of political bigwigs like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, even Modi, isn’t convincing. The Hindu saints are like the spiritual masters of the Advanis, Modis, and the Vajpayees who are simply happy to say, “Yes sage”.  Uma Bharti [Chitra Jetly] though is her own feisty self.  The lady next to her looks like a young Vasundhara Raje.  All through the film, it is the Sangh that stand out tall, even over the elected leaders. Back in 1949, Raghunandan appears to be (politely) trying to influence a judge [played by Gajendra Chauhan] into doing what is right as per faith. Isn’t that scant regard for Constitution. Hey, but Constitution can be amended.

As an objective viewer, one will empathise with the police, judiciary, even wise political figures, who are often sandwiched between faith v/s constitution debate.

Arun Govil in 695 [2024]

Arun Govil will forever be the people’s Ram on celluloid. From playing Lord Ram in Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan [1987 TV series], he gets to show his Ram bhakti as sage Raghav Das. This role helps to tell his legion of fans that he is human, and the one that needs to be revered is Lord Ram. The beard and the hair can’t get any white, but Govil struggles to look like an octogenarian in 1984. Save for the odd emotional scene, Govil is a modicum of faith, simplicity, humility. He starts off as the leading character before passing the baton to Ashok Samarth.  Much to the delight of the audience, the seasoned actor does make a spiritual appearance in the business end. 

Ashok Samarth

The underrated Samarth is consistent in his intensity, tone.  It is a difficult role for a brawny man. He tried hard to look old. The grey hair is fine, but the directors, and the actor failed to get rid of the thick black hair on the forearm. Govil and Samarth bring respectability to their characters, and the film at large.

Mukesh Tiwari is impressive in his guest appearance as the Dalit District DM in 1943. The rest of the lot though cut a sorry figure. Akhilendra Mishra is yet to get out of his Kroor Singh character from Chandrakanta. Govind Namdev is fine to begin with but tapers off thereafter. Both men play sages. There is certain humour to this pair. Mishra is clueless as to why Namdev often forgets to mention Kashi Vishwanath and Gyanvapi in his speeches? It’s fun to watch, but also a reminder that devotees won’t stop with Ayodhya.  Shailendra Gaur reduces Vajpayee to a caricature. K.K. Raina is meek as L.K. Advani.  Berry and Bharadhwaj fail to even pay tribute to Narendra Modi, played unconvincingly by Vikas Mahante.

The court arguments lead to a historic verdict on 9 November.  However, the events of 5th August, 2020 are passed off in the closing credit images. The production values aren’t great. An audio sync error during Manoj Joshi’s dialogue in the court scene only adds to it. 695 has decent playback score, with a beautiful rendition of Ram Chaupai in the opening credits.

After a promising start, 695 tapers into a predictable, lopsided dull film. We never like to use the word propaganda but if the producer of the film proudly stated that it is only right that his film benefits those who played an active role in achieving the Ram Mandir dream, then who are we to dispute. The long struggle of Ram Mandir Movement ought to be told via a feature, but 695 is not the ideal representation. It doesn’t reopen old wounds, but it is bound to leave a bad taste in some mouths. The social, political goals aside, is there a merit to have a 695 [2024] at a time when the nation is coming together to welcome Ram Lalla?  We leave that for the people of India to decide.

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