Identity Theft

SS Rajamouli’s dehumanising portrayal of the Gond community
1 May 2022
Alluri's use of "Jal, jangal, zameen" is an appropriation of a slogan said to have been coined by Komaram.

In the final scene of SS Rajamouli’s period film RRR, Alluri Sitarama Raju—dressed as the Hindu deity Ram and played by the Telugu actor Ram Charan—asks what favour he may bestow on his fellow revolutionary Komaram Bheem, played by NT Rama Rao Jr. “Bheem, you fulfilled my goal, gave me ammunition for the cause,” he says. “What can I do for you?” Komaram replies, “Give me an education, brother.” Alluri pricks his finger with the tip of an arrow and writes “Jal, jangal, zameen”—water, forest and land—in the Devanagari script on a white flag.

There is a lot to unpack in this scene. Although a disclaimer at the start of the film declares that RRR is a work of fiction that “doesn’t imitate or imply any person whether living or dead, doesn’t indicate any race, caste, creed or tribe,” Rajamouli’s media interviews and the film itself make it clear that the two protagonists are based on historical figures. Alluri, who belonged to a Kshatriya caste, led the Rampa Rebellion of 1922–24, in which the Adivasi population of the Madras province’s Godavari Agency engaged in guerrilla warfare against the British. Komaram, who belonged to the Gond community of Adilabad, led an armed uprising against the nizams of Hyderabad between 1928 and 1940. RRR tells a fictional story of the two of them coming together to rescue a Gond girl before they embark on their respective rebellions. However, Rajamouli does not treat the two revolutionaries as equals. Alluri—whose caste location is made clear by the sacred thread he wears—is depicted as Komaram’s savarna saviour, teaching the “noble savage” the ways of “civilised life.”

Komaram’s request for an education exemplifies their relationship. Earlier in the film, finding Alluri sleeping at his desk, he expresses his admiration at the books strewn around him. In another scene, he is shown eating while sitting on the floor, as Alluri reads at his desk. This is incongruous with the historical Komaram, whom the anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf describes as “an intelligent young man able to read and write,” and who wrote several petitions to the nizams. It also invisibilises the long intellectual tradition of the Gond community, preserved in its literature, science and art. 

The decision to have Komaram played by Junior NTR, a grandson of a former Andhra Pradesh chief minister and a member of the dominant Kamma caste, furthers the tradition of Adivasi characters in Indian cinema being played almost exclusively by upper-caste Hindus. The casting choice is in keeping with the right-wing agenda of spreading Brahminism among Adivasis. Moreover, when Alluri writes “Jal, jangal, zameen”—a slogan said to have been coined by Komaram—on the white flag, which is a sacred Gond symbol, he is not only appropriating an articulation of Adivasi demands and desecrating a religious symbol but also using a language that has been a colonising force for the erasure of Adivasi knowledge and culture. The imposition of Hindi and Hinduism, after all, has been key to the violent process of assimilating Adivasis into the Indian nation state.

Despite its offensive portrayal of the Gond community, the second-largest Scheduled Tribe in India, RRR has received both critical acclaim and box office success. As I skimmed through reviews published in mainstream publications, I could not find a single one critiquing the film’s disrespectful misrepresentation and dehumanisation of Gonds. The film’s success represents the underlying reality of Indian society, which either does not see Adivasis at all or merely categorises them as “primitive” forest-dwellers. This is certainly true of Indian cinema, which has a long history of perpetuating stereotypes and is yet to produce a film with an empowering tribal protagonist.

Rajamouli has been a serial offender. In his Bahubali franchise, for instance, the Kalakeya people—who serve as the primary antagonists in the first film—are not explicitly referred to as Adivasis but are represented in blackface as rakshasas, wearing clothes and jewellery that typically signify Adivasi culture, performing tribal rituals and dances, and exhibiting a general lack of hygiene. In RRR, Komaram is introduced as hunting in a forest, pouring a tumbler of blood on himself to attract his prey, a tiger, as the word “Gond” is repeatedly chanted in the background. There is no tradition of such hunting practices in the Gond community.

Unlike the Kalakeyas, however, he is not a barbarian but an adavi manishi—man of the forest—a noble savage who apologises to the corpse of the tiger he kills. A review in The Hindu notes that the two protagonists’ “polar opposite personalities, one being stoic, sophisticated and presenting an impenetrable demeanour while the other is like an open book, giving in to emotional overtures and wearing both his innocence and anger on his sleeve, help in holding interest.” Another reviewer explains that the “refined” Alluri “teaches Bheem the ways of the world, while Bheem ensures Ram never forgets his roots.”

The Aymara sociologist and historian Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui describes such representation as “an ongoing practice of coloniality that recognizes and incorporates indigenous people but only as static, archaic figures defined by a continuous relationship to an idealized past.” This sort of depiction, she writes, deprives Indigenous people of “contemporaneity, complexity and dynamism.” It is a common phenomenon in India. A few years ago, the upper-caste director of the organisation I worked at wanted to include an Adivasi panellist for an event. When the names of some activists and scholars were suggested to him, he said no, insisting on “someone living their identity.” What he meant was someone who fit the stereotype of a forest-dwelling tribal.

Rajamouli romanticises the Gond community as subjugated and lacking agency. Early in the film, an advisor to the nizam meets a British official and asks that the governor’s wife return a girl she has taken with her to Delhi. He mentions that the girl is a daughter of the Gonds. The British official’s translator retorts, “So? Do they have horns on their head?” The nizam’s advisor adopts an apologetic tone. “No, no, they are innocent people,” he says. “They will just bear the injustice silently.” Such a notion is completely untrue—Adivasi communities were among the first to resist British rule, even before the Revolt of 1857. In 1916, four years before the film’s events, the Gond Mahasabha was established as a vehicle for the political organisation of the community and the assertion of its rights.

Komaram’s struggles against the nizams were an extension of this assertion, as he led the resistance against the mass eviction of Gonds from forest lands—those who did not leave often had their homes burnt by forest guards. Although he was shot dead by the police in 1940, his cause lives on. Adivasis in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have some of the highest rates of land alienation, primarily at the hands of upper-caste Hindus. The return of Adivasi lands was the key demand raised at a 1981 meeting in the Gond village of Indravelli, to which the police responded with indiscriminate firing that, according to locals, killed over a hundred people.

The Indravelli massacre contributed to a rapid increase in support among the Gonds of Adilabad for the People’s War Group, which expanded in the next few years from a single dalam—guerrilla squad—in the district to 14, with a total membership of over two hundred. The senior NTR, who was elected chief minister in 1983, responded by conducting mass recruitment of Adivasi schoolteachers. The “Eighties Teachers,” as this cohort came to be known, have been at the forefront of mobilising peaceful protests against the injustices their people face. In December 2020, I reported on the Telangana police’s persecution of Adivasis in Adilabad, which has included arresting several Eighties Teachers on specious grounds under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. At a time when Gonds are still being killed in the name of being Maoists, Junior NTR’s portrayal of a legendary Gond leader is tasteless and a reminder of his grandfather’s policies, which included the establishment of the Greyhounds, an anti-Maoist police unit that has carried out much of the killing.

It is especially galling when Komaram is portrayed as a simpleton who does not understand the larger issues involved. “I came for Malli”—the kidnapped Gond girl—“and your man came for the land,” he tells Alluri’s wife, Sita. “I’m a forest person and can’t make sense of it.” It is left to Alluri to educate him about the oppression his people face, a dynamic not unlike present-day Adivasi discourse, in which savarna activists doing the bare minimum are venerated for their “sacrifice”—and rewarded with book deals, speaking engagements, fellowships and awards—while Adivasi activists, who face the brunt of state repression, are often forgotten. Alluri’s own place in the history books came at the expense of the many Adivasis who stood against colonial and feudal oppression in the Godavari Agency, such as Marri Kamayya, Gam Gantamdora, Gam Malludora, Tabeli Veeranna Padalu and Gokeru Erresu. Moreover, while there is plenty of literature on Alluri and his struggle, precious little has been written about Komaram.

RRR was the subject of a controversy, in October 2020, when a teaser for the film was released. It showed Komaram dressed as a Muslim, with a skull cap and kohl in his eyes. “For sensation, Rajamouli has put a cap on Komaram Bheem,” Bandi Sanjay Kumar, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Telangana unit, said at a campaign rally. “Will we accept it? Never!” He threatened dire consequences if Rajamouli did not remove the offending scene. Several others, including Komaram’s grandson Sone Rao, criticised this depiction. Although Komaram fought against the Muslim rulers of Hyderabad, religion had nothing to do with his struggle for rights over land and forest. His donning a skullcap as a disguise is merely a plot tool, as Rajamouli’s father explained to defuse the controversy, and the least problematic part of the film. In fact, Adivasi youth traditionally carry sawaris—symbolising the sacrifices of Hasan and Hussain—during Muharram processions in Adilabad.

Much more problematic is Komaram’s depiction as a devout Hindu. The film’s trailer proclaims, “Brace yourself for Ram, brace yourself for Bheem,” with Alluri and Komaram meant to represent the two mythical figures. In colonial and Brahminical literature, which erased Adivasi histories to manufacture a Hindu past, Gonds are said to worship Bheem. However, according to the community’s belief system, Bheem does not refer to the character from the Mahabharata but to Bheemal Pen, an ancestral spirit responsible for rain.

Komaram is shown praying at a Ram temple at one point in the film; at another, he joins Alluri in rituals associated with the Hindu festival Janmashtami. Komaram survives a fire by wrapping himself up in a flag with the words “Vande Mataram” on it, referencing a nationalist hymn that has been criticised for wrapping up the nation in Hindu imagery. (It is important to note that Komaram was not a nationalist leader but a leader of the Gonds.) In the final scene, Alluri dresses up as Ram and rescues Komaram by singlehandedly defeating a British battalion using a bow and arrows, with a Vedic chant playing in the background. Such imagery erases the history of Hindu oppression and violence against Adivasi communities, as well as the history of Gond resistance against Brahminical forces since colonial times—a resistance that continues to this day, through protests against the categorisation of Adivasis as Hindus in the census. In 2018, Madhu, a tribal from Attapadi, in Kerala, was lynched by upper-caste Hindus. A year later, 11 Gonds were massacred in broad daylight by Gujjars in Uttar Pradesh’s Sonbhadra district. Earlier this year, eight members of the Pando tribe were lynched in Balarampur, a district in Chhattisgarh, by upper-caste men.

In a 2005 lecture, the anthropologist and linguist Ram Dayal Munda talked about a four-tier hierarchy of characters in ancient Brahminical texts: “superhuman (sura, narayana, deva, yaksha), human (nara, manava), subhuman (vanara, kinnara) and inhuman/unhuman (asura, rakshasa, danava).” While the Kalakeyas of Bahubali occupied the bottom rung of this ladder, Komaram in RRR is allowed to ascend to subhuman by taking on the role of the vanara Hanuman. “I have promised to unite Ram and Sita, even if I have to burn Lanka down,” he says at one point, referring to Alluri and his wife. On two occasions, he desperately searches for herbs to revive an injured Alluri, mirroring Hanuman’s quest for the sanjivani plant in the Ramayana. Similarly, on several occasions in the movie, Komaram is shown carrying Alluri on his shoulders, similar to the representation of Hanuman carrying Ram. As in most Indian pop culture, media and literature, however, the Adivasi protagonist is not allowed to ascend any further. 

The film is also characterised by gory violence, which is exclusively reserved for its Adivasi characters. A British soldier uses a log to smash the face of Malli’s mother. Alluri, who is a colonial police officer at the start of the film, brutally tortures Komaram’s brother. Komaram himself is beaten in public by the police more than once. Such visual depictions only serve the purpose of fetishising Adivasi bodies. At a time when violence against Adivasi women, custodial torture and public lynchings remain a reality for Adivasi communities, using them for entertainment purposes is deeply dehumanising.

On 12 April, Rajamouli visited Adilabad to watch RRR with Komaram’s grandson. The film has not faced much criticism from Gonds in Telangana. This is partly because Brahminism infiltrated Adivasi villages long ago. It also reflects the extent to which Adivasi communities have been rendered invisible in the national public discourse and dominant history-writing, as even the disrespect and misrepresentation offered by RRR feels like progress to many.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Malli’s mother had been killed by a British soldier. The Caravan regrets the error.

Akash Poyam is an assistant editor at The Caravan.