Unnatural State

The changing representations of tribal people in Hindi cinema

01 February 2016
In Baahubali, the Kalakeya people are violent and uncivilised, with darkened faces—traits that are more commonly associated with tribal people in Hollywood films than in Indian ones.
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In Baahubali, the Kalakeya people are violent and uncivilised, with darkened faces—traits that are more commonly associated with tribal people in Hollywood films than in Indian ones.
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SS RAAJAMOULI'S BAAHUBALI: THE BEGINNING opened in theatres on 10 July last year, in a season overcast with the muscular release of Yash Raj Films’ Bajrangi Bhaijaan, starring Salman Khan. Baahubali, featuring the Telugu stars Prabhas and Rana Daggubati in lead roles, came with one of the biggest budgets of any Indian film (Rs 175 crore), the promise of spectacular vistas on screen, and a Bollywood endorsement by the big cheese Karan Johar, who purchased the Hindi rights of the movie. Its reviews were rapturous.

Rajamouli had already won terrific acclaim for his previous film, Eega; but Baahubali, with an upcoming sequel, was touted as his masterwork. The story is a revenge drama of two warring princes, played out over two generations, bolstered by special effects of much beauty, and competent, even if overplayed, performances. Box office collections raced to Rs 236 crore in the film’s first six days, only narrowly eclipsed by Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s Rs 238 crore for the same period.

The first note of discomfiture in the English-language press was struck by Anna MM Vetticad, a film critic and writer, who noted that Baahubali contained some troubling sexism. The second, more resounding note, was struck by the former editor-in-chief of the Indian Express Shekhar Gupta, who called the film out on its troubling politics of tribal identity. Gupta, who is given to emphatic pronouncements, tweeted: “Most awful film portrayal of tribals in #Bahubali. Dark, scar-faced, ugly rapist brutes with rotting black teeth. Shameful profiling.”

Sohini Chattopadhyay is an award-winning independent journalist based in Kolkata, who writes on politics, public health and the arts. The research for her essay in this issue was done during a 2015 Chevening fellowship in the United Kingdom, and was supervised by the film scholar Rosie Thomas of the University of Westminster.

Keywords: Hindi cinema changing representations Baahubali tribal people Chak De! India Madhumati
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