Identity Theft

SS Rajamouli’s dehumanising portrayal of the Gond community

Alluri's use of "Jal, jangal, zameen" is an appropriation of a slogan said to have been coined by Komaram.
30 April, 2022

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.