Indian movies have been naive in the depiction of adivasis. Be it commercial or documentary cinema, films often fail to look beyond stereotypes. Commercial movies in India offer a particularly derogatory presentation of adivasis and show brazen conformity with an upper-caste, upper-class, urban-centred imagination of what an 'adivasi' is like.
RRR is a commercial movie based on a real-life inspired fictional story. The multi-starrer film has two leading actors, Ram Charan, who plays the freedom fighter and revolutionary Alluri Sitarama Raju, and Jr NTR, who plays Komaram Bheem, a revolutionary leader from a tribal community. In the film, the director attempts to imagine a scenario where these two figures become friends. But the movie problematises itself with its depiction of the Gond community and its leader Komaram Bheem.
From Chak De! India, Tarzan to Mary Kom, a Blinkered View
Despite the evolution of Indian cinema, the one thing that remains unchanged is the stereotypical presentation of the adivasi community. Films like 'Ye Gulistan Hamara' (1972), starring Dev Anand and Sharmila Tagore, was based in Northeast India among the Ao Naga tribe, living near the border with China. In the film, tribes were depicted as illiterate, backward, and, most vividly, savage, obstructing the government's 'development' projects. Similar stereotypical depictions are seen over and over again across the breadth of Indian cinema. Author Sameer Bhagat’s work brilliantly studies the commercial Bollywood filmography to show how even 'blockbusters' fail to put together an authentic representation of ‘adivasis’ on the big screen.
The Tarzan franchise depicted adivasi communities as living in a jungle with animals, wearing absurd clothes. Not a lot has changed since then.
Chak De! India (2007) portrayed an adivasi hockey player from Jharkhand as primitive; 3 idiots (2009) glossed over the tribal identity of Phunsukh Wangdu; Mary Kom (2014) seemed uninterested in talking about the tribal roots of the world champion boxer; Mani Ratnam’s Raavan (2010) portrays protagonist Beera Munda (Abhishek Bachchan) as a violent lawbreaker; SS Rajamouli in Baahubali presented the Kalkeya tribe as a violent and brutal people.
RRR, too, in its depiction of adivasis, does not break any new ground. The film starts in the Adilabad forest, where poor Gond adivasis lived peacefully with nature. A British person arrives in the area and tries to exploit the forest. They forcefully take away a talented, young Gond girl, brutally killing her mother in the process. This theme of exploitation of adivasis at the hands of a colonial government is an accurate representation. But what follows in the film seems nothing more than an irresponsible bid to satisfy and cater to the audience's prejudiced imagination of adivasis.
People Living in Herds
The movie, in subsequent scenes, tries to convey that Gonds prefer living in "herds" and become "crazy like animals" if one of their lambs leaves the pack. Here, some might argue that this is an accurate depiction of adivasis' values of family and kinship. But in the broader scheme, the movie furthers the same stereotypical beliefs that depict adivasis as 'naive' and 'savage', without bothering to find out what meaning adivasis attach to their own ways of living.
The film fails in its attempt to present a powerful portrayal of adivasis' deep and intricate association with nature, and, in fact, had landed in controversy when it tried to show Bheem as a 'Hindu'.
When Bheem finds out about Ram’s true motive through Sita, he says, “I just came for a little girl, but he was fighting for the whole country. He further says, “The tribal I am, I couldn’t even understand.” In a subsequent scene, Bheem is shown kneeling before the statue of Lord Ram. Further, the protagonist, Ram, transforms into an actual Ram-like figure in the final few scenes, wearing a saffron robe and shooting arrows. The movie ends with Bheem requesting Ram to teach him how to read and write. These dialogues add to an already established stereotype of adivasis being 'ignorant'.
What About the Real Struggles of Tribal Communities?
'RRR' is a commercial film. Portraying a protagonist from a marginalised section and doing justice to the subject is indeed tough, but the filmmakers could have at least tried. However, this movie, like most other previous films, doesn’t pay any heed to the socioeconomic marginalisation of adivasis at the hands of the state-capital nexus, its uncontrollable and unmindful thrust for the 'development' of few at the cost of the lives of adivasis.
The movie further reinforces prejudices when it softly tries to overshadow Bheem's identity as a tribal under his 'Hinduised' figure and characterises protagonist Ram as Lord Ram. It fails to reflect on the real causes of socio-economic marginalisation and the exploitation of adivasis. Far from any real intent to do justice to the adivasi community’s struggles, the film seems to be focused on only box office success.
(Chhotelal Kumar holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, and his research interests are adivasi politics, culture and society. Khushbu Sharma is a research scholar at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, and her work is based around the intersectionality of caste and gender. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)