I saw RRR on Netflix last evening. It was everything I expected it to be. Extremely well made and lavishly mounted. The story was absurd and the distance from reality was of solar proportions. Its abuse of history was vulgar. The early part of the movie is set Hyderabad’s old Adilabad district, populated in those days mostly by Gond Adivasis.
Hyderabad, being a princely state, had no British administrators. The only British officer serving in the Nizam’s government was the revenue member in the Executive Council. At about the time of the movie, it would have been W.V. Grigson ICS, a man who if anything loved the Gonds. He was the author of the masterful anthropological study The Maria Gonds of Bastar (1938), which is still the last word on them. The movie depicts a very cruel and despotic British rule where an English family shanghaies a young Gond girl to Delhi. The first part of the movie is about one of the heroes (NTR Jr.), who goes to the imperial capital to rescue her.
The Nizam’s administration was mostly Muslim. In 1941 a report on the Civil Service revealed that of the 1765 officers, 1268 were Muslims, 421 were Hindus and 121 others, presumably Christians, Parsis and Sikhs. Of the officials drawing a pay between Rs 600 and Rs 1,200 per month, 59 were Muslims, 38 were “others”, and a mere five were Hindus. The Nizam’s Hyderabad was a Muslim state imposed on a predominantly Hindu population, so if there was to be an officer out on a wild bloodthirsty shikar, the odds would have been that it would have been a Muslim. Nowhere in our history or collective memory have we had such vile and blatant cruelty by the bureaucracy. We have had bad governance, corrupt and communal officers but cruelty of this sort is reserved for the movies.
What I find unpardonable about RRR is that it borrows two genuinely heroic personalities from our pantheon, Kumram Bheem and Seetharama Raju, and distorts their life stories and struggles to make them the protagonists of a comic strip tale. I met a granddaughter of Kumram Bheem, the legendary Gond leader who revolted against the plains people rule in Nizam Osman Ali Pasha’s time, just last month. She lives in a small hut near the huge concrete memorial and museum dedicated to Kumram Bheem. She works as a cook in the nearby Adivasi school. I wonder if Rajamouli and his cinematic band thought of asking Jangubai’s permission to so misuse her grandfather’s life and personality? Forget about a royalty.
Alluri Seetharama Raju (July 4, 1897 – May 7, 1924) was an Andhra revolutionary, who waged an armed campaign against the British colonial rule in India. Andhra’s Rajus are a small community of landed gentry and anthropologists describe them as “higher caste of traditional warriors and ruler; Kshatriya”. He is reported to have been born in the coastal town of Bheemunipatnam, about 40 km north of Vizagapatnam in the old Madras Presidency. His father was a professional photographer. His middle-class background inspired a generation of Andhra revolutionaries such as Vempatapu Satyanarayana, Adibhatla Kailasam and Nagbhushan Patnaik.
As a college student, he began visiting tribal areas and was deeply affected by their condition. He became involved in opposing the British in response to the 1882 Madras Forest Act which restricted the free movement of Adivasis in their forest habitats, and prevented them from practicing their traditional form of agriculture called podu. Rising discontent towards the British led to the Rampa Rebellion of 1922, in which Alluri played the major role as its leader. He was captured and executed by the British on May 27, 1924 at Chintapalli, now in a district that bears his name, where even today the troubles relating to Adivasi lands continue.
Kumram Bheem (October 22, 1901 – October 27, 1940) was a Gond Adivasi with an activist streak in him from his youth. In 1920 he killed an official of the local Velama jagirdar Laxman Rao called Siddique and fled to the traditional seat of the Gond rajas at Chandrapur. From there he fled to Assam where he worked in the tea plantations, beginning an acquaintance with trade unionism which landed him in prison. Bheem escaped from prison and settled in the village of Bhabejhari near Jodeghat where he began organising Adivasis to fight for their rights. He coined the slogan “Jal, Jangal, Zameen”. This inevitably brought him into conflict with the Nizam’s administration, resulting in a protracted low intensity rebellion against the feudal ruler all through the 1930’s, which in turn culminated of the Telangana Rebellion of 1946. He was killed in police action in Jodeghat on October 27, 1940 at the age of 39.
Thus, even the timelines and geographies of Bheem and Raju hardly overlap. The movie was made with utter disregard to the life and times of our two heroes, the history and sociology of their times, and cruelly exploits their personalities with the callous disregard of upper castes even now. The movie credits do say it’s a fictional work. But when you appropriate the lives and personalities of two genuine heroes for a tawdry commercial excess, it doesn’t absolve the makers of distortion. They too have behaved just as badly as the British depicted in the movie. Perhaps they can make amends somewhat by committing a part of their earnings to the Adivasi cause?
What amazes me most about RRR is how a team whose movie projects white people in such cruel and vile terms, so cravenly seeks approval of those very same white people? They managed to pick up a Golden Globe for ‘Naatu Naatu‘. But who awards the Golden Globes is another story. How they are awarded is an even bigger one. It will suffice to state that the New York Times in a damning exposé of The Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA) found that there were no Black members in the 87-strong voting body, and that relatively few members worked full-time for notable foreign publications.
I have no comments on the quality of the song, which is in the running for an Oscar. Possibly my tastes are of a different time?
Mohan Guruswamy is an Indian author and political commentator, and the chairman and founder of the Centre for Policy Alternatives.
This article was first published on The Wire.