Mohan Guruswamy | RRR: Itâ€™s just a vulgar distortion of history
I saw the movie RRR on Netflix the other evening. It was everything I expected it to be. Extremely well made and lavishly mounted. The story was, of course, completely 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 by mostly 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 had 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 1,765 officers, 1,268 were Muslims, 421 were Hindus and 121 others, presumably Christians, Parsis and Sikhs. Of the officials drawing a salary of between Rs 600-1,200 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 then 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 peoples’ 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 had thought of asking Jangubai’s permission to so misuse her grandfather’s life and personality? Forget about paying any kind of royalty!
Alluri Seetharama Raju (4 July 1897-7 May 1924) was an Andhra revolutionary, who had 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 rulers; the Kshatriyas”. He is reported to have been born in the coastal town of Bheemunipatnam, 40 km north of Vizagapatnam in the old Madras Presidency. His father was a professional photographer. 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 practising 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 the Adivasi lands continue.
Kumram Bheem (22 October 1901-27 October 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 set-up all through the 1930s, 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, 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 but 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 the approval of those very same white people? They managed to pick up a Golden Globe for NNN. 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 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 Naatu, Naatu, Naatu! which is in the running for an Oscar this year. Possibly my tastes are of a different time?