From ‘Joram’ to ‘Kaala Paani,’ the changing portrayal of indigenous communities in Hindi cinema

The depiction of tribal populations has been marked by clichés and stereotypes; after decades of caricature and cardboard characters, the cinematic gaze towards tribal issues and culture is getting incisive and inclusive

Updated - January 06, 2024 05:53 pm IST

Published - January 05, 2024 05:03 pm IST

A still from ‘Joram’

A still from ‘Joram’

At a time when the Bharatiya Janata Party’s tribal outreach is paying rich electoral dividends, the entertainment industry is also adjusting its gaze towards a segment of society that constitutes around 8.5% of the population.

Over the years, the depiction of indigenous communities has been marked by cliches and stereotypes. Often portrayed as barbaric people who kill indiscriminately to save their atavistic customs, they have always been shown to need the civilisational embrace of the hero. Their women are shown to be gullible, who easily surrender to the status and masculinity of the city-bred male protagonist.

Depiction in ‘old’ Bollywood

The portrayal of tribal people is often sexualised to suit the urban gaze and a perception has been built that when it comes to cultural communication, indigenous communities either break into a ‘Chadh Gayo Papi Bichua’ or jive to the rhythmic gibberish of ‘Jhinga Lala Hu’. From Madhumati (1958) and Talash (1969) to Carvan (1971) and Shalimar (1978), there is a long list of films where indigenous people are reduced to caricatures or cardboard characters where men and women are dressed in attires laced with beads and feathers.

Even Satyajit Ray was guilty of perpetuating the stereotype in Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) where Simi Grewal’s face was blackened to make her fit into a stock tribal character who gives in to the charm of the sheheri babu, the bhadralok. With hardly any role in the running of the industry and only limited consumption at the box office, the pushback has been meek.

A glorious exception has been Mrinal Sen’s Mrigaya (1976). Released during the Emergency, it is about the rule of law in unequal societies. When the lustful moneylender kills a tribal rebel he is rewarded by the colonial master but when the young tribal protagonist beheads the beast to save his wife from his clutches, he falls prey to the British rule of law. The film’s message goes beyond the clash of cultures. It talks of resistance against a system that indemnifies the perpetrators of injustice.

Four decades later, S.S. Rajamouli came up with one of the most problematic profiling of indigenous communities in Baahubali where the film suggests that those who adopted the Hindu way became civilised and the rest remained in the ‘dark ages’.

A marked change

Of late, the entertainment space has finally been engaging in a more nuanced debate on issues of tribal identity and survival. Writers seem eager to portray tribal characters as the driving force of a narrative as generic tales give way to more lived-in experiences. The naivety is no longer romanticised and female characters have more heft. Like in most cinematic trends these days, the push has come from the south when the tribal woman in Jai Bhim(2021) stood up to power and refused to be crushed without a fight within the ring provided by the Constitution. Rajamouli also made amends with RRR (2022). The Gond girl Malli becomes a symbol of the natural wealth of the tribals that continues to be ravaged by those in power for their vested interests.

A still from ‘Bhediya’

A still from ‘Bhediya’

In popular milieu, Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya(2022) smartly uses the beliefs and folklore of the Apatani tribe of the North East to convey the message of sustainable development with the catchphrase ‘prakarti hai to pragati hai’.

The deep-seated prejudice of a section of the system comes to fore in the second season of Richie Mehta’s Delhi Crime (Netflix) where members of denotified tribes are falsely implicated for a sudden spurt in burglaries and gruesome murders in the posh area of South Delhi. Here, a retired police officer is called in to throw light on the case and reminds us that denotified tribes were called criminal tribes during Colonial rule and that their behaviour hasn’t changed after independence. As the corrupt officer paints the entire community with the same brush, the series expresses the general sentiment that exists against the denotified tribes in society and how it has pushed them into a corner. The system in its hurry to solve the case often falls prey to such dangerous profiling. In its denouement, the series stands apart as the stereotype is dismantled by sensitive officers like Vartika Chaturvedi and Bhupendra, faces of the same system that criminalises tribals.

Combating the ‘Naxal’ narrative

Manoj Bajpayee in a still from ‘Joram’

Manoj Bajpayee in a still from ‘Joram’

If Delhi Crime shows us that indigenous tribes are living next to us in the urban jungle, Devashish Makhija’s recent release Joram addresses the development debate and de-hyphenates the tribal-Naxal narrative in Jharkhand while staying true to the man-on-the-run thriller genre. In the film, jungles are turned into mining hubs in the name of development by a woman MLA who hails from a tribal community. And Dasru, the protagonist is caught between the so-called guardians and the usurpers of his habitat. While the film doesn’t get into the rights and wrongs, it captures how the likes of Dasru are getting dispossessed of their land and culture.

In a telling sequence in the film, Dasru, while returning from Mumbai, the city where he was forced to migrate to as a daily wager, asks a passenger if he has given up on farming. “There is no grain, our fields sprout iron now,” comes the blunt reply. The guts to fight for the resources of the jungle, loses out to the hunger of the gut. Like Vartika in Delhi Crime, Ratnakar, the junior police officer in Joram becomes a tool to raze the predictable Naxal narrative.

That tribal interest is a monolith and that all tribals are poor is shaken in Navdeep Singh’s Shehar Lakhot (Amazon Prime) where a Ph.D. holder tribal leader protests for the rights of tribal lands in the marble belt of Rajasthan. It shows how industrialists use the local tribal MLA to control the agitation.

Aar Ya Paar (Disney Hotstar) deals with the options before a tribal youth takes on the insatiable greed of a corporate bully to occupy the natural resources. Will Sarju make the country proud in archery or become a hired assassin in his pursuit of revenge and survival? It is a meandering series but again the voice of reason comes from a law enforcer. Asked to eliminate the resistance, officer Aditya Dutt says these people (tribals) believe the jungle is their world while we see it as our fiefdom.

Director Nila Madhab Panda has been working on how climate change affects those the most who have no carbon footprint. In his latest cautionary tale, The Jengaburu Curse (SonyLiv), he takes the idea forward in the tribal belt of Odisha that is being trampled by mining barons and links local issues with a global environmental crisis.

A still from ‘Kaala Paani’ on Netflix

A still from ‘Kaala Paani’ on Netflix

A more complex yet cogent analysis of the value of indigenous communities comes through in Sameer Saxena’s Kaala Paani (Netflix). In the survival drama, the fictitious Oraka tribe holds the cure for a deadly virus that has hit the Andaman & Nicobar Islands.

The series critiques unsustainable development models even as the administration navigates the moral quandary of a typical trolley problem: is it okay to sacrifice a few to save thousands in the name of evolution and change?

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