The controversies around Jr NTR's character Komaram Bheem in Rajamouli's 'RRR'

While a few Hindus are trying to claim that the Adivasi leader was Hindu, members of the Gond community have also opposed the portrayal.
Jr NTR as Komaram Bheem in RRR
Jr NTR as Komaram Bheem in RRR
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On Thursday, a video was released from the team of SS Rajamouli’s upcoming film RRR (Roudram Ranam Rudhiram), introducing the character played by Jr NTR. The video made waves, but not just because the film is being made by the creator of the Baahubali series with a colossal budget of nearly Rs 400 crore. The video, which shows Jr NTR in the role of Komaram Bheem — a revered tribal leader from Telangana — ends with the actor putting on a skull cap, applying ‘surma’ to his eyes, and appearing dressed as a Muslim man.

Soon after the trailer was released, several right-wing Twitter users opposed this representation of an Adivasi leader from the Gond tribe, as a Muslim man. Komaram Bheem led a movement for Adivasi rights against Nizam rule, and the users claimed that portraying him as a Muslim is a distortion of history.

Though these objections may be the loudest, many members of the Gond tribe have also spoken. While they do not agree with the right wing groups' projection of Komaram Bheem as a Hindu leader, they too have expressed dissatisfaction over the 'warped potrayal' of the leader.

Watch: Jr NTR as Komaram Bheem in RRR

Opposition from the Gond community

On Saturday, an Adivasi leader from Adilabad expressed his opposition to the portrayal while speaking to TV 9. He questioned Rajamouli about his intentions, as he had never visited the area or the Gond community and the region, or consulted with the community leaders. “If they are doing it just for the money, they can make other kinds of films. They must not misrepresent an Adivasi leader who fought for our rights,” he said.

Speaking to TNM, Kanaka Venkateshwar Rao, a teacher from the Raj Gond community, said that the members of the community are indeed upset with the way their leader has been represented in the video. Venkateshwar Rao, who is honorary president of the Haimendorf Youth Association (named after Austrian anthropologist Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf who has extensively studied several tribal communities in Telangana, including the Raj Gonds) in Marlavai mandal of Adilabad district, said that until now, community members had been looking forward to the film.

"All these days, the revolutionary leader was only known within Telangana. Through this film, we thought he would become known throughout the world. But it looks like they are only using the name of Komaram Bheem, but don't really seem to be talking about his struggle for Adivasi rights over land, water and other resources," he said.

“When Komaram Bheem fought against the Nizam rule at the time, showing him in their attire has bothered us a bit. It's not right to steer him towards any one religion. We wonder why there was a need to show him that way, since no historical records mention that he ever disguised himself as a Muslim man to fight against the Nizams,” said Venkateshwar Rao, adding that he hopes the film explains this.

‘Distortion of history’

Many people, including fans of Jr NTR and Rajamouli, have defended the portrayal saying it could have been from a scene in the film where the actor disguises himself as a Muslim man to infiltrate the Nizams. Many others pointed out that Rajamouli has clearly stated in the past that the film is a fictional account based on freedom fighters Alluri Sitarama Raju (from the coastal Andhra region) and Komaram Bheem (from the Adilabad region). While Sitarama Raju was born around 1897, Komaram Bheem was born around 1900.

“There are gaps in the lives of these legendary freedom fighters that we don’t know about … It is through this fictional story [that] we’d like to show what could have happened in their lives and what would have happened if they met and bonded,” Rajamouli had said at an event last year.

A video introducing the other protagonist of the film, Ram Charan in the role of Alluri Sitarama Raju, was released earlier in March. Alluri Sitarama Raju led the Rampa Rebellion of 1922 against the British Raj’s Madras Forest Act of 1882 that restricted the land rights of tribal people. The video showed Ram Charan wearing the uniform of a police officer, and people pointed out that there is no record of Alluri Sitarama Raju ever being a police officer either.

Recently, responding to speculations about the film, the filmmakers wrote on Twitter that the two protagonists do not fight for independence in the film. “#RRRMovie is entirely fictional and not at all a patriotic film,” said an official tweet. The film’s Twitter account calls it, “A fictional tale of Indian revolutionaries in the 1920s.”

Attempts to appropriate Komaram Bheem as a ‘Hindu leader’

A few accounts on Twitter, which are known to post casteist/Hindu supremacist content regularly, have claimed that Komaram Bheem was a Hindu freedom fighter, and therefore portraying him as a Muslim man is offensive.

M Nageswara Rao, former Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) who was recently embroiled in a controversy when Twitter took down his tweet containing hate speech, also supported the objection to the portrayal. Even as a few users objected to claims that Komaram Bheem was Hindu or that the Gond tribe practices Hinduism, Nageswara Rao claimed that “Tribals are Hindus.”

The narrative of claiming the Adivasi leader as a Hindu nationalist leader who fought against Nizam rule is not new. In a profile on Komaram Bheem, Akash Poyam, a scholar who belongs to the Gond tribe in Chhattisgarh, writes that many historical accounts about the Adivasi leader make similar claims. “These narratives argue that Bheem’s resentment against Nizam was because of ‘Islamic’ oppression on Hindus and destruction of Hindu culture. When Gond Adivasis are not even Hindus, how does Bheem become a Hindu icon leading the battle against ‘Islamist’ oppression?” Akash Poyam argues.

He further says that Komaram Bheem’s fight against the Nizam government was only born out of “denial of basic Adivasi rights over land, resources and demand for autonomy.” Adivasis and Gond people see Komaram Bheem’s movement only as an attempt to liberate them from outsiders, the scholar argues.

Several anthropological and ethnographic accounts also mention that the religion of Gonds is animism. Some of the names of important deities mentioned in some of these studies are Phresaphen, Bhimsen and even Ravana. Gonds in Maharashtra have even been demanding an end to the practice of burning the effigy of Ravana by Hindus during Dasara.

An ethnographic study published as part of the 1961 Census in the former united state of Andhra Pradesh, titled ‘A Monograph on Gonds’, talks about the transition towards Hinduism in the case of a few members of the community. It mentions a popular legend that traces the origin of Gonds to Pandava prince Bhima and his wife Hidimbi from the epic Mahabharata. The study, however, calls it an “absurd legend” that illustrates “how myths are devised by aboriginal tribes to glorify their origin, while in process of transition into the Hindu castes.” It also says that Bhimsen, an animistic deity worshipped by Gonds, was later identified with the Pandava prince and included among their gods by Hindus.

Speaking about the community’s religious beliefs, Venkateshwar Rao says, “Our deities are in nature. We are neither Hindus or Muslims. We are Adivasis, Adivasis do not belong to any religion. But because of upper caste dominance, we are being made to become like Hindus, starting from census records.” He adds that attempts at Hinduising the Gond community and erasing their cultures and practices have been made persistently, in many ways. “Since it is non-tribals who enter our names in records, our last names have been changed from Ravudu to Rao in many cases,” he says. Commenting on the legend of Gonds originating from Bhima, he says, “We (Gonds) didn't write Mahabharata. It has been written by dominant communities to suit them.”

Representation in media

This is not the first time that the story of the Adivasi leader will be told in film. Back in 1990, a Telugu film titled Komaram Bheem directed by Allani Sridhar was released. The director has spoken in interviews about the film’s team spending time among Gonds of Adilabad and consulting with the community leaders while making the film. The film won two Nandi awards (state awards that recognise excellence in Telugu cinema), and was reportedly received well among the Adivasis too.

In the case of RRR, however, the Adivasi people have claimed that the film’s team has not met with their community members or leaders, or attempted to understand their culture and way of living closely. And while the Baahubali films were immensely popular across India and even abroad, the director has also been criticised for glorifying Brahmins and other savarna groups, and for portraying Dalit and tribal communities through a casteist and racist lens.

While the director has denied accountability by declaring RRR a work of fiction, the exact context of the scene showing Komaram Bheem in a skull cap and other nuances in the portrayal of the Adivasi leader can only be understood whenever the film is released.

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