Both Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem were celebrated leaders who fought for forest rights of Adivasis, in regions which now fall within Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Ram Charan and Jr NTR in RRR: Who were Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem, the real-life heroes shown in RRRScreenshot: YouTube/T Series
Flix Tollywood Friday, March 25, 2022 - 19:53

RRR, one of the biggest films to come out of India, has finally been released nearly four-and-half years after it was announced. The film tells an imagined story between two real life heroes – Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem – played by Ram Charan and Junior NTR. “A fictional tale of Indian revolutionaries in the 1920s,” the makers have called it, and director SS Rajamouli has stressed from the beginning that the story is an entirely fictional one, imagined to have occurred during a period in the two heroes’ lives that has remained undocumented. 

“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 has said. While the story may be made up, who were these heroes, whose fictional tale of friendship has been equated with a superhero crossover? 

Both Alluri Sitarama Raju and Komaram Bheem fought for forest rights of Adivasis, in regions which now fall within Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. In Telangana, the Kumuram Bheem Asifabad district has been named in honour of the Gond leader, and in Andhra Pradesh too, a proposed new district comprising the Araku valley region is set to be named after Alluri Sitarama Raju. Both regions have a predominantly tribal population.  

Read: RRR review: SS Rajamouli film is a visual treat that takes several creative liberties

Alluri Sitarama Raju (July 4, 1897 - May 7, 1924)

While Alluri Sitarama Raju was not an Adivasi, he is widely known as ‘Manyam Veerudu’ (hero of the forest). He led the Rampa Rebellion of 1922 against the British Raj’s Madras Forest Act of 1882 that restricted the land rights of tribal people. Sitarama Raju was born on July 4, 1897. Some sources say that he was born in Mogallu village of West Godavari district to Venkata Rama Raju and Surya Narayanamma. 

According to a PIB profile of the leader, Sitarama Raju was eager to fight British oppression since his childhood. An anecdote is mentioned, where at the age of 13, when offered a handful of badges with King George's picture on it, Sitarama Raju threw all but one, pinning it on his shirt to say, "To wear them is to flaunt our servitude. But I pinned it on my shirt near my heart to remind all of you that a foreign ruler is crushing our lives.”

Having travelled extensively in his teen years, he is said to have been deeply moved by the socio-economic conditions, especially in tribal areas, under British rule. On returning to the predominantly tribal ‘Manyam’ areas near Visakhapatnam and Godavari, he began working among Adivasis and mobilising them against the atrocities of the British police, forest and revenue officials. 

The Rampa administrative area was home to many tribes who followed the ‘podu’ method of shifting cultivation, and the Madras Forest Act, 1882 prohibited them from engaging in podu cultivation and restricted their free movement, so the forests could be cleared and exploited for wood. Under the Rampa rebellion, which went on from August 1922 to May 1924, many tribal residents led by Sitarama Raju fought the British forces. After fighting with bows and arrows for a while, Sitarama Raju led attacks on police stations to seize their weapons to aid their rebellion. A reward of Rs 10,000 was announced by the British government for Sitarama Raju’s head, and many forces and resources were deployed to curb the rebellion. He was finally captured and killed on May 7, 1924, following which many of his followers were killed or booked for treason. 

Komaram Bheem (1900 - October 14, 1940)

Komaram Bheem is a revered leader hailing from the Gond community in Telangana. He led an uprising against the last Nizam of Hyderabad and exploitation of local landlords in the early 1900s. The historical slogan 'Jal Jangal Zameen' widely echoed in Adivasi movements till date was coined by Bheem. While the exact date of his birth is unclear, he is believed to have been born around 1900. Compared to Sitarama Raju, details of Bheem’s life are less prominently documented. 

In a profile on Bheem in Adivasi Resurgence, Akash Poyam, a scholar who belongs to the Gond tribe in Chhattisgarh, writes that despite being one of the great Adivasi leaders, Bheem’s story has been erased from history texts. According to the profile, Bheem was born in Sankepalli of erstwhile Adilabad district, which was further divided to create the Asifabad district which is today named after him. 

The profile contains translations from a book by Arun Kumar Mypathi which documents parts of Bheem’s life. Bheem’s childhood was spent without much exposure to the outside world, it says. He grew up listening to stories of exploitation of Adivasis by the forest and police officials, businessmen and zamindars. The profile talks about Nizam officials seizing crops produced by tribal residents through podu cultivation, staking claim on forest land. It also talks about torture and assault on tribal residents, forcible tax collection and extortion. Bheem’s father was murdered by forest officials for standing up for Adivasi rights, according to Arun Kumar’s book, after which he moved from Sankepalli to Sartapur. 

After a Nizam official harassing the Gonds for taxes ended up dying in the hands of Bheem, he ran away to Chandrapur, where he was taken in by a printing press owner publishing a magazine against the British and Nizam. He learned English, Hindi and Urdu here, and went on to travel to Assam to work in tea plantations for four-and-half years, where he was arrested for protesting against plantation owners for workers’ rights. While there’s no account of Bheem ever meeting Sitarama Raju, according to Akash Poyam’s profile, while in Assam, Bheem heard of Sitarama Raju. 

On returning to Adilabad, he started to mobilise Adivasis and launched agitations against the Nizam government. Making Jodeghat village his base, he led guerrilla warfare against the Nizam’s army from 1928 to 1940. He demanded a separate Gond state independent from the Nizam. Unable to quell the uprising, the Nizam government planned to kill him. According to an account by journalist Harpal Singh, on October 18, 1940, early in the morning, three years into the rebellion, policemen surrounded Jodeghat, looking for Bheem. Armed with axes, sickles and bamboo sticks, Bheem and his aides refused to surrender. The Nizam officials opened fire, killing Bheem and many others. Bheem was shot until his body “became like a sieve” and was burned unceremoniously, Akash Poyam writes.

Incidentally, this is not the first time that these heroes have been portrayed on screen. The 1974 film Alluri Seetarama Raju, starring Krishna, Vijaya Nirmala and Jaggayya, was a major success, and one of the most iconic and widely remembered roles played by the star actor. Bheem’s story has also been told before in a 1990 Telugu film titled Komaram Bheem, directed by Allani Sridhar. 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).

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