RRR row: Komaram Bheem’s appropriation and right-wing outrage

Hyderabad: Tollywood director SS Rajamouli’s upcoming magnum opus, RRR (Roudram Ranam Rudhiram) has landed in troubled waters, as actor Jr NTR’s role on the revolutionary tribal leader Komaram Bheem, about whom the movie is, has triggered a furor on social media. It isn’t the role as much as one scene in the movie that has become a bone of contention.

In the video teaser of the character released last Thursday, Jr. NTR in one scene was seen putting on a skull cap, applying ‘Surma’ to his eyes, and appeared to dress as a Muslim man. It wa enough for people to outrage, and question the director’s intenions. However, it may be noted that the movie itself is not a biopic, but rather, periodic fiction.

Who was Komaram Bheem?

Among Telangana’s several personalities, Gond tribal leader Komaram Bheem is more of a revolutionary than a freedom fighter, who took up arms against the ruling classes of Telangana, which functioned under Mir Osman Ali Khan, the last Nizam of the erstwhile Hyderabad state (of which Telangana was part of).

Belonging to the Gond tribe, Bheem was the leader of Adivasi tribals, he began fighting for their rights, parimarily for having first rights to their lands. He gave his followers the rousing war-cry of “Jal, Jungle, Zameen“, which surmised the reiteration that the Adivasis living forests have the first right over its resources, not the ruling classes (feudal landlords) or the Nizam.

Bheem is also considered to a guerilla warfare expert. He was killed while fighting the police of the erstwhile Hyderabad state in 1940, and every year Gonds observe his martyrdom at Jodeghat.  

Controversy over Bheem’s character in RRR

Ever since the movie’s teaser was released, right-wing Twitterati has been buzzing with outrage over the movie’s last few frame, which showed the tribal leader donning a Muslim look. Some of the right-wingers are aghast as to how what they see as a Hindu freedom fighter is ‘converted’ into a pious Muslim man.

One even called it “blatant falsehood in the name of the history”, while another user called him a ‘Hindu icon’ and alleged that the makers of the movie are “falsely de-Hinduizing icons for their secularism”.

M Nageshwar Rao, former director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), also chimed in. He who took offence to Bheem’s portrayal in the teaser and reiterated that “Tribals are Hindus.”

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A comprehensive background of Komuram Bheem is explained by Akash Poyam, Founder and Editor of Adivasi Resurgence. A member of the Gond community himself, Poyam wrote about the recurring claims of Bheem being dubbed a ‘Hindu nationalist leader’.

He writes: “When Gond Adivasis are not even Hindus, how does Bheem become a Hindu icon leading the battle against ‘Islamist’ oppression? Which part of Bheem’s history suggests that he endorsed to ‘Hindu’ religion or fought for Hindu rights? Gond people’s history provides us an entirely different story. It suggests that these claims are mere propaganda to associate Bheem with Hindu nationalist discourse by manipulating history. Bheem’s movement against Nizam was solely born out of ‘denial of basic Adivasi rights over land, recourses, and demand for autonomy’. In his people’s imagination, he was only seeking to liberate his people from dikus (outsiders) and was fighting for justice and self-rule.”

Sridhar Allani, whose directorial venture Komaram Bheem received critical acclaim and several awards, said that Bheem’s fight was merely against the tyrannical Nizam’s rule and not against Islam as a whole. “A journalist named Tirimaji, who was also a Muslim, aided him in his rebellion against the Nizam. The religion does not come into consideration in his story at all,” he said.

What exactly is the religion of Gonds?

In his book Gonds of the Central Indian Highlands, Behram Mehta writes: “Gonds are predominantly animistic, though they have been influenced by the lives of other Hindus around them.” He also wrote that Gonds practice animal and tree worship. The tribals in general, have a village deity or an ancestral deity and worship a high god known as Baradeo, whose alternate names are Bhagavan, Sri Shambu Mahadeo, and Persa Pen. Baradeo oversees activities of lesser gods such as clan and village deities, as well as ancestors.

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An ethnographic study was published as part of the 1961 Census in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh state, titled ‘A Monograph on Gonds’. 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.

Thus, there is no one organized religion when it comes to Gonds, who most certainly don’t consider themselves to be Hindus.

Misrepresentation, claims Bheem’s family

In a video, the grandson of Komaram Bheem–Sone Rao opposed the portrayal in Muslim attire. He said “it disrespected their hero”.

“We have no objection to Rajamouli making this film. However, had the director and writers consulted us for research information about our hero, we would have helped them out. We consider him as our God. Bheem fought for the land, water, and other resources of tribals. Representing him as a minority community member is nothing but a distortion.”

“We request Rajamouli garu to remove that clipping from the movie,” he said. He also warned that they would protest if that doesn’t happen.

BJP MP and Adivasi leader Soyam Bapu Rao too has threatened to burn down theatres if director Rajamouli continues to “distort history” and portray revolutionary icon Komaram Bheem as a Muslim in his upcoming film RRR.

A source close to the makers of the films clarified that the film is a periodic fiction, that is, a story that is built on two illustrious characters based in history. “The makers have already mentioned it clearly that the story is fictitious, but takes historic characters of Alluri Sitharamaraju and Komuram Bheem as inspiration. It is not a biography.”

The source hinted that it could have been from a scene in the film where the actor disguises himself as a Muslim man to infiltrate the Nizams. “The events that are depicted can be fictitious as well. How can one extrapolate the whole story based on one shot in the movie?” he questioned.

Allani Sridhar too, stresses that point. “We cannot judge the creative freedom of the director based on one teaser. Rajamouli is a commercial film director and real depiction of the character and history is not feasible.”

It is, therefore, too early to say about the character and the particular scene. There is a good chance that SS Rajamouli would be revolutionizing Komaram Bheem’s story to make it larger-than-life. All that can only be constructively said once the film has been released.

RRR stars Telugu heroes Jr. NTR and Ram Charan in lead roles with Alia Bhatt, Ajay Devgn and Shriya Saran appearing in small but significant roles. With a staggering 400 crore budget, the film will officially release in five languages — Telugu, Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Hindi.

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