By Uday Bhatia
Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) is sitting in the back of a truck, on route to his village in Jharkhand. He asks a passenger who says he’s sold his cattle, “Have you given up farming?" “There is no grain, our fields sprout iron now," comes the reply. “Why isn’t anyone fighting now? Where are the guardians of the jungle?" Dasru asks. A woman at the back says, “Fighting fills the soul, not the stomach."
There’s not a lot of talk in Joram, but what there is cuts to the bone. “You’ve already gotten screwed, keep quiet and sit," politician Phulo Karma (Smita Tambe) tells her subordinate. It has Cormac McCarthy bite—and the film of No Country For Old Men also hovers over Devashish Makhija’s fourth feature. Though he makes severe, uncommercial films, Makhija likes to work with genre—his second feature, Ajji, was a rape-revenge story, and Joram is a chase film with revisionist Western morality. It's his most evolved work, sparse in its writing and performances, a taut thriller that’s also a bleak social drama.
Bala is a manual labourer living in Mumbai with his wife (Tannishtha Chatterjee) and baby daughter. They’re living hand to mouth, but there’s worse to come, in the unlikely form of a handout from Phulo, an Adivasi MLA from the same region as him. She sees Bala, and though he doesn’t seem to recognize her, her unnerving stare leaves no doubt she knows him. We learn that Bala was Dasru back in the village, where he was a Maoist rebel. And though we only find out later what ties him to Phulo, it's like a death sentence when she says, “It seems like him."
Soon, Dasru is on the run with his baby. Inspector Ratnakar Bagul (Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub), through whose fingers Dasru slips in Mumbai, is in pursuit (Phulo, who commands a significant vote bank, is pulling the strings). Ratnakar is driven, conscientious, a rule-follower, but not as worldly wise as he thinks he is. In this he resembles Rajkummar Rao’s eponymous lead in Newton, another big city government employee sent to a conflict-ridden jungle, where he has to learn to trust his instincts.
Like the Anthony Mann-James Stewart Westerns, Makhija takes archetypes—the pursued outlaw, the lawman, the unblinking villain—and adds layers of unease and complexity. Dasru has our sympathies, but we’re also shown how he’s caused, albeit indirectly, great suffering in the past. Phulo is terrifying, yet we know she was a different person before revenge consumed her. Ratnakar is the closest thing to a moral centre, but seems more ineffectual as the film progresses. In Makhija’s bleak frontier world, revenge trumps order, logic and humanity.
Joram is a rare angry political film, releasing in theatres at a time when critiques of the state have dried up. Dasru is one of a handful of Adivasi protagonists in Hindi cinema in the last few decades. Makhija loads the dice against him in a way that feels realistic; he can’t fight his way out of trouble, like Komaram Bheem or Karnan. Green Hunt, the operation to eliminate Naxalites in Jharkhand and other states, is mentioned several times; so are the efforts of companies colluding with the state to force tribals off their land. Everywhere there are reminders of what passes for development. The steel company trying to make inroads in the area is called Pragati—progress. The item number performed by a junior cop for his randy superiors has lyrics about 4G and missed calls. An obelisk has the preamble to the Constitution painted on one side and wanted posters stuck on the other. Phulo sets death traps and floats development schemes in the same conversation.
Piyush Puty’s camera plucks stray, surreal details out of the landscape and makes them ominous: giant towers obscuring Ratnakar’s view of the sky; a ghostly twisted tree trunk in the mines; a giant earth mover, brutish symbol of development. Bajpayee, the lead in Makhija’s third feature, Bhonsle, is a haunted presence here, so sad and persecuted one forgets he’s on home turf and a former guerilla fighter (there’s a scene where he holds a spike inches from an informer’s eye, just as he did in Satya all those years ago). Ayyub is fine too as the weary Ratnakar, but the film belongs to Smita Tambe’s uncanny, unnerving Phulo. It’s an arresting performance before we know anything about her. The second she fixes her gaze on Dasru, alarms went off in my mind.
On the way to Dasru's village, Ratnakar finds the route blocked by protestors. They sing about their land being snatched, dams being built where there were jungles. One of the labourers, an old woman, stares at him as she walks past. It’s a recurring motif, weathered faces looking directly at the camera. Their gaze carries a rebuke that passes from character to filmmaker to viewer.
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- FIRST PUBLISHED08.12.2023 | 09:40 PM IST