When Western audiences hear the elevator pitch of an Indian cop pursuing a Tribal fugitive and questioning authority by sympathising with Indigenous struggles, they’ll likely think of last year’s Oscar-winning Telugu-language blockbuster RRR. But the crowd-pleaser, which enjoyed deserved international acclaim, was made with commercial intent for mainstream markets, and as many have pointed out, favoured the political messaging of Indian leaders—namely, revisionist nationalism.
Joram, a political drama about Indigenous survival masked as a pulse-pounding crime thriller, offers a much more nuanced and therefore critical look at how power is wielded within the country, telling a story that feels upsettingly urgent without sacrificing how much it honours history.
Joram and RRR share only the slightest similarities in plot and character archetypes, and any surprise at the diversity of perspectives available in Indian genre film points to the international misconception of its culture being a monolith. But comparing both films’ scale, focus, and sharpness of commentary reveals a disparity of depictions of national identity: only Joram pays attention to Indian capitalists routinely displacing Indigenous communities and colonising their land. What’s more, its contemporary setting makes the on-screen injustice even more confronting. With Joram, writer-director Devashish Makhija reminds us what radical storytelling feels like.
Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) is a construction worker who lives in poverty in Mumbai with his wife and baby girl, having been displaced from their tribal land some years before. An opening shot of Dasru and his wife Vaano (Tannishtha Chatterjee) playing on a swing against an expansive vista of rural Jharkhand, their home territory, is contrasted with their Mumbai quarters. Makhija and cinematographer Piyush Puty place the camera above the couple’s bed, with flashing lights and their baby girl Joram suspended in a hammock above them, interrupting what should be classic visual shorthand for marital intimacy.
When Dasru comes home to find his wife has been killed in a violent attack, he instinctively retaliates and flees with Joram—which, in the eyes of the Mumbai authorities, only incriminates him more. An overworked cop is put on the case; Ratnakar (Mohd. Zeeshan Ayyub) is a middle-ranked officer who neglects his home life thanks to unwaveringly strict superiors. And from the moment he’s shown Dasru’s picture we prepare ourselves for the genre-specific thrills of stories like this: a cop will get unreasonably obsessed with pursuing his fugitive, before questioning the legitimacy of his mission.
There’s a sense of fatalism as we realise we are[…] watching a jaded cop understand how hopelessly out of his depth he is, because this is the inevitable result of individuals trying to grapple with systemic abuse.
Makhija doesn’t necessarily subvert this formula, but shows how well-suited it is for a great variety of stories; even the most region-specific political crisis can be articulated with these dramatic constructs. When Dasru is pursued on a train leaving Mumbai, he asks Ratnakar (one of the few times where the characters interact) if his and Joram’s safety can be guaranteed if he cooperates—if justice can be achieved for his murdered wife if he hands himself in. Ratnakar does his best to assure him, but Dasru knows the flaws and prejudices built into their justice system well enough to understand that his idea of justice is very different from the cop’s. So, as he does for nearly the entire film, he once again decides to run.
Once Dasru, closely followed by Ratnakar, reaches the land he came from, Makhija cools down the frenetic chase energy and lets us observe the ways native territory has been colonised. It’s not just when we see illegal mining or the military presence originally brought in to quash the fractured Adivasi rebels; it’s visible in the physicality and psychology of the tribal characters who still live on the land, who are largely portrayed by non-professional Indigenous actors.
Ratnakar’s driver used to farm the land, and has now had to adapt to survive by working in line with the authorities that ruined his home. It’s he who, in a gorgeously subdued nighttime scene, catches the Mumbai cop up on the volatile history of the region’s conflict. Here, our big city policeman realises that a place he thought simple and barren is loaded with suffering and exploitation unlike anything he’s encountered in his career—and in perfect neo-noir fashion, he may be powerless to prevent it from continuing. There’s a sense of fatalism as we realise we are, like we’ve done in countless post-60s crime films, watching a jaded cop understand how hopelessly out of his depth he is, because this is the inevitable result of individuals trying to grapple with systemic abuse.
Even in its most thrilling moments, Joram operates more as a suspense film than an action one—with careful attention paid to nails sticking out of boards and characters crouching out of sight rather than elaborate fights and stunts. The stakes are made more jeopardous by Dasru’s precious cargo; the constant presence of the titular infant held snug against her father’s body reminds us what’s at risk of being lost above a lone child’s safety and future. As the political and dramatic importance of Dasru’s heritage is reinforced across the runtime, Joram becomes a charged symbol of securing the livelihood of the next generation of Adivasi natives. The final moments, the noise of which stretches over the credits, shows how unsatisfied Makhija is at giving us a conventionally satisfying ending. The problems have not gone away, but neither has the resolve of Indigenous Indians resisting political eradication. As long as Dasru runs with Joram, he will not submit.
Read our exclusive interview with writer-director Devashish Makhija here.