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Oscars and Epistemic violence on the Indigenous tribes of India

Dr. Abhijit Shahaji Khandkar

Both the Oscar wins for India have indigenous tribes at their heart.

A lot has been written about the insensitive treatment and portrayal of the Gond tribes in RRR. That’s no surprise coming from Rajamouli who is openly casteist and wears his Hindutva on his sleeves. The tribal characters, right from the first scene onwards, are subjected to a dehumanising gaze and perverse brutality. Komaram Bheem isn’t just dehumanised but also reduced to a caricature and shown as being in constant servitude to Ram, the other lead character in the film.

The saffron imprint of the movie is loud and clear. The song, Natu Natu is just a grand spectacle. A circus. Which is also what the West enjoys the most about us and is most comfortable with. So either it’s poverty porn or a circus. These things work the best for them.

What interests me more is the The Elephant Whisperers. A seemingly tender piece of work with humanity and love for all beings at its heart. Yet I couldn’t help but think, wouldn’t it have been just so wonderfully authentic, heart-warming and also fitting if Boman and Belli too could have been on that world stage to share the honour.

The Elephant Whisperers is based on the experiences of a couple hailing from the indigenous Kattunayakan tribe (the name of the tribe actually means ‘king of the jungle’) and their two ‘kids’: the elephants, Raghu and Ammu.

On the surface, it is a very sensitive and important work of cinema. One would expect the makers to extend the same sensitivity and sensibility all through: to give them the benefit of doubt, maybe it was an issue of logistics or perhaps the kind of work Boman and Belli do, it wasn’t possible for them to travel to the Oscars (?)

There were genuine reasons for their exclusion (?)

As it is, there are many instances of such epistemic violence happening with Dalits, Adivasis, nomadic and indigenous tribes of India. Then there is also the possibility maybe this kind of glamour, fame or everything that comes with it: it’s something Bomman and Belli, tucked away deep in the forests, would not really be interested in given the kind of world they inhabit.

Maybe they would have very little to do with anything of this sort. The biggest stage in the world or applause wouldn’t matter to them nor the desire for any approval.

But certainly it would not be a lot to expect the upper caste film makers to have at least included theirs names in the acceptance speech. The bare minimum way of showing gratitude to the two people their art has benefited from.

Guneet Monga, the executive Producer of the Oscar award winning documentary film  was clearly overwhelmed and it was such a moment. Her speech thanking everyone from a billion Indians to Netflix was powerful and inspiring. It might have slipped her mind to include the names of these two indigenous people on whose life and work her whole documentary is based.

It could have been rectified later too in her social media post but no, no mention there as well. Also it’s interesting to note the kind of people who are sitting up and noticing this and with whom this exclusion has not registered.

It gives you a clear idea of the stark difference in thought between the marginalised and the mainstream. I am not even getting into in what ways this win and recognition will benefit Boman and Belli or most probably not.

It’s another classic case of epistemic violence.

I don’t intend to be a party – pooper or be that one person who always looks for fault lines but history is proof enough of exploitation of the oppressed in casteist Indian society.

How much more exploitation should the indigenous person suffer?

I hope one day things will genuinely change for the indigenous people, the Adivasis, Dalits, nomads of India. The only way that can happen, as I see it, is when they start telling their own stories.

That’s a long journey ahead but must be attempted.

I keep going back to these two poems –



piichhe rah jaaenge.




jo nirmaataarahe

itihaas men

bandar kahalaaenge”


“I am not your data,

…I am not your project, or any exotic museum object,

…or your entertainment at India habitat center,

I am not your field, your crowd, your history,

your help, your guilt, medallions of your victory”

Abhay Flavian Xaxa


Dr. Abhijit Shahaji Khandkar is a Pathologist and writer. He observes the microcosm world under the lens of his microscope and macrocosm of society with his writing. He is an Ambedkarite poet by assertion. He believes all art is political and prefers poetry with the taste of earth in its mouth.

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