Devashish Makhija is a strange man. With the short, and feature, films he has directed so far, he has proved that his approach to cinema is unique. It questions his audience’s normal definition of cinema again and again.

So far, Makhija’s films ’Tandav’, ‘Oonga, ‘Ajji’, ‘Bhonsale’ and ‘Cycle’, underscore how for him, cinema is not constrained by limiting definitions of entertainment, education and information and even social change. Each one of his films appear distanced from cinema, as we have conditioned ourselves to define it.

‘Joram’, his latest foray into writing, directing and producing, extends this redefinition through the techniques and aesthetics of cinema by offering his audience a film that defies generic labelling. Incidentally, Makhija is also an award-winning writer of children’s books and a graphic artist, self-trained in every area.

This is just a brief background of the young director who has directed ‘Joram’, currently travelling to film festivals round the globe, and bagging awards as well. It will be wrong to call ‘Joram’ a film that entertains, informs, educates and initiates social change. It does none of these things.

It is not just a film, it is a double-edged sharp knife that cuts both ways. It is a dagger that stabs the audience brutally. The lay viewer is pushed to understand the torture inflicted on a section of our fellow countrymen. We do not even know them, much less know of the torture and the violation of human rights inflicted on them.

The film opens in a small segment of Mandwa, a district in Jharkhand, with an Adivasi husband and wife singing a folk song. It then cuts to a construction site in Mumbai where we see Bala (Manoj Bajpeyee) employed as a daily wage contract labour. But he seems to be in constant fear of being recognised by another Adivasi woman, Phulo Karma (Smita Tambe), the local MLA who represents the adivasis under her own party. She somehow recognises in Bala, the tribal Dasru who has run away from his “Maoist” group to save himself and his pregnant wife from torture and killing by his own extremist group.

Dasru’s wife Vaano (Tannishtha Chatterjee) is killed and hung upside down in their tiny shed. He recognises it as the ‘signature’ killing by the rebel group he ran away from. He has to save his three-month-old baby girl Joram from being killed. Framed with a murder he did not commit, Dasru begins to make his way back to Mandwa in Jharkhand.

Jharkhand has the highest population of Adivasi people from 32 different tribes, including nine Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTG). According to Census 2001, Santhal (34 per cent), Oraon (19.6 per cent), Munda (14.8 per cent) and Ho (10.5 per cent) are among the major tribes in terms of numbers.

Basically, they lived off farming and the rich products of the lush forestry. These people are the original inhabitants of the land they live in and that is why they are called “adivasis.” Jharkhand also boasts abundant mineral wealth. And this has threatened the entire tribal population of the state by endangering their lives, depriving them of their land, homes, farms and livelihood.

Those who join the ‘companies’ are promised jobs and money in exchange for their small plots of land. These are false promises. Those who join the rebel groups, labelled “Maoists” are hunted down and killed by the police. Those against whom no proof can be found, are labelled “sympathisers” and often jailed without the benefit of a trial, and left to die there.

The film, however, does not focus attention entirely on Dasru and his flight with his little infant, but also runs along a parallel track which elaborates on the overworked SI Ratnakar Bagul (Zeeshan Ayub). Bagul seems convinced that Dasru is being hunted for a crime he did not commit, and insists that his team not open fire.

Right through the film, we see the tired, work-weary Ratnakar trying his best to save Dasru. The camera cuts into his journey of chasing Dasru right up to Mandwa, and is shocked when he finds that the local police system has gone for a toss. It has kept three under-age boys in jail because they were caught with “arms” consisting of simple bows and arrows. In the dark of night, Bagul sets them free, but another police senior overrules his “don’t shoot” command to “shoot.”

Another track follows the tragedy lurking behind the sharp and simmering anger obvious in Phulo Karma who finds in Dasru, her man to avenge the killing of her son Madvi. The boy was brutally tortured, hung upside down and killed by the ‘Maoist’ group for trying to leave them and join the “company.”

Dasru brings Madvi down from the tree and gives him his last drops of water. The scene often closes in on Dasru’s confused face, and the fact that he does not agree with the rebel group’s way of torturing and killing the break-aways. Samson, once a leader of the rebel group, tells Dasru that no one had a choice but to join the rebel group to save their meagre plots of land. In a flashback, we see Vaano telling Dasru, “after all, it is just a piece of land,” though she desperately wishes to go back to Mandwa.

Dasru is constantly chased by the police and also by those from his own tribe. Karma is eager to kill him as he was once a rebel, a few from the “Maoist” group he broke away from are after his blood for running away, and wait for his return home.

But where is this ‘home’? It is not in the tin shed where he left his dead wife hanging upside down, to be brought down by others. It is not in the Red Earth Express to Jharkhand which Dasru boards and hides in the toilet with his baby, chased by the police through the speeding train. It is not the Mandwa he left behind and was desperate to return to.

As if talking to his infant, whose cute face often peeps out from her indigenous wrapping, Dasru points out how the scenario has changed, the river is now perhaps flowing in a different direction giving place to the new dam. The forest stands depleted of its lush greenery by the company ironically named “Pragati”. The company mines iron ore by forcing the adivasi residents to part with their lands. All this in the name of “development.”

However, films made on Dalit oppression and on the victimisation of the adivasis are not new. There have been classics such as ‘Aakrosh’ and ‘Sujata’. But Makhija has boldly used the craft and technique of cinema through parallel tracks, and kept the music track on a low but scary key. His cinematographer has created the right kind of lighting to capture nuances, the landscape varies from the construction area in Mumbai, through Kurla station where Dasru has been sighted with a bag around his neck, through the speeding train where he hides in the toilet, till he reaches Mandwa’s arid landscape, devoid of the trees and the forests and the natural water bodies.

Add to this Bajpai’s performance in the lead role, and the way he has internalised the character who takes a moment away to sing an out-of-tune lullaby to his baby, when he not running through the arid lands where hiding places are few and far between, chased by the local police ordered to shoot at sight.

The other actors too, give brilliant support, noteworthy is the low-key performance of Zeeshan Ayub as the police SI trapped in a duty he is more confused than committed to. Smita Tambe as Phulo Karma who does not give up her tribal identity because that is what makes her the MLA she is, also gives a power-packed performance. Tannishtha Chatterjee as Vaano is as good as she always is.

The minor characters are also well performed, such as the adivasi who rides with Bagul, and is forced to perform a torrid dance dressed as a woman, for the rave party organised by the local police head to celebrate Bagul’s stepping into their land and also, Megha Mathur as Bidesi who is the right-hand for Karma and takes over when the latter is shot during a scuffle in the mines.

The film closes with tremendous violence but by then, we are mentally acclimatised to it, showing how an innocent man, just because he belongs to an impoverished adivasi community is not allowed a minute of reprieve, though his chasers are aware that he is carrying an infant with him.

The closure of the film is stunning. As the graphics begin to come up on the screen, we can hear just Dasru’s heavy breathing, against a completely black screen. He is running to save his, and more importantly, three-month old Joram’s life.

What a film! Is it a survival thriller? No. It is a slice of life, for us who do not even know it exists, much less understand what it means to be a Dasru or a Bala or even a Joram, born into a cursed existence in the world’s largest “democracy”. Will they keep running forever?