In Joram, the survival thriller combines with the man-with-a-past drama and the political critique film with mixed results. Writer-director Devashish Makhija (Bhonsle, Ajji) applies genre trappings to a tale of Adivasis driven out of their ancestral land by a network of politicians, corporations and security agencies.

Dasru (Manoj Bajpayee) and his wife Vaano (Tannishta Chatterjee) work at a construction site in Mumbai. The contrast between the boxy apartment blocks and the natural beauty in Jharkhand that the couple has left behind is stark.

The forehead tattoo that identifies Dasru as a member of his tribe becomes the equivalent of a shooting target after an encounter with Jharkhand legislator Phulo (Smita Tambe). Phulo and Dasru share an Adivasi heritage and a past. Dasru is forced to flee along with his three-month-old daughter Joram, with Mumbai police sub-inspector Ratnakar (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) in hot pursuit.

Makhija’s screenplay includes some of the inescapable elements of accounts of contemporary Adivasi existence: violent displacement, the Maoist rebellion that squeezes neutral villagers, wrongful arrests, sold-out politicians, the might of the government machinery that nullifies opposition. Joram draws its momentum from characters who are forever unsettled or compelled to be on the run because of forces beyond their control.

In one of the film’s most striking images, construction cranes chomp away like ravenous dinosaurs at land considered sacred as well as sustaining. When Dasru reaches his village, he finds little there to match his memory of it.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in Joram (2023). Courtesy Makhijafilm/Zee Studios.

The 132-minute movie takes a clear stand on the roots of the Maoist movement as well as the monstrousness of Phulo’s collaboration with the very forces that will decimate her tribe. But for all its honourable intentions, Joram lacks the clarity of Mohit Priyadarshi’s Kosa, about an Adivasi teenager falsely accused of being a Maoist, or Amit Masurkar’s Newton, in which an upright government official tries to conduct a peaceful election in a restive region.

A handful of compelling sequences is eclipsed by the imperative to fashion a pulsating thriller out of the anguish of uprooted Adivasis. Joram’s preference for a dark, hyper-real hallucinogenic tone sometimes overtakes narrative logic, just as the characterisation of Dasru falls short.

Dasru is portrayed by Manoj Bajpayee with the stricken manner of the exploited Adivasi seen in the movies. If Dasru is mostly one-note, Smita Tambe’s Phulo is the archetypal movie villain, full of malevolent stares and cryptic statements.

There is also the matter of the tot who accompanies Dasru on his perilous journey. The infant Joram barely behaves like the average perennially hungry, fidgety three-month-old.

Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub features in one of the strongest passages a remote police outpost, where he finds rusty guns, lusty cops and criminal inefficiency. Ratnakar’s back story, involving his wife Mukta (Rajshri Deshpande), is a redundant detail.

Joram (2023).