The Exoticisation of Tribals: The ‘Semkhor’ Controversy
Still from the movie Semkhor

The recently-released film ‘Semkhor’, a Dimasa-language film based in a village by the same name in Dima Hasao, made by actor-director-producer Aimee Baruah has been the eye of a raging storm in Assam.

The filmmaker, in an interaction with the press at the 2021 International Film Festival of India held in Goa where the film was screened, is seen making a series of comments about the Dimasas, the Semsas of Semkhor in particular, their society, culture, traditions, aspirations and appearances and goes on to claim, ‘they don’t want development’.

While the film has been well-received in the international film festivals circuit, Dimasas have been protesting against the film, accusing the filmmaker of cultural appropriation, misrepresenting Dimasa society and traditions, and of reproducing a romantic paternalism that has a long history of the way mainland societies have looked at tribal and Adivasi societies. Even as the movie is a feature film based on a fictional story, an integral part of its promotion and appeal has been bringing to life the story of a ‘remote’ and ‘primitive’ people.

The discourse of tribals as an ‘innocent people’, who have ‘remained as they are’ since time immemorial (seemingly with a few changes in a few of their traditional practices), implying a people without a history, ‘primitive’ and ‘untouched’ by ‘civilisation’ (in their alleged rejection of modern medicine, education or electricity), but ‘happy and content’ with what they have bears striking resemblance to the age-old colonial stereotype of the ‘tribal’ as the ‘ecologically noble savage’.

A colonial construction built on a racial ideology of a linear scale of civilisation, this notion imbued tribal and Adivasi people with what colonisers saw as a ‘child-like innocence’ – who do not know better and therefore, need to be disciplined. This historical characterisation of what came to be known as tribal and Adivasi societies has served to legitimise their forceful domination and subjugation.

The colonial and post-colonial state have consistently used this imagery to justify the often violent and forceful imposition of state control, the takeover of their lands and territories, the reorganisation of their societies and economies and policing of their cultural forms. The same trope has been reproduced in different forms over the years and within the post-colonial state – a backward people who need to be ‘integrated’ into mainstream society – but on the terms of dominant communities and development professionals.

It is this same trope that writes off the resistance of tribals and Adivasis who protest against big dams, highway expansions, mining or industries as somehow ‘anti-development’, dismissing the critique of a deeply unequal model of development that such movements pose. In characterising tribal and Adivasi societies as ‘innocent’, they are rendered incapable of forming opinions, ideas and analysis, and forging informed critiques. The claim that tribals don’t want development does gross injustice to the material reality of these communities and the historical conditions that have led them to articulate their concerns in the ways that they do, not to mention a negation of their demands across the country.

It further implies that the disproportionately high incidence of poverty, illiteracy and poor nutrition amongst Scheduled Tribes in India is to be blamed on the STs themselves for ‘not wanting it’, taking attention away from the unequal and hierarchical social structure in place that has actively reproduced their marginalisation, as well as the skewed model of development that has demanded more land from tribals and Adivasis than any other community, while giving them little in return for the loss of land, livelihood and dignity besides the tag of being ‘anti-development’.

The trope of the ‘ecologically noble savage’ is one of the oldest in the book, which placed the ‘tribal’ or ‘aboriginal’ in the lowest slot on a linear scale of civilisation – the primitive slot, while those closest to white industrial society were deemed more civilised. Colonial anthropological and ethnological writings are filled with the same fascination for tribal societies that are reproduced here in the 21st century.

These stereotypes were constructed based on not only colonial racial ideologies of white supremacism, but also on a Brahmanical ideology of caste hierarchy that looked down on tribal societies as backward or uncivilised. The popular derogatory slur of ‘gahori-khua’ to address tribal communities in Assam is a testimony to these deep-rooted discourses.

The narrative underlying the making of ‘Semkhor’ needs to be understood as part of a long tradition of paternalism that is based on a romanticised ahistorical notion of tribal societies that reify them but at the same time deny them agency to articulate their issues, concerns, and aspirations.

Steeped in a saviour complex that Gayatri Spivak has explained as the phenomenon of ‘the white man saving the brown woman from the brown man’, the tradition of romantic paternalism cannot stomach the brown woman speaking for herself.

What the widespread reception of the film at some of the most prestigious film festivals in the world, including the Cannes Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival along with a series of awards and accolades goes to show is how much of a market there is amidst a global elite audience for a romantic depiction of the perfect ‘aboriginal’ – living amidst natural beauty in sync with the environment, happy in their ignorance, an innocent yet savage people practising a brutal tradition such as burying a child alive when a mother dies in labour, but a people now slowly being reformed (read: civilised).

The critical acclaim won by the film says less about the quality of the film and more about the jurors that occupy influential positions in the film fraternity where there is a still flourishing market for the ‘exotic primitive’.

While this trend is challenged by the growing voices of tribal and Adivasi intellectuals, filmmakers, writers and artists, it is clear from this most recent controversy that the stereotype is widely prevalent and there is still a long way to go before these images are undone in popular culture. However, just as the current controversy has shown, indigenous, tribal and Adivasi communities are increasingly challenging this stereotypical characterisation in popular culture not only in India but across the world.

The author is assistant professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati. The opinions expressed in the article are of the author and do not reflect the view of EastMojo.

Also Read | ‘Semkhor’ row: Dima Hasao groups fume over ‘wrongful depiction’

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