Culture & Society

To The Polls With 'Joram': Going OTT At The Polling Booth

Insights from the heated discussions around OTT shows at a polling booth in Hyderabad with the stark realities portrayed in Devashish Makhija's film "Joram," offering a poignant commentary on India's cultural divides.

A Still From Joram

Standing in the line for election voters in my area in Hyderabad recently, I got to hear a different chatter this time. We were a bunch from the same residential complex queued up early for the phase 4 countrywide general elections. Most were affluent morning-walk enthusiasts, with the habit developed especially post-Covid. I set my alarm to wake up early to vote before the scorching Deccan sun roasted us. So, here we were. In the last state elections, the men’s line discussed stock options while the women spoke of children’s school projects and new styles in ladies’ kurtas (the Anarkali was passe, I learnt there and then). This time, curiously, both the lines seemed to be talking about “what’s new and exciting on OTTs”. Other than some obscure crime and thriller references vying with uber-patriotic themes, two titles were feverishly discussed. Your guess is correct: Heeramandi and Laapataa Ladies.

It struck me as a uniquely singular phenomenon. After the pandemic, movie halls have opened, viewers have trickled back into the halls, and recently some films even did roaring business in the theatres. In Hyderabad, especially, RRR and Pushpa took asunder all earlier records. But from the conversations among the elite crowd gathered here, it appeared that more and more members of this category were taking to what in the beginning was perhaps referred to as ‘home entertainment’. It begun in well earnest during the pandemic when the “sheltered-in” jumped to the idea of entertainment brought to them right in their living rooms. The shelter-less of course didn’t have much choice, whether it was entertainment or livelihood decisions (the latter was the only concern). Arguably, OTT-isation did not require the privileged to step out of their home, made them remain comfortably socially distanced in both physical and figurative senses, and literally brought all the drama at home. It does seem certain that there’s a gradually widening class (caste) difference between theatre goers and OTT (over-the-top) platform patrons. The function of over-the-top itself has become that of an ‘extra topping’, to allude laterally at this demographics’ growing preference for Swiggy and Zomato. While the OTT-ised still pop in for an occasional movie theatre experience – there’s a PVR right across my “gated naked neighbourhood” (I quote from my own poem) – the scales are tilting more towards the OTT media services.

If the current IKEA advert is chirping “Ghar aa jaao” or ‘come home’, thus erasing the difference between shop and home, then the OTT platforms are practically preaching ‘movie nights at home’, where the communal experience of the movie halls is being replaced by one’s private space. No more unruly viewers wolf-whistling or clapping loud. No more annoying love birds across the row busy cuddling. No more crying babies, or talkative aunties, or men answering business calls on their mobile. Cinema halls can be caste/class levelers. But who cares. And of course, the OTT is available day and night. Shall we say, “Ghar le aao” – take the fun home! For the highly sanitized (pun intended) well-off gentry, OTT-isation can be said to be nearly complete.

A sociological investigation into the OTT-isation phenomenon is not the intention of this essay. Eavesdropping is, and the wonderment that follows from it. I was simply curious to overhear what specific OTT shows these folks preferred, turning the morning line at the polling station unusually lively with various comments and speculations. The Sanjay Leela Bhansali series on Lahore’s erstwhile hotspot for culture, dance, and music as practiced and promulgated by the famed ‘tawaifs’ and their Nawabi patrons, seemed unsuited for the ‘sanskari’ taste of these genteel viewers. Mind you, I was listening to those who were probably light years away from the notion of ‘woke’, or barely cared about ‘socially aware’, or were even remotely ‘progressive’. Far from the very upright and correct social media echo chamber – another culture-study bubble – that I tend to float in, my co-voters wouldn’t care about history or authenticity. The parameters were different here. The argument delivered with finality, therefore, was that Bhansali has deviated from his ‘desi’, ‘Bharatiya’, and ‘traditional’ storytelling roles. This was, in their eyes, a fall from grace. Why the heck showcase Lahore, or its ‘now laapataa ladies? A case for India’s freedom struggle, and the role the tawaifs played in it was deluged by the critique of SLB’s choice of delving into the lives of questionable people (here, un-sanskari women). Someone even uttered the F word: “Far from feminism, sorry.”

Kiran Rao’s Laapataa Ladies seemed to garner better reactions but limited to what ‘ladies are anyway supposed to do’. They must remain with their spouse come what may (as is the case with the lady named Phool, unless she’s a fool), and if the spouse is mean and abusive (as is the case with Jaya/Shreya/Pushpa), then pursue higher studies to find a possibly better spouse (better than what the Tripathi household had got her). Feminism sorted out.

At this point, I need to confess that even I have visited a couple OTT platforms now and then. My subscriptions have not been regular. But my ‘over the top’ familiarity helped me grasp easily the arguments offered by the august gathering at the polling station.

The above discussion careened to the point where one person even remarked that as voters, we need to review our idea of the country to keep such flippancy at bay. OTTs can peddle what they wish to but what you may “ghar le aao” must be carefully chosen.

Used to playing the enfant-terrible in such settings, I told my co-voters that Joram by Devashish Makhija would be a far more piercingly true visual treat than any of those discussed till then. I hastened to add that this film indeed seemed to represent the true picture of India, whether we consider the millions that languish in villages, or those that throng the cities. “Going to polls with Joram” could be an apt slogan, right?

“Aap Maovaadi hain (Are you a Maoist)?” was the first question hurled at me after a sharp brief pause.

Makhija is not a Maoist, neither I. But this was not a place for a harangue, however well-meaning or educational. Whoever has ever heard of people’s perception of country and democracy being re-shaped at a polling station based on a film discussion? That was out of question.

But my faith in storytelling was immense.

Makhija tells a story which, in a classic sense, is drawn from life: the image of a poor villager escaping his brutal rural reality and coming to the big city to eke out a living and being hounded by violence again, is not unknown to any of us. Some critics said it was reminiscent of Goutam Ghosh’s “Paar”. Even armchair OTT-ised viewers knew this, naturally. What makes Joram special is the feeling of suspense that hangs on the protagonist’s (and the viewers’) head right from the start. The only scene of love, tenderness and peace is where Dasru’s wife Vaanu swings and sings about the flame of the forest flowers (palash), hummed along by Dasru. This palash is no metaphor for a pristine ‘Phool’ or the ladies of Heeramandi. Soon the landscape is dystopian, for the characters as well us viewers (if we have not noticed already in our urban existence). Construction, drilling, digging, and humans like ants in the belly of the wasteland. Cyclops-like massive equipment loom large to add to the apocalyptic scene. This is not a film review; hence, I won’t forward any analysis.


Since our polling line ruminations were about OTT shows and films, I felt the need to say that Joram was perhaps the most compelling film to reflect on today, online or in theater halls. Neither of my co-voters concurred for they didn’t know such a movie is out there (maybe they didn’t want to). I assured them that even the super-woke liberals of social media didn’t seem to give it much thought in this manner. For, this was not a tale with an end. The crux of Joram is that it is literally ‘end-less’. Like Dasru, the country is on the run, trying to evade the clutches of the vicious police-money sharks-vigilantes-poverty nexus. Innocent folks in this nation of publicised divinity and talk of ‘parampara’ still suffer brutal fate just as Vaanu had to. The great run is a gut-freezing metaphor of what humanity has to suffer in the largest democracy where, voting is really a privilege for so many of us. Other than that, Joram doesn’t give you fancy or dainty images to theorize or wax eloquent about.


“No, not an us vs. tribals story!” My reaction to a comment was a controlled terse one. Joram was very much our story, I stressed.

Exoticization is something Makhija doesn’t resort to. Neither does he take the side of anyone. His portrayal is unbiased – Dasru complicit in the kangaroo court’s death sentence, the villager betraying his tribespeople and canvassing for landgrabbers and corporates, the helpless conscience-stricken police officer in pursuit of a perceived suspect, the rural police force given to comic debauchery and cruel deception, the tribal leader ensnared in the essence of her identity and her thirst for revenge, and the soul-less high-rises surrounded by mechanical monsters and dug up barren earth. Because Makhija’s style is almost documentary-like, he lets the camera, and the characters tell the story. Within this, he effectively holds us complicit too: the urban viewers.


There is no direct parallel, but I was reminded of Mizo writer Malsawmi Jacob’s novel Zorami as well as a poem by her of the same title. The symbolic meaning of the word Zoram vis-à-vis Makhija’s Joram stands out in myriad possibilities. Zoram refers to the land of the Mizos – Mizoram. It’s an affectionate and hopeful name that means ‘country/own land’. A boy or a girl, therefore, in Mizo, can be called Zoram or Zorami, respectively. The little baby girl Joram is all Dasru got – his violated memory, his plundered land, his erased identity. Certainly, I did not expect our ‘sanskari’ liberals to read a Mizo writer or watch Joram beyond its ‘stated’ reality. And even after I emerged from the polling room having voted, I knew Dasru and his motherless baby would still be on the run. Not the happy and almost predictable ending of the Laapataa Ladies or the ensured uprising of Heeramandi tawaifs. The seamless escape in Joram is the protagonist’s resistance to the system. The OTT-ised folks had, by then, moved on to discussing another show. Later, the evening news said Hyderabad voter turnout was poor, below 50 per cent, as polling ended on May 13.


Nabina Das is a poet and writer.