Jai Bhim: Winning and losing at the same game of political cinema

TJ Gnanavel’s Suriya starrer ‘Jai Bhim’ has been receiving applauds from every nook and corner. It is a story of a pregnant woman, from the oppressed Irular tribal community in Tamil Nadu, fighting against the State machinery through her constitutional rights in a quest to find her missing husband, who was arrested by the State Police.

As a courtroom drama, ‘Jai Bhim’ focuses on the plight of tribals oppressed by both the civil society and the State. As the movie received the accolade it deserves, it surpassed the classics ‘The Shawshank redemption’ and ‘The Godfather’ under the criteria of audience rating.

Despite receiving acclaim throughout the world, ‘Jai Bhim’ fell into an endless pit of criticism from a few caste groups in Tamil Nadu. Vanniyars, a predominant community belonging to the Most Backward Community among the OBCs, criticised the movie for the negative portrayal of the community and resorted to methods of threatening the filmmaker and actors. In ‘Jai Bhim’, the protagonist Rajakannu is arrested by a Police inspector Guru, whose name and background have triggered this criticism. A shot where a calendar that allegedly denotes the Vanniyar community symbol and the name of the character Guru, which allegedly refers to the late leader of the community, Kaduvetti Guru. The criticism was spearheaded by Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), a party well known for its incitement of violence against Dalits and for its overt program to form Non-Dalit associations, along with other dominant castes.

A PMK in charge of a northern district in Tamil Nadu placed a bounty for attacking actor Suriya, the producer of the film and who played the role of advocate Chandru, who stood by the tribal woman in the pursuit of her justice. Now, the actor’s residence has been granted police protection. Moreover, Vanniyar Sangam has demanded ₹5 crore for the `damages’ caused by Suriya and Amazon Prime Video. Vanniyar Sangam has also approached the court on this matter. T.J.Gnanavel, the director of ‘Jai Bhim’, expressed his apology to the Vanniyar Sangam and PMK for the controversy the movie produced.

Gaining criticisms from a political outfit, on the flip, ‘Jai Bhim’ created ripples in the political arena of the state. M.K.Stalin, chief minister of Tamil Nadu watched the movie along with the crew and received a donation of  ₹1 crore to the Irular community from Suriya, who has been seen as the face of the movie. The real incident which happened in 1993, which was adapted to form the movie, was a brutal injustice that was done to a man from the Kuravar community.

After ‘Jai Bhim’ release, the plight of Kuravar and Irular communities in Tamil Nadu became the topic of the day. On Diwali 2021, Stalin visited the house of Ashwini, a woman belonging to the tribal Kuravar community who was subjected to discrimination in a nearby temple belonging to the State Government, as a gesture of solidarity. Stalin distributed house pattas and welfare aid to Irular and Kuruvar tribe communities. This was a celebrated moment in the daily toiling and nomadic lives of the tribals. ‘Jai Bhim’ created this ripple effect in Tamil Nadu.

‘Jai Bhim’ has a leftist advocate adopting constitutional methods to provide justice to the afflicted woman. Loosely based on real-life retired Justice Chandru, Suriya plays his role as advocate Chandru. The character has been given a leftist shade with the use of icons Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin and through a few scenes in which the local communist parties work along Chandru, in agitations on the streets and in practising law in the courtroom. We are also presented with the icons of Periyar, Ambedkar and Buddha, in the residence of the lawyer Chandru.

A leftist advocate fighting for tribal rights is a very bold portrayal in recent times in such a political climate where tribal activists like Fr. Stan Swamy, Sai Baba and many others are continuously demonised and demeaned by the Indian state. ‘Jai Bhim’ made that bold move and at the same time, it talked about the plight of tribal communities in the society where they live, in the workplaces where they toil for a meagre income and how the arms of the State treat them. It also highlighted the Police brutality that the tribals are forced to suffer.

Despite all the positive connotations the movie deserves to score, there are certain grey areas in ‘Jai Bhim’ when compared to movies made by the Dalit filmmakers in Tamil Nadu, who took cinema as a medium for politics of emancipation in recent years. ‘Kaala’, directed by Pa Ranjith starring Rajinikanth and ‘Karnan’ directed by Mari Selvaraj starring Dhanush also talked about the state violence against the oppressed communities. Despite the same theme, the approach and treatment to the theme have been different concerning the three movies.

Rajakannu, the protagonist of ‘Jai Bhim’, is portrayed to be an Irular tribal who is subjected to police violence, on the pretext of a crime that he hasn’t committed. In ‘Kaala’, police brutality occurs when Kaala, the protagonist, gathers the masses in protest against the acquisition of Dalits’ lands by the state. ‘Karnan’ gradually starts with an issue of providing a bus stop to the village of the oppressed and grows to become a full-sized revolution against the State. ‘Kaala’ and ‘Karnan’ had leading characters who lead the people against the existing social order. Kaala said the land is a birthright for the oppressed; Karnan sought equal rights and when the rights were not delivered properly, he tries to provide justice in his fashion. Contrarily, ‘Jai Bhim’ had Rajakannu, who never dared to cross over the strongly built wall of the existing social order. Through this portrayal, ‘Jai Bhim’ demands the audience, to move into a state of privileged guilt and seek justice for a man who was punished for a crime of which he was not part.

‘Jai Bhim’ has certain scenes, that depict gore and violence in custody jails of police stations, which make the audience pray for someone to save the poor people from the wrath of the State. And rightly arrives the saviour advocate Chandru in time to provide justice to the afflicted. ‘Kaala’ and ‘Karnan’, though had top actors who employ heroic acts to lead the people, has no room for such a saviour complex.  In ‘Jai Bhim,’ the constitution is covertly hailed the hero. In real life, the Rajakannu case was investigated by the court for 13 prolonged years and is still considered to be the longest case in the history of the Madras High Court.  But the movie depicted the deliverance of justice to the oppressed woman within a handful of months, thereby seeking the oppressed to take belief on the judicial process in India and not the people lead the revolution as proposed by ‘Kaala’ and ‘Karnan.’

Despite being a great movie that created an actual difference in the lives of the oppressed, the politics of ‘Jai Bhim’, which approached state violence, is entirely different from those movies directed by Pa. Ranjith and Mari Selvaraj. ‘Jai Bhim’ can be easily compared to ‘Pink’, a courtroom drama that was remade to multiple languages and which talked about the consent of the woman for sexual intercourse. The male protagonist who saves the females through constitutional methods in ‘Pink’ is an old man, who doesn’t fit into the masculine norms of society. ‘Jai Bhim’ uses the same troupe here, to a non Tribal male protagonist, who doesn’t;t fit into the casteist norms of society, saving the tribals through constitutional methods.

‘Jai Bhim’, being a bold title in Tamil Nadu, where a large number of Ambedkar statues are held in cages, is one of the greatest political movies ever made in the Tamil industry. Yet, it fails to inspire the revolutionary politics that ‘Kaala’ and ‘Karnan’ produced, which is directly from the gaze of the oppressed.