‘Jai Bhim’ Scratches At Surface Of Tamil Nadu’s Anti-Caste Movement

Published by
Shaibal Chhotray

When an inspector remarks that it is common for many in the Irula caste to be convicted in theft cases, Advocate Chandra admonishes him by asking if there is any caste that is devoid of thieves and that we should stop branding people on the basis of their caste. This small exchange sort of summarises the tone of the movie — an engrossing drama about justice that is delayed but eventually not denied, but a film which never truly penetrates the deeper causes of inequality ingrained in the society. The point is not that there are thieves in every caste and hence all castes must be treated equally but the annihilation of the system of oppression itself, i.e., the caste system.

Jai Bhim is directed by TJ Gnanavel and stars Suriya as Advocate Chandra, a righteous human rights activist and lawyer who fights for Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) whose husband along with two other relatives has been falsely jailed and undergoes custodial torture by the local police on charges of theft. The Irula are a hill tribe living in Mudhanai village, Cuddalore and have for long bore the brunt of harassment by the police. Although the film very rightly points out the persecution faced by Tamil Nadu’s tribal population, the gaze towards them is paternal and racked with pity. The Irulas are shown to be jovial, meek and mild mannered while the police and the public prosecutors are vengeful and evil. It is as if the film tries extra hard to wring out every last ounce of sympathy from the audience. The problem with that is then the film basically reduces to a tale of police brutality. Police brutality is a symptom of the disease and not the disease itself. We should raise our voices for the Irulas, not because they are mild mannered and the law enforcement wicked but because they are victims of systemic violence going back tens of generations. The sympathy for them should be generated organically by asking hard questions about Hinduism’s caste system rather than by just infantilising them and through voyeuristic depictions of torture.

For these reasons, Jai Bhim is not an anti-caste movie but rather a very well-made biopic of Justice Chandru, the real-life lawyer and judge who has disposed of 96,000 cases in his tenure. Suriya plays Justice Chandru with an air of moral uprightness and heroic candour. The liberal savior complex gaze is hard to miss as we see through Chandru’s eyes the suffering of the Irulas and the camera consistently stays with Chandru’s gaze throughout the film even when the Iruals are mourning for their dead. Chandru becomes the focus, the Superman-like savior of the downtrodden who single-handedly takes on the Government. I guess this kind of decision also comes from hiring someone with immense star power like Suriya. Do we as the audience then feel marginally relieved that as long as people like Justice Chandru and IG Perumalsamy (played by Prakash Raj) keep fighting there is hope in this country? Do we need heroic Samaritans or do we need the proper dismantling of the system of oppression itself? The film never asks these questions because it is at best a legal drama about justice for a wronged family against three errant police officers and never encroaches beyond that boundary.

Symbolically the film is suffused with some images often seen at anti-caste struggles, for example the statue of Buddha and the photos of Ambedkar, Karl Marx and Periyar hanging on the walls of the protagonist. Unfortunately we never get to really see the issues raised by these personalities explored in the film and all the sociological analyses remains only at surface level. It is a very, very engaging film about a heroic real-life story of justice and it stays only at that.

Shaibal Chhotray

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