This Suriya-starrer that is about unspeakable police brutality, is at once about the hope that justice can be sought, if workers of good conscience come together
Perhaps my most favourite parts of Jai Bhim come right at the beginning, when it familiarises you with the way of the Irular tribe, in which belong Sengeni (Lijomol Jose) and her husband, Rajakannu (Manikandan), who dream of owning a ‘kal veedu’. We learn that they are condemned as outcasts, their quest for identification systematically denied, their thatched-roof huts collapsing under the slightest rain, and their servility exploited by the privileged. The film shows a real affection for detail. You see the Irulars hunting rabbits and pigs, you see them smoking out rats, you see them catching snakes. The lives of these mountain people are entwined with the flora and fauna of the land and radiate kindness. This is all, of course, the set-up, and then, all hell breaks loose, like in a Bala film, as Rajakannu, who is thought of as a suspect, and his wife (who’s pregnant so her plight affects us more?), Sengeni, get handpicked for custodial torture. The torture scenes too show this film’s enthusiasm for detail, even as you are presented with affecting visuals of men hanging by their thumbs and their wounds getting smeared with green chillis. It makes for uncomfortable viewing—just like in films like Visaaranai and Kavalthurai Ungal Nanban—but if it’s as unpleasant to behold on a movie screen, can we even begin to imagine the dehumanisation and trauma suffered by the real people on which all these stories are based?
Director: Tha Se Gnanavel
Cast: Suriya, Lijomol Jose, Prakash Raj, Rajisha Vijayan
With the stage set for a messiah figure, lawyer Chandru, played by Suriya, enters (heroic orchestral music from Sean Roldan), but later than he would in a usual mass film. The opening scene has him raising slogans on behalf of lawyers, but when the protest seems to deprive an individual from seeking systemic justice, he doesn’t hesitate to move away. The heroism of Chandru isn’t that he is eloquent or that he remains unfazed in the face of systemic pressure. His superpower is his keen sense of conscience, and I quite liked that. It’s an idea reinforced several times in this film. In fact, in perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, perhaps the film’s ‘massiest’, Sengeni refuses to accept what feels like an understandable temptation, citing her conscience. The good people in this story, Chandru, Sengeni, and later, Perumal Saamy (Prakash Raj), are those with a conscience. The bad people, Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh), his assistant lawyer (Guru Somasundaram) and of course, a section of the police, are those without. There’s the occasional attempt to justify the bad police by the justification that they were under ‘pressure’, but by and large, the analysis of power hierarchy and resultant problems isn’t as deep or complex in this film as, say, in a Visaaranai. This film is quite content with focussing on the details of the case at hand, rather than on unearthing larger psychological truths.
For all its emphasis on faithfully reproducing reality (like the functions of a court and the practicalities within), it strays from time to time, perhaps worried that it may not seem too ‘entertaining’. It makes certain half-decisions, like with the music that overstates, the forced comedy from actors like MS Bhaskar and Guru Somasundaram, or when it occasionally succumbs to the temptation of capitalising on Suriya the star–an example is that end scene. This is a pity because this same film seems to know where Chandru’s ‘massiness’ actually lies. It’s not in his sloganeering, it’s not just his good intentions to seek justice for the vulnerable. It’s when this combines with his education that this man becomes a hero. That’s why the music communicates heroism when all Chandru is doing is really sitting pensive at night in his office, surrounded by books. It’s in such admirable contrast to the loud heroism we get in several star vehicles, including, of course, in some of Suriya’s own films. The importance of education gets stressed quite a few times in this film, with Rajisha Vijayan playing a teacher. She doesn’t get a whole lot to do though, save for a bit of contribution when Chandru gets stuck.
Lijomol Jose is terrific as Sengeni, a victim of incomprehensible trauma for large parts of this film. It’s a physical performance, one that has her shrieking and howling and squealing. She’s less a human in this character, and more a creature in primal distress. One scene, in which Rajakannu gets pulled into the police station, like a predator drags a prey into a cave, gets particularly disturbing, when Lijomol breaks into a sudden wail of agony. I liked that Sengeni is perhaps the only character in this film to get a character arc of sorts, as she, like an abused pup that learns to trust its environment slowly, begins to slowly see that there may just be hope in corners of our society. In one of the two best ‘mass scenes’ in this film, she walks home, as a police-jeep shadows her, the policemen begging her to get in. By then, Sengeni has undergone a small transformation, and realised that pleading and begging won’t make the world a better place for her. She has seen firsthand the value of education and the control it exerts.
There’s an enjoyable dichotomy about how this film that is about unspeakable torture, is also at once about hope. Jai Bhim also serves as an example of how workers could unite to make the world a better place. Perhaps that explains all the hammer-and-sickle imagery in this film, given that it’s two workers, a lawyer (Chandru) and a policeman (Prakash Raj’s Perumal Saamy), who join hands to bring about unlikely justice. The true story that this film is based on, instills the hope that for every mass of unconscientious people, perhaps, just perhaps, there may exist one conscientious Chandru. What if many Chandrus united?
The beats in this story are rather predictable though, even if the visuals of the victimisation are affecting (This isn’t a comment about the repetition of having seen custodial torture in films like Visaaranai, Karnan and Kaavalthurai Ungal Nanban. Given the number of police saviour films we have got over the decades, this is barely the beginning of this movement). The lack of surprise I speak of in this narrative, concerns the big twist that you see coming from a mile away—thanks to the film creating no doubts over who the bad guys are. Also, despite all the attempts to create an engaging court experience, the film fails to create strong lawyer adversaries for Chandru. Guru Somasundaram, playing one of them, is a presence you can’t quite take seriously, while his boss, Advocate General Ram Mohan (Rao Ramesh), who comes in with a clever move or two, doesn’t quite go on to pose a considerable challenge. There’s also MS Bhaskar, playing a lawyer, whose dialogues — attempts at humour? — serve only to trivialise proceedings.
And yet, for all these missteps that prevent Jai Bhim from being an unforgettable film, it’s still necessary to note that this is an important film that documents, with passion and good intentions, the oppression of a community. It’s a film co-produced by a star, who’s brave enough to almost slide himself into the background. Yes, he’s a saviour in this film, sure, but he is not of the henchmen-beating, heroine-advising, agency-robbing kind, and neither is he the centrepoint of this story. Though he’s a saviour, you could argue that he’s also a ‘victim’… of his good conscience. “It’s the only way I can get a good night’s sleep,” he says, explaining his motivation to represent the vulnerable. If only our society created more such victims.
This review was written for Cinema Express and was originally uploaded here.